Environmental Humanities in the Slavic Field: Carnivores Across Cultures

The “Carnivores Across Cultures” syllabus that I share here reflects a long process of evolution in my intertwined scholarship and teaching. Trained with a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures, I joined the Russian Department at Colgate, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, in 1998.  In 2012 our department transformed into an interdisciplinary program in Russian and Eurasian Studies and in 2014 I assumed a joint position in REST and Environmental Studies, which I directed from 2018-21. My teaching over the last decade has been divided roughly equally between the two programs.

Connecting with like-minded scholars in the field including Jane Costlow, Tom Newlin, Tom Hodge and others, I moved from cultural studies into ecocriticism and human-animal studies. My 2018 book, That Savage Gaze: Wolves in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Imagination, probes the significance of one iconic predator in Imperial Russian culture and my current research continues to focus on applying ecocritical and human-animal studies approaches at the intersection of nature and culture.  I’ve also devoted a great deal of time as an administrator in roles ranging from Associate Dean of the Faculty to founding member and chair of our Sustainability Council and most recently as an elected member of the Hamilton Town Council, to promoting sustainability and climate resilience in our community.

For three years in a row, from 2019-2022, I taught precursors of the “Carnivores” course in the form of our ENST senior seminar. My amazing students were responsible for filling in the last month and a half of the syllabus with their own choices of texts, co-leading classes and presenting on their chosen research topics. These trial runs exposed me to a number of perspectives including—for example—scholarly articles on documentary nature films, that I incorporated into the current syllabus. The seminar was instrumental in trying out various texts and tactics, while also figuring out how to coordinate the material with my perennially over-enrolled ENST course “Hunting, Eating, Vegetarianism” (syllabus included for comparison) and with my teaching in REST. The “Hunting, Eating, Vegetarianism” class touches in passing upon some of the issues explored from different angles in the “Carnivores” course, such as trophy hunting, but there is minimal overlap.

As noted, the “Carnivores Across Cultures” syllabus draws especially upon the burgeoning fields of ecocriticism and human-animal studies.  Ecocriticism applies the tools of literary analysis and cultural studies to investigating human impacts upon and understandings of the environment. As is true of cultural studies in general, ecocriticism attempts to achieve a broadly interdisciplinary understanding of its topics by ranging widely through such diverse disciplines as history, sociology, literature, journalism, the visual arts, film studies, and science. Even when considering texts drawn from outside the traditional areas of the humanities, however, it utilizes the sorts of rhetorical analysis and attention to textual strategies deployed in literary criticism and related fields like film and media studies. Human-animal studies, at least as I practice it, shares this emphasis upon deploying humanistic perspectives across disciplines.

A good illustration of the ways in which these all come together in the syllabus lies in its treatment of brown and polar bears. Alongside texts that provide an overview of the current conservation status of bear populations, this portion of the course utilizes a chapter from the science writer David Quammen’s book Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man, and coverage in the popular media of the ongoing challenges confronting the communities of Churchill (Canada) and Ryrkaypiy (Russia) as they attempt to deal with increasingly intrusive populations of hungry polar bears. Quammen’s chapter explores the voracious appetite of Romania’s former communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, for hunting brown bears (which, ironically, thrived during his reign).  Herzog’s idiosyncratic film probes the self-mythologization of Timothy Treadwell, who single-handedly filmed his 13 summers living alongside Alaska’s grizzly bears prior to his being devoured by one of them.  The stories of Churchill and Ryrkaypiy illustrate how different cultures are attempting to coexist with the most aggressive (and only almost entirely carnivorous) bear species.  Together these sources provide a rich and synergistic array of perspectives upon which the students and I can draw to analyze and discuss the ways in which humans interact with and affect an especially charismatic category of apex predators. I do require that students answer one of a group of “Moodle” online questions that I post prior to each class, and—as you can imagine—their responses to texts like these are impassioned and lay the groundwork for a lively discussion.

I had originally hoped the course would be cross-listed to carry credit in both Russian and Eurasian Studies and Environmental Studies. Our general criterion for cross-listing is that a course devote 60% to Russian and Eurasian content, and as originally written I required that students taking it for credit in REST would need to focus their intertwined research assignments on Russian and Eurasian topics. As it turned out, my colleagues in REST preferred that I offered it as a straight ENST class, which has resulted in a larger proportion of my teaching shifting over to ENST. I do believe this type of situation is becoming more common and is something that we should all consider carefully, given the decentering of Russia that is currently taking place in our field and the increasing importance of joint positions and affiliations as we navigate enrollment and other institutional pressures.  It is admittedly a challenge to design courses that appeal to multiple constituencies (for example, film courses that appeal to students majoring both in Film and Media Studies and Russian Studies), but I think it is incumbent upon us to embrace these challenges.

—Ian Helfant

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