The Luce Initiative on Asian Studies (LIASE) implementation grant from the Henry Luce Foundation emphasizes integrative approaches to confronting environmental problems.
This winter term, students, faculty, and staff traveled to China on two LIASE grant-sponsored study tours. The trips, Parks and the Environment and Community-Based Environmental Studies: Hong Kong-U.S. Transnational Partnership and Exchange, took place in Sichuan Province and in Hong Kong, respectively.
Oberlin is in its third year of the five-year LIASE implementation grant to expand teaching and research at the intersection of Asian and environmental studies. The grant has supported winter term and summer study tours to East Asia, exhibitions at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, on-campus lecture series, and faculty curriculum development grants. A two-year postdoctoral fellow will also teach anthropology courses on Asia and the environment.
Ann Sherif, professor of Japanese and codirector of the LIASE Implementation grant, says that she and Professor of Geology Steven Wojtal, grant codirector, are especially proud of how the grant’s implementation has spanned myriad parts of campus, including the College of Arts and Sciences, Conservatory of Music, Bonner Center for Service and Learning, Oberlin Shansi, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM).
Oberlin’s ethos and teaching approaches are innately interdisciplinary, and this same thinking is at the forefront of what the LIASE grant seeks to promote. The LIASE grant aims to confront environmental issues from a plurality of viewpoints and disciplines—not just from environmental studies—and with a strong emphasis on knowledge of Asian cultures, societies, and languages.
True to the grant’s philosophy that environmental problems are best addressed from numerous perspectives, the grant has acted as the impetus for cross-campus discussions about environmental challenges.
“It’s the belief of environmental studies that the sciences alone can’t address all environmental issues; it takes multiple perspectives,” Sherif says. Oberlin, naturally a good fit for the grant, summoned a multitude of professors and staff to take part in this year’s winter term trips: Assistant Professor of Religion Cheryl Cottine, Assistant Professor of Sociology Christie Parris, Assistant Professor of Biology Jordan Price, Associate Professor of English and Comparative American Studies Harrod Suarez, Associate Professor of Geology and Chair of Archaeological Studies Amanda Schmidt, Director of Bonner Center Curricular Initiatives and Assistant Professor of History Tania Boster, and Jody Kerchner, professor of music education in the conservatory.
Rather than asking faculty to plan their winter term trips from scratch, the Oberlin LIASE team invited them into the conversation, and asked them to build off of their existing teaching and research interests and frame their work within an environmental context. For many participants, the study trips were their first opportunity for experiential learning in East Asia.
The winter-term trip to Sichuan Province, sponsored and directed by Schmidt, explored how cultural norms influence environmental attitudes and park management in the country. The group traveled with students and faculty from Sichuan University to prominent sites and landmarks such as Mt. Emei, Dujiangyan (one of the oldest surviving irrigation systems in the world), and an animal conservation reserve. They also carried out water sampling and analysis.
Rex Simmons ’19, an environmental studies and East Asian studies double major, says that the winter term gave him the opportunity see firsthand the intersections of his studies at Oberlin. “I was able to have conversations about environmentalism, geology, and politics in Mandarin,” he says. “The experience was one of the first times I got to connect the dots between my different fields of study.”
Lauren Waldman ’22, who intends to double major in East Asian studies and biochemistry, was also on the trip to Sichuan. Waldman echoes that she was also able to apply her studies at Oberlin to a global learning context. “It was my first time abroad, and the opportunity to immerse myself in another culture and connect those experiences to the material I had been studying was absolutely incredible.”
Meanwhile, the trip to Hong Kong, sponsored and directed by Boster, explored environmental studies through the lens of social justice. Through a connected learning course collaboration as part of a Global Liberal Arts Alliance initiative, Oberlin partnered with Lingnan University and the Education University of Hong Kong to learn how these institutions model community-based learning approaches to environmentalism in their own communities.
Nia Daids ’19, an environmental studies major with a public health pathway, says that learning from the Chinese university students allowed her to reflect on her own activist engagements. “Subconsciously, I could feel tensions between culture and environmental sustainability before this trip, but now I am actually able to name that discomfort in my own community, advocacy, and environmental work,” she says.
By incorporating visits to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and conservation sites, the group studied first-hand the roles of liberal arts institutions and their surrounding communities in simultaneously addressing environmental issues and social inequities.
To prepare students academically as well as to provide a cultural introduction to China and Hong Kong, two module courses—one for each winter-term trip— were offered to students by faculty leaders in the fall. The readings, discussions, and presentations they conducted provided students with cultural, social, and historical contexts of the regions they would be visiting.
From the early stages of the grant, the Luce Foundation has encouraged the college to think about ways to make grant initiatives sustainable. Sherif says that the grant has achieved what Oberlin has been striving for: connected learning engagement and connecting people.
“One element of LIASE has been to ‘bring Asia to Oberlin’ through guest speakers and increased curricular content about Asia,” Sherif says. “The ‘in Asia’ part is crucial; we can’t replicate the high-impact experiential learning that happens when students are actually in Asia on Oberlin’s campus. It can be transformational.”
She attributes the two new courses that she has developed on East Asia and the environment to the grant and says that faculty and staff’s ability to think about environmental challenges within the context of their own disciplines “has potential for long-lasting effects on campus. Using what they have learned from the grant, they will be here, teach, and interact with generations of future students.”
There is currently a LIASE-sponsored exhibition at the AMAM titled, Nature and Nostalgia in Early 20th-Century Japanese Art .