Swarthmore Awarded Grant to Explore Asian Studies and the Environment

Professor Haili Kong and students learn to make tea

Professor Haili Kong's "Tea in China: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives" course offered students firsthand experience in tea farming and tea making.

Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford Colleges (the Tri-Colleges) have together received a $701,000 four-year grant from the Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE) of the Henry Luce Foundation. The grant provides funding for innovative approaches to Asian studies that are focused on teaching and research at the undergraduate level through the lens of the environment and sustainable development. The support from the Luce Foundation is rooted in the notion that addressing environmental challenges such as climate change requires global cooperation and engagement by people with interdisciplinary training as well as knowledge of local conditions and historical and cultural context.

Beneficiaries of the grant include Swarthmore’s Asian Studies Program and the Tri-College Environmental Studies Program (ENVS). The proposed project will involve 30-40 faculty members and benefit more than 400 students.

“Some of our most significant environmental challenges from cultural, policy, and scientific perspectives are seen today in Asia, so they are ideal targets of study for the multi-disciplinary approach that we take in our Environmental Studies Program,” says provost Tom Stephenson. “This grant provides us with the opportunity to bring together and strengthen two of our strong interdisciplinary programs—Environmental Studies and Asian Studies.”

Activities the grant will support include:

  • A series of workshops and presentations by visiting scholars that will bring together Tri-College faculty from the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences for curriculum development activities focused on Asia and the environment;
  • Development of an interdisciplinary cluster of courses on Asia and the environment; and
  • Development of a series of interdisciplinary, team-taught courses with a travel component to China.

Faculty members leading the initiative hope to create:

  • Several new curricular modules on various environmental issues relevant to East Asia suitable for incorporation into “Introduction to Environmental Studies,” the entry point to the Tri-College ENVS minor;
  • Up to three new East Asia-centric courses that will count as electives in the ENVS minor;
  • A suite of four flexible, rotating, interdisciplinary courses that address aspects of Asia and the environment from various perspectives; and
  • A series of four rotating ENVS-Asian Studies courses, including an experiential learning component in China.

“We get the advantages of a richer curriculum than we would have if we were doing this alone,” says Professor of Chinese Haili Kong of the cooperative effort that enables the three schools to draw on their strengths.

Kong is playing a lead role in developing a series of courses that combine a standard on-campus classroom experience with an intensive travel experience to Asia at the end of the semester. Among them is a course focusing on water resources in China that would feature a three-week trip to the Yangtze River Valley. U.S. students in that course would work collaboratively with Chinese master-degree students to complete an independent community-based project.

The course, "Tea in China: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives," was offered at Swarthmore in spring 2015 with partial support from an earlier LIASE exploration grant. The current grant and a gift from Swarthmore alumna Elizabeth Economy ’84 enabled several additional students (15 in total) to participate in the course’s travel component over the summer. Their projects addressed topics ranging from studying the aroma profiles of green and black tea with and without UV-B radiation to researching the connection between poetry and tea in China and Taiwan. Some students even participated firsthand in tea farming and tea making.

The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by the late Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., to honor his parents, who were missionary educators in China. The Foundation seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious, and art communities.