Despite the catchy, sing-along hook of the old TV theme song, a horse is not just a horse, of course. Rather, in the case of Dr. Judy Skeen’s First Year Seminar (FYS) on the topic “Cross Species Communications: Through the Eyes of Other Creatures,” horses are a gift to the education process, allowing Belmont freshmen a different way to interact with the campus-wide theme, Through the Eyes of Others.
Subtitled “Learning about being human by encountering horses,” the two sections of Skeen’s class allowed students the opportunity to visit the professor’s Franklin, Tenn.-ranch where they interacted with four of her horses. As with all FYS courses, the primary goal is to increase students’ “recognition, appreciation and use of multiple ways of knowing.”
Skeen said, “Years ago I came across this quote from Mark Twain: ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’ It struck me as an important idea, especially for studying religion. Now working with horses has expanded that to how we think about everything. With so much information out there, we seem drawn to what we already think or know. Students in this class are encouraged to think about what they know, what they don’t know and what they think they know that might not be true.”
In class conversations examined the prey/predator relationship horses experience with humans, challenging what many students believed about how the two interact. “Most humans don’t think of ourselves as predators,” Skeen continued, “but when students encounter horses after reading and talking about this prey/predator mindset, if they want to engage the horse in peaceful ways, ways that lead to partnership rather than domination/intimidation, they have to challenge their natural predatory tendencies. So our reading and discussions and video viewing invite us to think differently and to work to understand this other creature on its own terms.”
Student Christine Sisson noted that time with the horses allowed her and her fellow students “to see it from the horse’s perspective instead of just our own. The horses are so big that you don’t think about the fact that they’re scared of us.”
Grace Netter, a design communications major from Malibu, Calif., added, “This has altered my perspective by allowing me to see the more predator/prey aspect in situations in human interactions, not just animals. I now know that people also have some personality traits of animals and vice-versa, so we must treat each person accordingly.”
A discussion-based class, students were required to read the common book by Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, along with books by Jodi Picoult (Lone Wolf), Temple Grandin (Animals Make Us Human or Animals in Translation) and George Leonard (Mastery). Other course requirements included the viewing of Nowhere in Africa and Beasts of the Southern Wild in addition to convocations and theatre events surrounding the campus theme.
For Skeen, all of the readings, discussions, viewings and hands on experiences are designed to open students to seeing the world through a different lens. “I hope students take away from this three things: 1) Other creatures aren’t here for our use or amusement – they are creatures of worth and dignity aside from us. 2) Because some of us are drawn to connect with these other creatures, we can learn about ourselves and the world by being in their company. And 3) more broadly, it’s always good to take a step back and check out what we think we know – often we learn about ourselves, others and how to be more whole human beings in the world.”
Student Audrey Arroyo may have summed it up best: “[This class] helped us get a bit better idea about how to understand everyone else. We get so bogged down in our own environment. In different parts of the world, things are done differently and that’s their normal. This experience helps broaden our views.”