by Silke Feltz
When I started the PhD program in Rhetoric, Theory & Culture at Michigan Technological University, it felt as if I fell into the Humanities because my partner was a new hire in a different department. Being a trailing spouse has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, starting graduate school again as a mature student allowed me to explore a new field without overthinking my decisions, since I was going to be there anyway. On the other hand, I had no clear academic direction in mind, which was unsettling. Instead of comparing programs all over the country and finding “that professor” I absolutely wanted to work with on a project I already had in mind, I applied to the program mainly because I did not envy a long-distance relationship, I was encouraged to do so, and I thought it would be an opportunity to grow.
In my first semester, I took a class on bioethical research, which soon became the game changer for me. Only one week of covering animal ethics triggered my curiosity to study animals more seriously. After courting my advisor and taking an independent study with her, I felt extremely lucky to have found a research focus dear to my heart even though it was maybe a bit unusual for a tech school: the rhetoric of veganism. I had been a vegetarian for a few years and always felt there was more to consuming animal products than I had previously been willing to find out. It seemed to be the right time to venture that jump and to find out more about factory farming, animal rights, and food ethics.
When you are a part of an interdisciplinary program like the humanities program at Michigan Tech, you wear many hats. And while playing on different intellectual playgrounds can be extremely exciting and enriching, you can also sometimes fall into the trap of forgetting who you actually want to be.
The next semesters were filled with seminar papers, presentations, discussion board posts, conferences, comprehensive exams, and my proposal defense. In the midst of conquering the fear of failing over and over again, I successfully found myself intellectually, emotionally, and physically drained to the point where I had no idea how to tackle this monster we call The Dissertation. At the same time, the expectation to publish became more and more present for advanced PhD students. Where should I try to publish? Is my English good enough? And do I even have any ideas worth writing about? Self-doubt turned into a feeling of paralysis and I started to accept constant nervousness as normal. Slowly but surely, I found myself looking an overwhelming depression right in the eyes and was not sure how to escape from it.
Michigan Tech’s isolated location in the Upper Peninsula and its long, relentless winters certainly did not alleviate my situation. The lack of sunshine, frequent snow storms, and short days sometimes cause students, staff, and faculty alike to talk less, to close office doors more frequently, and to cry a bit more. It was during one of those winters when a professor of mine gave me the following piece of advice during a casual hallway conversation: “When you feel alone, remember that the people here at Tech, or the folks you will one day call your peers in your future department, are merely the people you work with. But your true colleagues, especially with your interest in animal studies, are scattered across the country, the world even, and finding and connecting with them should be your priority.”
Her comment took me off guard. Wasn’t I supposed to find unconditional support and the strongest connections within these walls? But the longer I mulled this over, the more I started to understand that I felt isolated not only because I experienced grad school like so many students, overworked and insecure, or because I lived off the grid in a small town that gets an exceptional amount of snow every winter. My isolation enveloped the complexities of my life I faced as a mature graduate student, who was rather alone in her pursuit of animal studies; and as a trailing spouse, who tried to mold her academic identity and professional goals despite personal constraints.
When you are a part of an interdisciplinary program like the humanities program at Michigan Tech, you wear many hats. And while playing on different intellectual playgrounds can be extremely exciting and enriching, you can also sometimes fall into the trap of forgetting who you actually want to be. I taught a plethora of courses and became part of rewarding projects, but when it came to animal studies, it was only my advisor who truly shared my interests. Yes, my committee fiercely supported me, but other professors in the department and my peers typically chose different foci. My eye-opening discussions happened in one-on-one meetings in my advisor’s office and, deep down, I knew I was missing more exchanges of that kind. My advisor was aware of this, and suggested that I apply to the Summer Institute organized by the Animals & Society Institute (ASI) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Applying for the ASI Institute took more than one nudge from my committee:
“What if I don’t get in?”
“Then you simply won’t get to go.”
“And what if I get accepted? What if everyone hates me there? I’m not sure I can contribute.”
“Snap out of this kind of thinking. Plus, Barbara King will be there. She liked your book review. Don’t you want to meet her in person?”
So, on a sweltering hot day in July, I made my way to the University of Illinois and moved into a dorm room. I felt like a first-year student trying to figure out how the AC worked, where the bathrooms were located, and where I had to be the next day. But eventually, I was less scared and more excited about what the coming days had in store for me. I had a pretty good idea that, for the first time, I would be in a room of people where the majority were vegan.
The invited speakers made a lasting impact on me since I started to remember why I was doing what I was doing. The PhD would be the end result of years of studying, but what was even more important was to make a difference to nonhuman animals and to grow as a person. After listening to a lecture by a scientist who had been researching insects for decades, I learned that bees recognized the face of their beekeeper. My whole life I had a deep fear of bees without ever having been stung. I never thought I could even have a long conversation with someone about bees without cringing. After her lecture, I touched a tarantula. She was warm and soft, and I was calm.
After listening to a lecture by a scientist who had been researching insects for decades, I learned that bees recognized the face of their beekeeper. My whole life I had a deep fear of bees without ever having been stung. After her lecture, I touched a tarantula. She was warm and soft, and I was calm.
The participants of this week-long event were as inspiring as the organizers and guest lecturers because, all of a sudden, I found myself in a room with researchers from all over the world. PhD students, postdocs, scientists, and artists from every possible discipline joined the Institute. I met two activists from Israel. I met a German sociologist who researches slaughterhouses, a communication studies scholar who will change the way we communicate risk to animal caretakers, and a postdoc who writes about extinct species. Our theoretical frameworks and our academic homes varied greatly, but we all shared the same mindset and we all tried to improve the conditions of animals. And this shared core value powerfully weaved us into a tight community in only one short week. We discussed papers, possible collaborative projects, and activism fatigue. We talked and listened without being assessed or judged, and this invitational structure of the ASI Summer Institute created a safe space for honest exchanges on animals, ethics, and professional development.
Being a part of such a vibrant group reminded me that the rhetoric of veganism is not only a theoretical concept or a dissertation, but that my work is important for individuals outside of academia. To me, veganism is not only a project but a lifestyle I have come to embrace. By now, I have discussed food ethics with students, professors, friends, family members, and individuals in my community. Being a part of this important discourse has been the most rewarding part of my studies in the humanities and participating in the Summer Institute reminded me of that because my immersion with fellow animal studies researchers helped me see the relevance of my work and find that passion that had become dormant inside of me.
Since the humanities offer us the opportunity to explore our passions with creativity and meaningfulness through an interdisciplinary lens and to pursue our personal and academic goals in so many different ways, the hardest part is to discover the way which actually works best. For me, this was finding my cohort not in my home department but at a retreat for students of animal studies. Listening to their stories—how one saved a dog’s life by performing CPR or how the bombs falling out of the Tel Aviv sky scare animals as much as people—helped me see my own goals again.
This summer, my partner and I moved. When I look outside our kitchen window, I can see a beehive in the crack of a tree. Before my time in Illinois and at Michigan Tech, I would have never even considered moving into a house that came with bees, but that changed after meeting a bee enthusiast in Illinois and after talking to my advisor:
“I think I need to have somebody remove the bees, Syd.”
“Hm. But the bees were there before you found the house, no?”
My advisor was right. Did I have the right to forcefully relocate the bees? No, I didn’t. It’s funny how strangely attached I got to the community of bees. They coexist in such harmony; they work, rest, and explore together. I feel lucky that I found my own hive through the humanities. The only difference is that our home is not the cracked trunk of a pecan tree but cells in a worldwide colony. Still, our shared values keep us connected.
Silke Feltz currently is an instructor at the University of Oklahoma while she is working on her dissertation at Michigan Technological University. She specializes in food ethics and the rhetoric of veganism. Her research focuses on milk literacy, vegan interventions, and how vegans view the world versus how omnivores view vegans. Silke is interested in an intersectional approach to veganism and explores how the narrative as a rhetorical genre can help uncover the various connected and overlapping layers of oppression. Also, Silke also runs a humanitarian knitting charity, StreetKnits, and tries to raise an awareness for homelessness.
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