I can’t believe it’s December – mid-December at that. How did three months slip by?
Well, here’s what’s been happening in our world…we’ve been teaching! The team of Michelle/Ripley have been in front of a classroom since September, and we just finished our last day with students on Wednesday. Not just any group of students, though. We had the absolute privilege to be in a room with 20 human students and, on any given day, at least 10 dogs!
I taught a class to the undergraduates at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, California, a school where students come from all over the county to get associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cynology – the study of dogs. While attending Bergin, each student has a dog assigned to them – actually, more than one, as they rotate every few months throughout their time there, so dogs don’t form strong attachments to a particular student. The students take classes in things directly related to dog handling, like basic obedience and more advanced skill training, and also learn about things like genetics, breeds, canine psychology, sociology, and disability studies. And, believe it or not, they take liberal arts classes – dogs in art and dogs in literature.
Which is where I came in. Yep, the Dogs in Lit prof! I had every good intention of telling you all about the class as we went through the semester, but somehow that didn’t happen. Damn. So let me just cover a few highlights.
This was my first real teaching gig. I learned as much, if not more, than my students. There were challenges every day, in presenting the material, meeting student needs, and adapting my initial expectations to fit the reality of what I found up in front of the classroom. But I loved it. There were so many positive moments, times when things clicked, when something I had figured out as a new approach worked, when a student got it. It made everything worthwhile.
I loved having Ripley next to me, and looking out into the classroom to see ten more dogs lounging around underneath desks. It was such a pleasure to be on a campus that was devoted to dogs, and also to spend an entire semester reading books about dogs, talking about dogs: ethical issues, training issues, social issues, and how all of this could or would affect the students’ lives.
We watched dog movies (Wendy and Lucy, Best in Show), and saw an original short play performed (“A Dog’s Tail,” by Sonoma County playwright Scott Lummer). A local author, Amanda McTigue, came in to speak about her novel, Going to Solace, and ended up handing out autographed copies to the entire class. And when we wrote to the author of one of the novels we read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs, Ellen Cooney responded with individual answers to each student.
I read a lot of dog books! Our class reading list, besides Mountaintop, included A Dog’s Life: Autobiography of a Stray (Ann M. Martin) and excerpts from Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (Jeanette Winterson), as well as the short stories “The Boy from Lam Kien” (Miranda July), “The Chain” (Tobias Wolff), and “Dog Song” (Ann Pancake). We also spent two weeks on poetry, particularly focusing on Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.
But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Students had to choose a book for their final project, so I had to come up with a recommended reading list. They covered a huge range of styles, from serious drama to mystery, romantic comedy to thriller, young adult fiction to memoir. Among the other books I have read in the last few months:
- Stepdog (Nicole Galland)
- Breath to Breath (Carrie Maloney)
- Suspect (Robert Crais)
- Thereby Hangs a Tail (Spencer Quinn)
- A Dog’s Purpose (W. Bruce Cameron)
- Timbuktu (Paul Auster)
- The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein)
- The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)
- Sight Hound (Pam Houston)
- Watchers (Dean Koontz)
- Shiloh (Phyllis Reynolds Nahlor)
- Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate DiCamillo)
- Dog Years (Mark Doty)
- A Three Dog Life (Abigail Adams)
And it has been an inordinately fun romp through dog-land.
But after listening to each student in the class give their final presentation, and then spending about twenty hours over the past week working on writing up evaluations and grading, I have to admit this: Much as I love dogs, I think I’m ready to read a book about something else next week!