Liberal Studies 214/314 (Fall 2014): Wonder and the Order of Nature

Prof. Janice Porteous Tues 10-12:20 355 Rm 108
Philosophy Dept/Liberal Studies Dept Vancouver Island University
Bldg 355 Rm 338 tel (office) 250-753-3245 ext 2172
Office hours: Tues 12:30-1:30 email:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

- Charles Darwin, closing line of Origin of Species (1859)

Course Description

Our relations with the natural world have always been complicated with human desires, fears, and aspirations. We embody nature, and yet nature also seems peculiarly outside us, stubbornly itself. How do we think about nature? How are we, in contemporary western society, to conceive – or re-conceive – our relations to the natural world and the beings within it? In this course we pursue this question by way of examining several great cultural upheavals of the 17-19th centuries, where new ideas about "Nature" and human relations to "the natural" occupied central stage for poets, artists, philosophers, and scientists alike.

Required Texts

Although you need not use the editions of the texts listed below, you are encouraged to do so since having the same text (same page numbers) facilitates seminar discussion. The texts will be available in the VIU bookstore, but you may also find them available (more cheaply) elsewhere. Please bring the relevant readings (electronic or print) to class with you.

1. Malcom Andrews, Landscape and Western Art. Oxford University Press (1999). ISBN: 978-0-19284233-6.
2. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass . Dover Thrift. ISBN: 978-0-48645676-8
3. Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World . Random House Trade Paperbacks (2002). ISBN: 978-0-375760396
4. Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge . Dover Thrift. ISBN: 0-486-43749-3
5. For some other short readings we will make use of handouts or online sources.

Please note that expectations for students taking this course at the third-year level will be higher than for those taking it at the second-year level.

Course Requirements

  • Map/Landscape Project 20% due Thurs Sept 25 by 7 pm
  • "Plant's Eye View" assignment 10% due at the beginning of class Tues Oct 21
  • Natural History Project 25% due Thurs Nov 13 by 7 pm
  • Final Exam 25% TBA
  • Seminar participation 20%

See below for details on reading schedule and assignments.

Wonder and the Order of Nature: Detailed Syllabus 2014


2 Introduction to course; Film: How the Earth Changed History: Wind

9 Andrews, Ch 1: "Land into Landscape" (p1-22); Recommended: Ch 2: "Subject or Setting?" (p26-51)

16 Andrews, Ch 4: "Topography and the Beau Ideal " (p77-105); Ch 5: "Framing the View" (p107-127)

23 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Due Thurs Sept 25 th by 7 pm: Map or Landscape Project

30 Darwin , On the Origin of Species , Chpt Three, "Struggle for Existence" Available online elibrary QH 365 02 2001. Struggle for Existence (Guttenberg Source) or find in: On the Origin of Species . Film: How to Grow a Planet: Life from Light

Note : I f the links on this syllabus do not work for you, please use the given information to do your own search to find your way to the assigned reading.


7 Kari Weil, "Seeing Animals" (Chapter two from Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? " (2012) – available VIU online elibrary). D.H. Lawrence, "Baby Tortoise" (1921) (poem; online or handout)

14 Liberal Studies Reading Week: No Liberal Studies class

21 Michael Pollan, "Introduction" (p.xii-xxv); "Epilogue" (p.239-245), and one chapter other than the one you're writing your Pollan assignment on. Pollan assignment due in class

28 Andrews, Ch 6: "Astonished beyond Expression: Landscape, the Sublime, and the Unpresentable" (p129-149)
Sylvia Plath, "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" (1956) (poem: online or handout)


4 Andrews, Ch 8: "Nature as Picture or Process" (p177-199)
Dark Forests , Brooding Beasts: Dark Nature in Fairy Tales (images t.b.a.)

11 Remembrance Day (no class; university closed)

Due Thurs Nov 13 th by 7 pm: Animal or Natural History Project

18 Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
Lbst 314: Robert Schweik, "Character and Fate in The Mayor of Casterbridge "

25 Margaret Atwood, "Death by Landscape" (short story), Harper's Magazine (Aug 1990: 49-57):
Discussion of final exam … Final Exam date: TBA

A note on the seminar format of this course: Seminar discussion lies at the heart of Liberal studies courses. The most important components in the assessment of your seminar participation are the following: attendance, preparation (doing the required reading carefully, having the reading with you, being ready to raise useful topics for discussion, engaging with topics raised by others), and the quality and quantity of your participation (i.e. your contributions to creating and sustaining a worthwhile and well-mannered seminar conversation for all participants).

Description of Assignments

Assignment One: The Map or Landscape Project

Create a piece of art (map or landscape) in which you explore some aspect of the themes of our course up to this point. Types of art might include painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, collage, etc. Include a write-up in which you carefully explain how the visual language of your piece expresses your ideas.

Lbst 214 students: 2-3 pages (500-750 words)
Lbst 314 students: 3-4 pages (750-1000 words)

You are encouraged to make your visual piece an orientation in imagination, thought, and feeling as much as in space.

Assignment Two: The "Plant's eye view" Paper

In each chapter of Botany of Desire Michael Pollan discusses a particular plant – i.e. apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato. You will be assigned a particular chapter, and asked to write a short paper answering this question: How does Pollan connect a particular plant with a particular human desire in order to offer a "plant's eye view" of the world?

Your topic (apple, tulip, marijuana, or potato) will be assigned to you in the second week of classes. Also, you will also be required to sign up to read one chapter other than the chapter you are writing your assignment on.

Lbst 214: 1-2 pages (250-500 words)
Lbst 314: 2-3 pages (500-750 words)

Assignment Three: Animal or Natural History Project

Create a visual piece addressing some issue in our representation of non-human animals, or illustrating some aspect of Darwin's evolutionary view. For the latter you could, for instance, create a small-scale observational record of a natural environment (e.g. your backyard, a garden on campus, Buttertubs Marsh); you could illustrate the evolution of some organism or feature of an organism; or you might portray intricate relationships between various organisms in a specific ecosystem – your imagination is limited only by the facts!

Include a write-up in which you discuss the idea illustrated in your visual piece.

Lbst 214 students: 2-3 pages (500-750 words)
Lbst 314 students: 3-4 pages (750-1000 words)

There is an essay option for this project, if you do not want to do art: Lbst 214: approx. 5 pages (1250 wds); Lbst 314: approx. 6 pages (1500 wds)

Assignment Four: Final Exam

The exam will require you to write a series of short answers (approx. 100-150 words each) to questions that deal with specific comparisons among our course texts. The questions will be handed out ahead of time; there will be some choice involved.

Lbst 214: 2 hours (5 questions)
Lbst 314: 3 hours (8 questions)

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