Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2005 | Features

A New Look at an Old Friend

By Jennifer Hemmingsen
Students focus on a familiar topic to help them make the transition to college.

It’s just after 11:30 on a blustery February morning when guest speaker Sondy Kaska arrives at Mary Trachsel’s first year seminar. Kaska 75BA, 79MA, 85JD, is an Iowa City attorney and mediator, but she’s not here to talk about that aspect of her career. Instead, she’ll tell students about the talent she discovered quite accidentally—her telepathic ability to talk to animals.

Left to right, Professor Mary Trachsel, her horse, Flash, and students Julie Grobe, Lisa Babcock, and Angela Hammer indulge in some horseplay on a field trip for the "Human and Other Animals" class.

Kaska moonlights as an animal communicator, helping pet owners who call on her to talk to their animals about anything from behavioral problems to changes in the family. Some just want her to check in with the critter and find out what it is thinking.

“Quite frankly, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever been privileged to do,” she says.

In the back of the room, Jeremy Bennett, a freshman from Sioux City with two dogs at home, clenches his hands, fingers intertwined, and rests his chin on his thumbs.

“So could you talk to your pets right now?” Bennett asks. “Could anyone talk to them any time they want?”

“Yes,” says Kaska, who often does telephone consultations for her clients. “Generally, I’ve found that animals are very excited to talk to their human beings. I have found that animals have great wisdom.”

Across the room, students react visibly to Kaska’s revelations. In the back row, a red-headed student in a hooded Iowa sweatshirt leans farther back in his chair and crosses his arms in front of his chest, frowning and staring at her from under his eyebrows. A woman with long brown hair glances at her classmates’ faces as if to verify they’re hearing the same thing she is.

Welcome to “Human and Other Animals,” one of a dozen first-year seminars the UI offers each semester to help new students make the transition to college-level learning.

The program began in 1998 and is modeled on similar ones at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. Seminars are taught by faculty, are limited to 15 students, and count for one elective credit. Professors from across the campus develop their own courses. They tend to choose topics they hope will encourage students to learn about something unrelated to their major. This semester’s offerings, for example, include “Being Young in Africa,” “Exploring Mount Everest,” “The Social Roots of Academic Ability,” and “Anime and Manga,” an academic look at the trendy Japanese comics and cartoon films.

In Trachsel’s class, offered for the first time this spring, students look at different attitudes, philosophies, and theories about the relationships between people and animals—from anthropomorphism and co-evolution to genetic kinship and shared ancestry. In the process, they learn to critically evaluate information and sources, to contribute to a small group discussion, and to develop research projects.

Trachsel’s office obviously belongs to an animal lover. On the wall is a large drawing of a cow lying in a field. A bronze statue of a horse rears up from her filing cabinet. Her calendar is from the environmental protection group American Rivers. February’s pinup is a crocodile.

Trachsel graduated from the UI in 1975 and went on to earn her master’s degree in American Literature at Penn State and her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at the University of Texas. She came back to teach at the UI in 1989, and now chairs the rhetoric department. For several semesters, she taught a first-year seminar about the college experience. But while she walked her dog Buddy one day, students new at school and homesick for their pets swarmed around her and she had a better idea. “Human and Other Animals” was born.

“The topic interests them; that’s the first hook,” she says.

This semester, the students’ experiences with animals run the gamut. Nine have pets at home, but others only come into contact with animals while they’re hunting them. Some throw birthday parties for their pets while others don’t allow animals in the house. And, since there are no right answers in “Human and Other Animals,” students have to constantly question the material and think about why they believe what they believe—not just go along with the consensus or memorize facts for an exam. It’s a new process for many of them, veterans of a public education system that depends more and more heavily on standardized tests.

They start slow, talking about pets and the students’ own experiences. Do you allow your pets inside, Traschel will ask. On the furniture? What do you know about the relationship between humans and pets? Do they understand us? Do they have feelings? Can they fall in love with each other?

Then the students read a book by anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose description of her pets’ quirky personalities, jockeying for status, and star-crossed romances would put Desperate Housewives to shame. At the same time, they read a scientific paper that describes how dogs have learned to read human emotion in order to better survive. They watch Gates of Heaven, a 1978 Errol Morris documentary that follows the financial decline of the Foothill Pet Cemetery in Los Altos, California, and spins a tale that film critic Roger Ebert—who rates it one of his top ten favorite films—called “an underground legend, a litmus test for audiences, who cannot decide if it is serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking.”

Later in the semester, they look at the relationships between humans and other animals. They hear from a local horse trainer and a vegetarian. They talk about Jane Goodall and other researchers’ experiences with primates. They think about whether or not primates who learn to sign can be said to actually use language. And they keep track of all of their thoughts in a personal journal.

The semester’s final project encourages the culmination of all that thinking, and here Trachsel is intentionally broad, listing more than a page of ideas in her syllabus. Students may, for example, conduct an analysis of newspaper articles about animals; observe humans and animals interacting at a particular place such as the local animal shelter; do library research; design a way of testing an assumption they have about animals; teach an animal, or a human, a new behavior; or do nearly anything else they can think of. Trachsel doesn’t want them to fall into the trap of working just to please her; she wants them to figure out how to explore a corner of the subject they find intriguing.

“I want them to experience different ways of looking at and knowing about things that interest them,” she says.

Allison Donnell, an elementary education major from Aurora, Illinois, says it’s working. While she’s always loved animals, Donnell says she never thought much about them until taking Trachsel’s seminar.

“It’s a pretty interesting class,” agrees Julie Grobe, a pre-dentistry major from Oakland. “It really opens your mind.”

“It teaches you to be more skeptical,” Donnell says.

Trachsel, who also owns a horse and four cats, says one of the reasons people love animals so much is that they need us, and they accept us for who we are.

“Every day I come home and my dog acts like I’m the best thing that happened to him,” she says. “He gets so excited about the same walk every day.”

For many UI students, their first time away from home is also their first time away from that kind of four-legged, unconditional, slobbery love. Trachsel says they jump at the chance to talk about their animals at home. But there can also be one drawback.

“The class makes me miss my dogs a lot,” Donnell says.