Q&A with Christopher Polt PhD., who teaches a Talking Animals course at Boston College (Part 2)
by Patch O'Furr
We’re back after Part 1 of the Q&A with Christopher Polt, PhD., from Boston College. His Twitter is full of art and animation history that welcomes furry fans.
(Dogpatch Press:) It was interesting that you mentioned teaching a course in talking animals. Tell me all about it! Since when, and how unique is that, and how is it being received? What sort of students are in it and what are they studying in general?
(Christopher Polt:) I love that course — the material is so fun and weird and meaningful. The basic question we ask is, “What are we doing when we speak by using animal voices, and what does that say about our attitudes towards humans, animals, and the lines we draw between them?” It’s also my chance to teach some cool, off-the-wall art and literature. We read Apuleius’ Golden Ass, which is a novel about a guy who accidentally turns himself into a donkey and goes on a journey through the Roman provinces (think The Emperor’s New Groove, but much sexier and more violent), and Nivardus’ Ysengrimus, which is the earliest major collection of stories about Reynard the fox, an archetypal animal trickster.
Sometimes I also take students on field trips to tie historical material we’re learning to lived experience. One of my favorites has been to a local pet cemetery. We spend a few days talking about how Greeks and Romans use animals to think about divinity, mortality, and the afterlife, and we look at epitaphs and funeral poems for dead pets, which are often written from the animal’s point of view. There’s a great example in the British Museum, which commemorates the life of a dog named Margarita (“Pearl” in Latin), who died while giving birth to puppies:
She talks about chasing other animals through the woods, how she used to nap on her humans’ laps and sleep in their bed, and how she barked a lot but never scared anyone. So after we read a range of things like that, we go to the pet cemetery and read modern grave markers, and we compare how people grieve for animals differently and what they choose to celebrate and memorialize about them. My favorite is this one for a cat named Useless: