Prof. Karla Armbruster Receives Humane Society’s 2011 Distinguished New Course Award

Prof. Karla Armbruster and Allister

The annual Animals and Society Course Awards “recognize college and university classes that explore the relationships between animals and people.” (Read more.)

The story behind Professor Karla Armbruster’s 2011 Distinguished New Course Award from the Humane Society of the United States and the Animals and Society Institute is simple as well as complex. 

Simple because Armbruster’s Werewolves, Seal Wives, Grizzly Men, and Other Metamorphoses course, for which she received the Humane Society award, may seem like a natural result of an English professor’s lifelong love of animals. (One of her first memories, in fact, is bringing home her first pet as a four-year-old: a beagle puppy that she named Lassie.)

Always an animal lover: Karla Armbruster and her first pet, a beagle she named Lassie

Complex because her unique course was the culmination of many hours spent contemplating the intricate relationship between humans and animals and studying the wealth of literature that it has inspired.

Armbruster said her new course, first offered in Spring 2011, evolved out of her desire to find an innovative way to engage students with literature while allowing them to probe the relationship between humans and other animals. She found herself thinking about a topic that had long intrigued her: human beings being eaten by other animals.

“Stories of humans as prey for other animals have interested me for a while,” Armbruster said. “I participated in a seminar on animal studies at the 2009 conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and prepared a paper on this topic, which I plan to develop into an article. While I’m not recommending that people go out and allow themselves to be eaten, I think that these stories can remind us that humans are not, in fact, at the top of the food chain—as many people like to think—and thus they might be able to help us cultivate more environmental humility.”

Humans as prey: a wealth of literature

Armbruster said she started to realize that humans being eaten by other animals results in a physical transformation, in that “some of the atoms and molecules that made up the human literally become part of the body of the predator, as some of the ‘humans as prey’ stories and poems emphasize.” That was the link to the wealth of other myths and stories of human-animal transformations, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to werewolves and feral children.

Once she put her mind in motion, she realized she had more than enough material for a great course. As a result of her research, she and her Werewolves, Seal Wives, Grizzly Men, and other Metamorphoses students explored several relevant novels: Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife, and Evan Hornung’s Dog Boy. They watched films; they read short stories; they examined myths and fairy tales.

At the end of each unit, students shared short papers they’d written on the unit’s topic. “These days became wonderful occasions when they (and I) learned from each student and celebrated the insights they had developed,’” Armbruster said. She noted that students took their unit papers very seriously.

Quality of student work demonstrates new level of awareness.

Werewolves, Seal Wives, Grizzly Men, and other Metamorphoses was dubbed a success by its participants—students and professor. Armbruster said the quality of students’ final projects (they had the choice of either an analytical or a creative project) demonstrated that they had achieved a new level of awareness and thoughtfulness about the ways metamorphosis stories reflected not just human concerns, but also human-animal relations.

Anna Piszar initially took the class because of her interest in werewolves and selkies. “I didn’t expect the psychological and philosophical depths to which we would take the analysis of the literature,” she said.  “The class really made me think about what it is to be human and what it is to be animal and where the line is between the two.”

Piszar praised Armbruster’s teaching skills. “Karla was amazing, presenting us with new ideas every day and letting us work through our own interpretations of the material.”

Armbruster, who hopes to keep offering Werewolves, Seal Wives, Grizzly Men, and other Metamorphoses (under the topics course ENGL 2110 Perspectives) as well as other animal-themed courses, explained the feelings that have prompted her to incorporate animals into her coursework and research.

Relationship with animals is “satisfying and important.”

“I love animals because of their vulnerability—which challenges me to care for them—and because of their autonomy, especially in the case of feral and wild animals—which means they mostly live in a world of which I can know very little,” Armbruster said.

“I think it’s this combination of connection through responsibility and distance, through the ways their lives both converge with and diverge from mine, that makes the relationship I feel with animals so satisfying and important to me.”