Laura Wright is a professor of English at Western Carolina University. In 2015, she introduced the field of Vegan Studies through her book The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror (University of Georgia Press). She followed this book up in 2019 with Through a Vegan Studies Lens (University of Nevada Press).
I met Laura in person at the ASLE conference a few weeks ago and thought a Q&A would be a great way to promote this field of study and its role in the larger environmental movement.
What brought you to pioneering Vegan Studies as an academic field?
The catalyst was a 2010 editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by Harold Fromm, in which he accused vegans of “grandstanding” and ridiculous idealism. Fromm’s a big name in ecocritical circles, so I was a bit taken aback by the piece. I decided to explore the way that veganism is perceived, specifically in the US, specifically post-9/11, so I wrote The Vegan Studies Project as a way of examining how veganism is depicted in the media, in literature, and in popular culture, and the way that that depiction has evolved over time. The original title of the book was “The Vegan Body Project” – I had a blog of the same name – as I had initially planned to look at the way vegan bodies are depicted and scrutinized. There is a chapter in the book that engages with the way that women’s bodies are pathologized when women are vegan, especially when they have children. But the project became so much bigger, and I decided that I’d treat the book as a kind of primer for what a field of academic study based on various analyses of veganism might look like. And then things just kind of took off in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated, including an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a conference on vegan theory at Oxford soon after the publication of the book
Where does this field “live” within your university? It would seem that it would and should attract studies from a wide range of disciplines: English, Sociology, Gender Studies, Environmental Studies.
At my university, the field lives with me. Sadly, we don’t have a gender studies program. We had a minor, but it was eliminated in 2013 or so. I have colleagues in English and in some other departments who have taught chapters from the book, but as of now, there isn’t really a place outside of the English Department where Vegan Studies “lives.” We have an Environmental Science program, but no Environmental Studies program and no Animal Studies program. That’s a problem, but it’s one that I might be able to work to remedy, if I’m willing to put in the time to propose and create such a program. I’m interested in doing that, but I haven’t had the time. I’m on sabbatical in the spring of 2020, so I will devote some of my time to looking at options.
You make it clear that Vegan Studies is uniquely different than Animals Studies. Can you explain?
To my mind, Animal Studies, broadly speaking, has always been about humans, about how we understand ourselves in relation to non-human animals. For example, cases for or against animal rights often hinge on how much certain animals have in common with us. And posthumanism sort of erases animals, shifting the focus back to humans. This is why posthumanist scholars like Donna Haraway can write about our relationships with dogs and still eat meat and why Cary Wolfe can say that doing Animal Studies has nothing to do with whether or not one likes animals. In other words, it’s okay to eat and study animals, and both cases render animals objects for either scholarly or literal consumption. And veganism has always been an issue in terms of where it “fits” with regard to Animal Studies. It’s either considered fringe and not taken seriously, or it’s mediated via a discourse of so-called ethically sourced meat. Vegan Studies is pretty clear in its assertion that consuming animals is not okay, and the work that Vegan Studies scholars are doing engages with how veganism shows up in various texts in ways that are often quite disruptive to the Animal Studies status quo, so to speak.
I noticed at ASLE that many academics do not view veganism as having much (if anything) to do with environmentalism (which is why I often call what we’re doing “new environmentalism”). How do you see Vegan Studies and Environmental Studies aligning, if at all?
That’s so weird to me, the idea that veganism isn’t linked to environmentalism. A colleague of mine has a young son who was working on a group project at his school that was looking at ways to reduce one’s environmental impact. He said that going vegan was one such way, and the teacher apparently told him that that was too political of a position. Mind you, this kid isn’t vegan and neither is his mom. But she was pretty ticked off that this teacher wouldn’t permit veganism to be part of a discussion of reducing environmental impact since animal agriculture’s impact on the environment – in terms of greenhouse gas emission and waste runoff into freshwater sources – is so significant. That said, I do get that individual choices, like going vegan or driving an electric car or what have you, won’t have much environmental impact without real structural change (which is why the GOP made such a big deal about the Green New Deal’s supposed assault on hamburgers!), which I don’t see happening, at least while Trump and company are in office. I do see Vegan Studies as part of Environmental Studies, though. But as is the case with Animal Studies, it’s perhaps a part that’s there to trouble the field, to make those of us working in it a bit uncomfortable about veganism’s omission from the discussion.
Throughout history, it seems there are many examples of vegan/animal rights movements that spark up and gain followers and yet never seem to gain sustained momentum. Do you think we’re in a different place in history now?
I don’t know. My take on vegans specifically – and this is based on research about us – is that we don’t tend to be joiners, so we don’t tend to foment movements per se. But I’m watching what’s happening in the UK with regard to a very rapid rise in the prevalence and acceptance of veganism, and that gives me hope that maybe we are in a different place historically, socially, and politically. The presence of the Impossible Burger on so many fast food menus and the inclusion of Just Egg and Beyond sausage at Disney World seem like good signs, even as these places still serve meat. So fingers crossed. As the planet gets hotter, I think we better be in a different place. We clearly can’t sustain the one we’ve been in, not for much longer, anyway.
How difficult is it to create a vegan studies program? Any advice for educators who wish to create one at their school?
First of all, I would encourage anyone who is interested in starting such a program, or even teaching a course on Vegan Studies, to contact me. I am a wealth of information, and have tons of resources that I’m more than happy to share. I have a colleague/friend at another UNC system university who is teaching a Vegan Studies course in the fall, and I’ve been communicating with another person in Georgia who is developing a Vegan Studies program at a university there, so it can be done! At ASLE, the workshop that I led included a component designed to create a collaborative Vegan Studies bibliography; folks can see it here, and they can add to it, if they are so inclined. I’ll also attach the bibliography that I created to share with workshop participants. And I think that The Vegan Studies Project’s bibliography is probably the best source that I can think of for works that would be useful for teachers, as the book engages with histories of vegetarianism and veganism, theoretical approaches to veganism, literary fiction and veganism, media coverage of veganism, etc.
Are other schools pursuing vegan studies? Any examples you can share?
So my friend Kathryn Kirkpatrick at Appalachian State University is teaching a course on Vegan Studies in the fall. And Thomas Aiello, a history professor at Valdosta State University is doing a Vegan Studies Initiative this fall. I’ve been in touch with him recently, sharing materials that he might find useful. Renan Larue, a French Literature specialist, has been teaching a Vegan Studies course at UC-Santa Barbara since 2016. I’m not sure what else is out there, but I’m sure that more and more such courses and programs will develop as time goes on.
Tell us a bit about your students. What have you learned from them in terms of their worldview about animals, climate change, and the future?
I teach at Western Carolina University, a Regional Comprehensive University, designed to serve the people of a largely rural area of Western North Carolina. My students are lovely. I teach a liberal studies course on Environmental Literature that gets students from all across the university in a variety of majors. Their politics may be left or right, and they may have no interest in literature whatsoever. But we always have good conversations about our relationship to the world around us, our carbon footprints, and the things that we can do to help the planet. I’ve had quite a few who “don’t believe” in climate change, a position that boggles the mind, so it’s challenging to figure out what to do in those cases. But most of my students do see what’s going on around them, and they are alternately terrified and indifferent, certain that they can’t do anything about where we’re heading, yet optimistic that we will figure it out and be okay. I find them fascinating, perplexing, frustrating, and wonderful. I also teach a graduate level Environmental Literature course, which is populated by woke English graduate students who are eager to do something to offset the damage we’ve done to the planet. The last time I taught this class, this past spring, I did a lot of Vegan Studies work with the students, and I think it had a profound impact on quite a few of them, who told me that they’d become vegan because of the class. And a lot of my graduate students are high school English teachers who will take back to their own classrooms the works that speak to them in my class, so that gives me hope for the future as well!
What others writing projects do you have in the works?
I’m currently working on a Handbook of Vegan Studies for Routledge, and I’ve been approached by Edinburgh University Press to edit a Handbook of Vegan Literature. During my sabbatical, I am planning to work on a work of creative nonfiction called The Afterlives of Pippi Longstocking, but the Vegan Studies work keeps coming my way – which is great! I’ll have to assess and see what happens, but I’m so excited that the field is growing and that these opportunities to do more work in it keep showing up.
What books inspire you and do you feel deserve a wider audience?
Carol Adams’s foundational The Sexual Politics of Meat is hands down the bible for Vegan Studies. Everyone should read it. I did my doctoral work on South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, and I would recommend The Lives of Animals and Disgrace as two of his best works, both of which deal with animals. Margaret Atwood’s entire canon! If she doesn’t win the Nobel at some point, it will be a real injustice. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, which she wrote in 1998 and has a presidential character whose campaign slogan – I kid you not – is “Make America Great Again!” I just read Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and it is simply amazing. Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, Keri Hulme’s the bone people, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, and Flora Nwapa’s Efuru are also some of my favorite books (I’m trained as a postcolonialist, so my tastes tend to favor works from formerly colonized places).