Animal Studies

Written by Mike Allende

April 19, 2024

Film professor who received an NEH grant

Assistant Professor of Film Studies receives grant to fund research and writing about animals’ evolution—in light of environmental factors and mass extinction—as documented on film.

Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa, PhD, is setting a bit of a high bar. On his first proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), he became the first Seattle University faculty member in 20 years to be awarded an NEH grant.

An Assistant Professor of Film Studies, Schultz-Figueroa received a $6,000 grant for his written proposal titled, “Beastly Futures: Multispecies Documentary in the Time of Mass Extinction.” The funding will allow him to complete research and writing of a book exploring the ways documentary films about animals have evolved, as filmmakers and viewers come to better understand environmental change and the mass extinction of species.

Professor Schultz-Figueroa admits it’s a pretty niche subject and he was a bit surprised—and delighted—to earn the award.

“It feels great,” he says. “It’s a nice validation for work that is a little bit niche, a little bit on the stranger end of things. But all academic work is usually niche in some way and it’s on you to make people realize why it’s important.”

An interest in animals on film started for Schultz-Figueroa when he was young, combining growing up as a vegetarian with an interest in science fiction. In a sense, animals are alien beings figuring out their place in the world and role in society. He went on to work in the field of critical animal studies, looking at the role of animals in society and their important place as academic, historical and political subjects. Film presents a unique way to allow us to think about animals in that way that is particularly engaging.

His first book, The Celluloid Specimen, came out last year and takes more of a historical look at documentaries from the 1930s and ‘40s about animal laboratory experiments. His new book will take a broader, comparative look at how animals are represented in older films and how that has changed over the years as our society has changed.

“The basic premise is that in our current moment when animals are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, the way we look at them is dramatically changing,” Schultz-Figueroa says. “In part that’s because our sense of our own future and fate is pretty wrapped up in them in ways that used to be hard to imagine. We can see that change in new documentaries that are being made.”

Finding time to write is no easy task for a dad with three kids under age 7, so the NEH support will be a big help. He also credits the help he received from Sarah Bricknell, sponsored research officer, and her team in the Seattle University Office of Sponsored Projects.

“There would’ve been no chance of getting this without their help translating the project for the funders,” he says. “I’m so grateful for them and I’m very happy about the result.”