School of International Letters and Cultures faculty weave sustainability principles into courses

Faculty members in Arizona State University's School of International Letters and Cultures have been working to integrate sustainability concepts into their language courses and overall curriculum, from vocabulary related to climate and the environment, to broader cultural themes and issues surrounding global futures.

This effort to ecologize the curriculum expands on a similar initiative from the school’s Italian section a year ago, which saw the program offer four classes focused on sustainability: “Natural Disasters: Environmental and Cultural Resilience,” “The Mediterranean Lifestyle in Italy,” “Italian Ecocinema” and “Sustainable Fashion.”

Now, the goal is for every Italian course at every level — from introductory to upper division, whether taught in Italian or in English — to incorporate sustainability in some manner. The other programs housed within the school are being invited to embrace this challenge, as well.

The schoolwide effort is being spearheaded by Principal Lecturer Chiara Dal Martello, who taught the spring 2021 “Natural Disasters” course and was instrumental in encouraging her colleagues in the Italian program — and now across all of the school — to incorporate sustainability into their curriculum. The exact approach is left up to each individual program and professor.

“The Portuguese program opted for an integrated approach rather than just extra modules about the environment,” said Senior Lecturer Cézar Medeiros, the program’s coordinator. “The initiative calls for significant parts of our courses to be directed to sustainability, ranging from entire chapters dedicated to sustainability to specific assignments that aim at engaging students in discussions about contemporary environmental issues.”

Medeiros’ Elementary Portuguese II course in spring 2022 will include a vocabulary lesson about housing, human dwellings and sustainable buildings. Students are invited to discuss the ASU Student Pavilion in Tempe, which was designed as a Net Zero Energy building.

“This life-related experience provides the necessary context to engage the students in a deeper discussion about the environment while learning the language. The students’ own experiences can be compared to similar experiences in a Portuguese-speaking country,” Medeiros said.

Issues of sustainability transcend geographic borders and time periods, as well. Francoise Mirguet, associate professor of ancient Hebrew, incorporated texts that promote harmonious relationships between human beings and the non-human world into her Biblical Hebrew III course this semester. Examples of these primary sources include laws encouraging sustainable attitudes toward animals and narratives about the place of human beings in the natural world.

“Studying how ancient cultures reflected on sustainable living adds perspective to our current concerns. … We need to ask ourselves why ancient authors were preoccupied with establishing sustainable practices,” Mirguet said. “Biblical texts were also written over several centuries, in various contexts, by different authors. Concerns changed over time, as well as notions about the role and place of human beings in the world.”

The Italian program is also continuing to expand its list of courses that include sustainability concepts. Vocabulary lessons on topics like food and travel offer a solid foundation for exploring broader issues, said Italian Instructor Antonella Dell'Anna.

For example, students in Intermediate Italian I next semester will study comparatives and superlatives to learn and compare renewable energy initiatives focused on fueling public transportation. This lesson will continue by asking students to research and describe a sustainable vacation in Italy. These assignments allow students to expand their vocabulary in the language they are learning while also increasing their awareness of local issues and what it is like to actually live in the places they are studying.

Medeiros said it is important to him and the other Portuguese faculty members to depict a balanced view of sustainability-related topics. Students should feel empowered to develop better environmental solutions and help society achieve a sustainable global future.

“Creativity is a skill that the Portuguese program always encourages in our students,” he said. “One of the main goals of the Portuguese program is to arm students with useful skills so they can find the best solutions in whatever endeavor they pursue.”

Japanese Instructor Yukari Nakamura-Deacon echoed this sentiment. Students in her second-year Japanese II class this semester have communicated with peers at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan, about individual and societal practices regarding environmental issues like food waste, energy conservation and trash.

Nakamura-Deacon gave an example of the recycling process for a plastic bottle in Japan: Consumers rinse the bottle and separate the cap and bottle into separate containers designated for each type of plastic. Nonprofits sell the caps to companies that reuse them to make other products, and the nonprofits use the money they earn to further other public initiatives, such as vaccinating schoolchildren.

“If each one of us learns from this practice and starts implementing it in our daily lives, what difference could it make?” Nakamura-Deacon asked.

“If we could learn helpful practices from each other among countries and each one of us implements them in our daily lives, I personally believe that positive effects will be doubled, tripled and more,” she continued. “(The school) offers a perfect environment to nurture this idea as (the school) is a melting pot where diverse cultures can merge in order to achieve a big goal.”

The School of International Letters and Cultures plans to continue increasing sustainability content in its language courses and other classes across its more than 40 programs and more than 20 languages. Overall, these additions and updates to the school's curriculum ensure that students are given ample opportunities to engage with the pressing issues of the future through a wide array of pathways.

Kimberly Koerth
kkoerth@asu.edu