In just four weeks, on Dec. 2, I'll teach my last-ever college class.
When I depart my classroom in the College of William and Mary's anthropology department around 3:20 that afternoon, it will surely feel surreal. After 27 years, I'm retiring from teaching to take up full-time science writing.
On the evening of Oct. 28, I gave an invited "almost last lecture" on campus to the college community (including some alums and local residents). Planning for this event in the college's Tack Lecture Series started in the late summer, with all details handled by staff colleagues at the college. All of this was excellent and appreciated. What would I say, though? What sort of knowledge matters most to convey?
On the one hand, I harbored a sort of fantasy-wish to convey to the students in the audience some of that folksy advice you always hear graduation speakers give.
I could start by suggesting that it's not a great idea to use your laptop during class as an escape device. If you're bored, raise your hand and ask a provocative question. The vast majority of teachers work hard in the classroom (and in preparing beforehand) and we ask for your respect in staying present and engaged.
Then I could tell them to care deeply about, and work hard to perfect, your writing skills. Composing an essay or research paper on the computer, hitting the print button, and turning in, untouched, what spews out just won't cut it. This isn't a dig. It's a rule I have trained myself to follow as well: Revise, revise, and revise, both in hard copy and on-screen.
But I might tell them that, mostly, they should keep on aiming high, as William and Mary students tend to do, whether that's winning a grand prize in synthetic biology or a national competition in anthropology essay-writing, tackling fascinating questions in archaeology, helping people around the world after natural disasters or agitating on campus for better mental-health services.
In the end, while I did talk about what a privilege it's been to teach — and in many cases learn from — students of this caliber, I went with my strength: After all, this is a lecture series centered around faculty research.
The stories I offered were rooted in science, with an emphasis on definitions, methodology and data. Expressions of grief and/or love by individual animals — elephants and baboons, giraffes and house cats, with questions thrown in about fish and octopuses — were discussed by way of the evidence in peer-reviewed publications and interviews.
It was amazingly gratifying to see that more than 800 people came out to hear me. I didn't think of myself that night as being in sage-on-the-stage mode, enlightening a group of people who never consider animals in these ways. There's already a big presence on campus thinking about — and making art about — animal suffering.
I did ask that we think collectively about how each of us may use the evidence about animals' emotions to reduce animal suffering.
This issue extends to the animals we eat. This is always a fascinating moment, when I bring up the cows and pigs, chickens and goats, fish and octopuses that people may choose to eat. I don't advocate for any particular diet but, instead, suggest that reduced meat-eating and compassionate action helps everyone: people, other animals and our planet.
Some people cheer that explicit connection between animals' emotional lives and humans choosing to cut down on meat-eating; others disengage at its very first mention.
Here's what I think: Just as students shouldn't turn off in class, none of us should turn off when we're faced with a perspective (a reasonable perspective, I mean, not a wildly outlandish one) with which we disagree. By talking among ourselves — farmers and consumers, vegans and meat-eaters — we can work out ways to keep animal welfare front and center where it belongs. Frustrations and failures will occur. This is no reason to give up.
As I prepare to say goodbye to this beautiful, small campus in Williamsburg, Virginia, that has been my intellectual home for so long, I hope to leave this message behind. When issues are entangled and challenging, keep on talking to each other, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Keep on listening. Keep on checking to make sure that you really do understand what you think you are hearing. Keep on working towards positive change for others.
These are skills all of us can practice and sharpen, well beyond our college years — even into retirement.
Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape