Today we bring you another incredibly fascinating and comprehensive interview with one of our illustrious faculty members, Dr. Janet Davis!
What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?
My favorite project is hard to define because I enjoy all of them. Sometimes I love them, sometimes I’m eager for them to be finished, but each has had its moments of incredible revelation and excitement. I would have to say there are two places at which I love the process the most. The first is the initial exhilaration of discovery, which often happens in the shower or out running, or when I’m doing something completely unrelated to work. I believe in the power of being away from work as a generative experience for getting into that creative mode where I make connections and have fun. The act of discovery for my very first book, which came from my dissertation, The Circus Age, came when I was having fun in Chicago for a weekend. I was out with friends at the Museum of Science and Industry, and I saw an incredible circus pictorial display. It was a photographic exhibition of circus parades from roughly 100-150 years ago. At the time I was a student in modern South Asian history. I had just started graduate school and was in my first year, and I was poised to go to India that summer. It hit me like a thunderbolt, this sense of, “Oh my goodness, look at all of the colonial South Asian animals, rituals, dress, aesthetics in these circus parades, ponderously moving down the streets of Keokuk, Iowa, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and Waco, Texas.” All of this popular culture of empire was in full, intimate display for Americans across the country, and it sparked a question for me: why was this happening? What was going on? That process of questioning led to the serendipitous discovery that the world’s largest public circus archive was only forty miles from my home, which is really quite lucky. So I actually switched out of South Asian history and moved into the American history program at the University of Wisconsin, and I loved it. I had a blast doing my research, I had a blast thinking and writing. And I had children along the way while I was living in north central Wisconsin, so that was in and of itself a fascinating and educational experience, living out in the woods for a good chunk of the five years that I was there before I was lucky enough to get hired at UT.
The Circus Age led to a slew of other opportunities. Again, it’s hard to say my favorite, because every project has had its own excitement and fun. I think that’s what makes this career so satisfying, in part. I would have to say that these projects grow out of each other, hence the difficulty in answering this question. It’s related to the interconnectedness of one’s own intellectual biography. Working in the circus archives and doing museum consulting at lots of different locations and building a community of people interested in this kind of research led to other projects, including the published memoirs that I edited, annotated, and wrote an introduction for about an aerialist named Tiny Kline. She was an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian empire and she lived at an industrial boarding school in New York City as a teenager, worked as a dancer, became a burlesque dancer, then became a circus performer and eventually hung by her teeth sliding across Times Square. She was a thrill artist. Tiny Kline later became Tinker Bell at Disneyland when she was 70, so her life story became a wonderful way to think about pop culture during the twentieth century in the United States. I really enjoyed the kind of detective work involved, from talking to her neighbors, to the descendant of one of her night-school teachers in Los Angeles.
Out of all of this work on the circus emerged a sense of thinking about animals while reading bits and pieces of protest about cruelty at the circus and what it meant. Although the circus was a pretty scattershot target of animal welfare activity in that era, I discovered that there was indeed an incredible social movement taking place in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century that was interested in thinking about animals and kindness and ideas of American citizenship, civilization, and America’s place in the world. People involved in these movements were redefining American civilization as a kindly civilization by advocating being kind to animals. So these ideas that seem really abstract in some respects about nationhood, empire, cultural pluralism, are all very much tied up into ideas about kindness and this “gospel,” as they called it, “of kindness.” This movement was interconnected with all sorts of other reformist movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My current project has been going on for quite a few years. What’s really been a surprise for me is that right now I am in the home stretch and I’m more excited about the project than ever, which is kind of surprising. About a year and a half ago, I kind of hated it, but now I’m feeling things are really coming together in a way that I did not expect when I was plowing through massive amounts of seemingly disparate primary material from all over the world. There are certain through lines, such as stray dogs, and the ways in which they speak to changing attitudes about the place of animals in urban environments versus rural environments. Dogs keep appearing in my chapters in really fascinating ways, and now that I’ve had some distance through the review process, I have more of a mountain top view of the project, where I see the landscape of my thinking and the evidence below me in a way that is allowing me to make these final, strong connections. And of course, this project is leading to other things, too.
How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy and contemporary society?
I feel like my work is tied to a lot of bigger conversations topically, thematically, and methodologically. My research on animals has given me a wonderful entre into the natural sciences, into thinking about animals as historical subjects—not just in terms of how people relate to them, but in terms of their place in history as physical beings, directly tied to the impact of disease, technology, diet, and to epidemiological changes and technologies of preventative health like vaccines. This project has taken me into places that have been really exciting as far as rethinking what the humanities are. I think these fundamental questions about human-animal relationships are interconnected with questions of public health, diet, how we raise our food, how we live, and where we live. These are fundamental public questions, so I feel like this project really brings me into conversation with so many other fields, and I love it.