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Grant number: AQ-50675-12

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University of North Carolina, Charlotte (Charlotte, NC 28223-0001)
Joanne Robinson (Project Director: 09/21/2011 to present)

NEH Enduring Questions Course on "How Is the World Ordered?"

The development of an undergraduate course on the question, How is the world ordered?

Joanne Robinson, an associate professor of religious studies, notes that while human beings are constantly ordering things, they seldom reflect on that activity. "Yet concerns about order and the threat of disorder have pervaded Western thought and practice." Hence Professor Robinson develops a course to address such questions as "Is order inherent in nature or is it a human construct (or a mix of both)? When is order constructive and when is it restrictive? What assumptions form the foundations for classifying and categorizing things and ideas?" The first section of the course addresses how humans have explained the order they find in the natural world. Readings include creation stories from the Hebrew Bible, ancient Greece, Zoroastrianism, and Native American traditions. These are studied in conjunction with excerpts from Lucretius's On the Nature of Things and Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Italo Calvino's essay "Crystals," and Stephen Strogatz's Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life. In the second section, the class looks more closely at taxonomies of the natural world, including Aristotle's Categories, Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, either Bartholomew of England's On the Properties of Things or the medieval Physiologus, and Jorge Luis Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings. For a contemporary treatment, the class studies Carol Yoon's Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. In the third section, the students consider current discussions of classification and category through a reading of E. O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. "These texts, taken together, complicate the question of order in ways relevant to students' (presumably) technology-focused lives." Professor Robinson notes that while she has looked at the question before, NEH support allows her "to break out of the disciplinary ordering of my academic life [in religious studies] and delve into other disciplines, such as cognitive science, library history and science, linguistics, anthropology, biology, and philosophy." The course opens with an exercise comparing the systems of ordering in the printed telephone book with the on-line ordering of such information; it also explores visual means of ordering. The students develop a public website on systems of order for the university community.

Project fields:
Interdisciplinary Studies, General

Enduring Questions: Pilot Course Grants

Education Programs

Total amounts:
$20,837 (approved)
$20,642 (awarded)

Grant period:
5/1/2012 – 12/31/2014