Elephants: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

Weeks 1-5 of GIS 3991 (Interdisciplinary core Seminar)

(with special emphasis on their behavior and intelligence)

An Ancient Four-Drachma Coin: Elephant walking to right, star above and anchor below. 281 B.C.-280 B.C. Boston Museum of Fine Arts


Section: 981 Call#: 90552 Credits: 4

Time & Place: Tuesday, 6:00-9:40 p.m., 226 Cohn, WSU Campus

Instructor’s Work Address: Moti Nissani, Interdisciplinary Studies Program, Rm. 2134, 2nd floor, 5700 Cass, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202
Instructor’s Home Address: 28645 Briar Hill, Farmington Hills, MI 48336

E-Mail: moti.nissani@wayne.edu

Tel.: 248.427.1957 (h) (12-10 p.m. every day)


Instructor’s Internet Homepage: http://www.cll.wayne.edu/isp/mnissani/

Class Internet Address: : http://www.cll.wayne.edu/isp/mnissani/elephant/syl.htm

Office hours: By appointment

Text: A Coursepack ($10; for sale in class)

Grading: Your grade will be based on:

  class.jpg (201795 bytes)

GIS 3191 Class Participants, Winter 2001


Week 1

"White Veil," 1909, by Willard Metcalf, Detroit Institute of Arts.


Technical: Book sale; Syllabus; Introduction to course, syllabus, schedule, requirements; optional coursepack sale ($10); personal information sheets. Sharing personal and educational experiences: What am I doing here?

  1. Discussion of this poem:
He ate and drank the precious words,

His spirit grew robust;

He knew no more that he was poor,

Nor that his fame was dust.

He danced along the dingy days,

And this bequest of wings

Was but a book! What liberty

A loosened spirit brings!

--Emily Dickinson


What’s Dickinson’s point? Is she right? Have you ever had a similar experience? Are you here because you are in search of precisely such experiences? (in that case, you are in the right place)

II. Elephants: We’ll jointly read the Preface to Richard Carrington’s 1958 Elephants (in which it is argued that elephant study requires an interdisciplinary outlook). The class then divides into small groups, digging into our memories for as much information we (excluding instructor and guest speaker), collectively, have about them. This will be followed by informal oral presentations.

III. First Steps in Writing an Interdisciplinary Class Paper. Goal of this combined class project: Gaining a holistic view of elephants. So, to begin with, we need to ask: Which disciplines bear on our subject? We shall next assign one distinct theme to one participant. The key player in this undertaking will be the project coordinator, who will be in charge of making sure that everyone does his/her part, coordinating the various aspects of the paper, including class presentations of the fourth week. The coordinator also has the option of further modifying this project and turning it into his/her final project.

IV. Nature of Science Exercise: Elephant Communication (to be given in class)

Read for Next Week:

Writing Assignment: Solution of telepathy mystery above (one paragraph, including a historical account of the relevant discovery).
Week 2
An Asian Elephant
 I. Technical: Final sale of Class Reader; distribution of class roster.
II. Class discussion: What shall our next topics be? (besides elephants and your project)

III. Elephant Stories: Growing Up with Elephants. (Our guest speaker today, Dr. Geeta Khadka, a visiting Fulbright Scholar from Kathmandu, Nepal, will share with us some of her experiences).

IV. Discussion of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem.
V. Creative Thinking in Action: I. The Raven
VI. The Elephant Child. After reading this fable, we shall spend some time discussing the origins—and need for—fables. In particular, can you think (and perhaps tell the class) of some other fables? Why are they so universal? Do we still need them?
VII. Moti Guj. After thoroughly enjoying this wonderful tale, we shall divide into small group, and ask: What can we learn about elephants from this story ?
VIII. Open Mike: Do you have any elephant story of your own?
IX. Our first class project (cont.)
 Read for Next Week:



Week 3

An African Elephant

I. Elephant Ear (Joan Aiken). Our first question, about this story, is similar to the one we asked about Kipling: Can we learn anything about elephant from this? Our second question: the meaning of the story to you, personally. That is, Aiken is trying to tell us something about how we should lead our own life. What is it? Can you follow her prescription?

II. Nature of Science Example: Four-tusked elephant. This wonderful tale can be looked at from many angles, but here we are interested in seeing what it tells us about the nature of science. In small groups, let us try to figure out answers to the following questions:

  1. How does Denis’ wild goose (or rather, elephant) chase begin?
  2. What does this story tell us about the character of the author? Is he open-minded? Persistent? Courageous? Single-minded in his pursuit of his investigation?
  3. In science, everything depends on an educated guess (which is referred to more technically as a hypothesis). What’s Denis’ guess?
  4. After tentatively settling on a hypothesis, a scientist proceeds to collect evidence in support of this guess. In the end, Denis believes that he has collected precisely such evidence. What are his lines of evidence: list them as carefully as you can.
  5. Most people wrongly believe that science is primarily about facts. That, for example, the theory of evolution, or of black holes, is indisputable fact. In so believing, they extrapolate from religion and other such areas. For devout Catholics, for instance, it’s simply a fact that Christ had no siblings—no arguments wanted here. For devout Jews and Muslims, it’s 100% clear that one should not eat pork. But science is fundamentally different. All scientific facts are tentative, in principle, and that’s why science, unlike organized religions, changes. So, to a scientist, Denis’ story by itself suggests that four-tusked elephants probably exist, but doubts about their existence always remain. So we need to think of some ways of arguing that Denis may still be wrong. So, please try to find holes in his argument.
  6. Precisely because science is tentative, the more proofs we have of something, the happier we are. Can you think of experiments and observations which may lend additional support to Denis’ investigations?

III. Film: It’s about time to have a brief look at our heroes!

IV. Work on our interdisciplinary elephant project.

Read for next week:

Prepare: an oral presentation of your elephant theme.

Prepare for next week: Your final, interdisciplinary project topic and outline.


Week 4


A painting by an Asian elephant (internet source: www.dolphinsociety.org/12.index.htm)


I. Sign up for your next week’s individual project consultation.

II. Elephant anecdotes. Let’s, each one of us, take one or more of these anecdotes and retell them, in our own words, with a close book, to the class. Next, we need to ask a few questions: What do these anecdotes tell us about the mental and moral qualities of elephants? Can they be trusted? Can these anecdotes serve as a springboard to serious, fascinating research? Can you think of any concrete research ideas? In those tests, are we going to start with the preconception that elephants must be extremely intelligent, or are we committed to having an open mind on this subject?

III. Oral presentations of elephant themes.

IV. Class discussion: What did this sojourn in elephant land teach us about researching, and writing about, an interdisciplinary paper?

Final project individual consultations with class instructor (time permitting).

 Week 5: Individual project consultations with class instructor.

Weeks 6-15: Forthcoming.