Q&A with Christopher Polt PhD., who teaches a Talking Animals course at Boston College (Part 1)
by Patch O'Furr
It wasn’t long ago that Furry Twitter found Christopher Polt, PhD. and his threads full of art and animation history that whole-heartedly welcome furries.
His content isn’t just catering to fandom — it goes deep into history in a fun and engaging way. But the parts with furry interest reminded me of another account profiled here before, Ancient Furries. I asked him if he wanted a brief “Great Accounts To Follow” article, and it led to a much more involved Q&A. It’s special to get such effort from a professor who handles lots of students and curriculum! Here’s Part 1, with Part 2 posting tomorrow.
(Dogpatch Press): I see you’re a Classicist and Assistant Professor at Boston College. That looks like a super active place (with beautiful architecture!) Can you talk about what it’s like to work there and what the job involves?
(Christopher Polt:) If you like Collegiate Gothic, we’ve got you covered! It’s a nice place to work — supportive colleagues, friendly and bright students, freedom to teach mostly what and how I want. Each semester I teach two or three courses, which are a mix of intro/intermediate ancient Greek or Latin, advanced seminars on Latin literature (esp. Roman poetry), and courses on ancient culture that don’t require knowing ancient languages (some examples: Roman spectacles; art and resistance under the early Empire; and “Beast Literature,” which is about talking animals in ancient and modern literature and film).
I also spend a lot of time on research and writing. My first book, which is coming out from Cambridge soon, is about how Romans in the 1st century BCE used theatrical comedy to think and talk about their everyday lives and relationships.
When I first started tweeting my research on Disney's use of ancient art & literature 3 months ago, it was mostly to manage stress/isolation as COVID flipped my professional life upside down. To all who have followed, said kind words, and chatted: I am deeply grateful for you!
— Christopher Polt🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) August 11, 2020
I’ll bet Covid has really affected everyone at colleges everywhere, what’s your story for that? You mentioned starting to tweet about Disney history a few months ago, is that using social media to maintain energy with your work that got disrupted by the pandemic?
Everything is more stressful and more complicated, and it’s crushing to watch the daily mismanagement of the pandemic response and the fragility and failure of our social safety nets. But I’m healthy and still have a job, which I can do mostly from home. That’s more than a lot of folks can say right now, and I’m deeply grateful to be in that position.
When our campus closed in March, we all scrambled to support our students and give them a semester as close to “normal” as we could. By the time spring was done and I could breathe again, I was still locked out of my office and didn’t have access to my papers or Classics library, so most of my research projects hit a wall. But my animation books and notes live at home and I’ve got Disney+, so one day I thought it would be fun to start sharing that work on Twitter — and the response was so astounding and supportive.
I was giggling to my husband and friends about how wild it was, because the largest audience I’d spoken to before was 150 people, and overnight I was getting hundreds of thousands of views. It was great to see folks respond, ask questions, and engage with the cultural depth in animation. And it’s a good feeling when you can help folks see and appreciate something more than they had before, and that positive energy has helped me cope with the sudden life changes that COVID brought and stay motivated with my work.
I’ve been trying to keep that up by sharing other material from my research and teaching. I was delighted to see so many furries get excited about the historical anthro art that I study. A sense of continuity is important, and I think it’s valuable for the fandom to know that they’re not isolated or aberrant, but part of rich and beautiful traditions, and to recognize themselves in the past.
The most common response has been, “Wait, we’ve been around for that long?!” The fandom is its own unique thing, and what we see in antiquity isn’t identical, but I think it does show a connectedness and millennia of similar reflections about what it means to be human and non-human animals and how that’s significant to our identities.
I gather that classicism is about Greek/Roman tradition and how it carries on in modern culture. How does that merge with research about Disney and similar pop culture, and how did that develop as a focus for you?
That’s right — Classics is a complicated term, but it’s shorthand for the study of the ancient Mediterranean world and its continuing significance.
As for Classics, Disney, and pop culture, I can’t say exactly how it all began merging. I’ve loved animation for as long as I can remember. VHS tapes of Disney’s Robin Hood, Bluth’s American Tail, and Vitello’s Gallavants ran non-stop in my house when I was a kid, and that interest has gotten stronger as time goes by. And I’ve been studying Classics for more than 20 years now. If you spend that long learning and thinking intensively about one area, you just can’t shut off that part of your brain. You develop a sensitivity and notice wherever it pops up, whether that’s at work or vegging out in front of the TV.
The fact that Greece and Rome exert this pervasive presence means it happens all the time, and the more you notice, the more complex and interesting those patterns become, and the deeper you want to dive. So it’s an organic mixing of two things I love and have spent a ton of time trying to learn and understand better.
One of my fav. pieces of Egyptian art, which I sometimes share in my course on talking animals in ancient literature: a "satiric-erotic" papyrus depicting anthropomorphic animals (it's originally one long strip, but I sliced it into four pieces for Twitter compatibility) (1/10) pic.twitter.com/aQymGyh00N
— Christopher Polt🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) August 12, 2020
The Egyptian art you posted is sequential art that looks very modern, it’s amazing to see you bring it to the public. I had seen statuary, murals, etc. but nothing like it on papyrus. It has impact unlike unemotional statues and pyramids that don’t highlight the hand and thinking of the makers. I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and I believe he focused on the Bayeux Tapestry as a root example for modern sequential art… but I think Egypt is called the first modern civilization with art and design, so it makes sense to see it that long ago. How did you come across that stuff? How does it make you feel about the worldview of ancient people and our sense of history?
Yeah, I love those papyri, because they feel so instantly accessible to modern viewers. But that also makes them tricky, because that familiarity can lure you into reading and understanding them in ways that may have been totally foreign to an ancient Egyptian audience. They look like comic strips, so our instinct is to read them as linear narratives, because that’s what we’ve learned to do with our own visual art. And that’s a totally viable and valid way for us to read them. But did their artists think of them as linear, or even as narratives? Sometimes ancient art is primarily symbolic — lots of significance, but no “story” to speak of — or uses simultaneous narrative, where you put pieces from multiple parts of a story in the same visual space and leave it up to the viewer to recreate the narrative on their own. There’s a cool example in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum:
This fresco from the Roman villa at Boscotrecase shows the Cyclops Polyphemus pining for the nymph Galatea while shepherding his flocks — but just over his shoulder Polyphemus hurls a rock at Odysseus’ ship. Those are two distinct moments in the Cyclops’ life, and ancient viewers are expected to understand how to read that distinctly but simultaneously (which didn’t always work, or worked in unexpected ways: the poet Vergil describes Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War, landing in Carthage and seeing a mural that depicts his people being slaughtered, and his first reaction is, “Look, these Carthaginians have heard about our suffering and painted our greatest warrior’s corpse being desecrated! Whew, nothing to be afraid of here — we’re saved!” The poet’s point is definitely that he’s misreading the art, though there’s a lot of debate about why — PTSD? Willful ignorance? Trying to be a good leader and not freak out his men? Just plain stupidity?)
So it’s not totally clear how the Egyptian artists meant those papyri to be read. And I think that’s what I like most about studying and teaching ancient art and culture: it forces you to question and break down your assumptions, to try and get into the headspace of people who seem familiar but are also different from us, and to practice sustained empathy (which doesn’t necessarily mean agreement or approval, but definitely fuller and more complex understanding).
One reason I love this piece: it complicates common ideas that people bring to Egyptian art & culture. Yes, animal-headed human figures are part of Egyptian culture. But animal anthropomorphism has lots of forms in antiquity, and this is a good example of its wider variety (8/10)
— Christopher Polt🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) August 12, 2020
We’re just getting to the furry stuff! Check back tomorrow for Part 2, where we continue discussing his talking animals course, animation research and fandom.
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