New Textbook and Course Explore UN Goals Through the Global Humanities

Posted March 6, 2024

Bringing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to fruition will require engineering prowess, scientific expertise, and — as students in a new class in the School of Modern Languages are learning — the power of storytelling to make us reconsider, reflect, and take action.

Students in Professor Kelly Comfort’s pilot section of ML 2500: “Introduction to Cross-Cultural Studies” are learning about the SDGs by exploring 12 works of literature, photography, and film from all over the world.

“Language and culture education go hand in hand with education for sustainable development,” said Comfort, the course’s lead instructor and a professor in the School of Modern Languages. “Global challenges can’t be addressed with one-size-fits-all solutions. You need a locally rooted, place-based approach.”

The works covered in Comfort’s class bring into sharp, local focus the abstract, global problems that necessitated the creation of the SDGs. Some spotlight the human faces of poverty, oppression, hunger, and unequal access to basic resources. Others tell the story of indigenous and underserved populations whose lives have been affected by pollution, deforestation, and other unsustainable practices.

In classroom discussions, essays, and projects, students analyze and evaluate each work, coming face to face with difficult realities and asking critical questions about the SDGs and the concept of sustainability. They also reflect on their own sustainable practices and behaviors.

“The authors, artists, and directors of each of these works are historically positioned to reflect on why we need the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as how they have been successful and where they have failed,” said Comfort.

This kind of humanistic inquiry is challenging, both on an individual and an existential level.

Student Harisri Yerramsetti, who is pursuing a B.S. in Computer Science, says the hard work is worth it.

“One of the most effective ways of persuading people to engage in sustainable practices is to showcase the stories of those who are affected by overconsumption,” said Yerramsetti. “I believe these stories are much more effective at reaching people than statistics.”

A Different Kind of (Global) Humanities Textbook

Comfort is also the editor and one of 13 Georgia Tech-affiliated authors of the course textbook, A Global Humanities Approach to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: Understanding People, Planet, and Prosperity. The book, intended for classroom use, devotes a chapter to each of the works covered in the course.

Comfort’s introduction highlights the worldwide scope of works represented, including pieces by photographers, authors, and directors from Argentina, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, and the United States, whose “works take us to many of these homelands and to additional nations such as Australia, Ecuador, Greenland, Haiti, Kiribati, Mongolia, Peru, Rwanda, Senegal, and Tanzania.”

The textbook’s scope is global, but its strategy is local. The beginning of each chapter guides students through a deep-dive study of the cultural and geographical context of each work’s creation, as well as an exploration of its interpretations, themes, and ideas. Questions and assignments that follow the work encourage students to reflect on its themes and tie these to Sustainable Development Goals in meaningful ways.

“This book draws on the incredible breadth, depth, and diversity of expertise in the School of Modern Languages,” said Comfort. “Each of the contributing scholars has deep insight into the specific geographic, linguistic, and cultural traditions from which these pieces emerge.”

The pilot course will include guest lectures by 10 of Comfort’s co-authors, each of whom will teach their chapter in the text.

Applying a Humanistic Lens to the SDGs

Comfort said early conversations with co-author Jennifer Hirsch, senior director of the Center for Sustainable Communities Research & Education, were instrumental in the book’s organization, which is informed by the United Nations’ “five P’s” of the Sustainable Development Goals: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership.

“[Hirsch] helped me to think about the different ways the SDGs are grouped, as opposed to being just a list of 17. The goals are interrelated, and more than one applies to every work we’re discussing,” said Comfort.

“One of the questions we ask about every work is whether it reinforces and illuminates the principles underpinning the SDGs, or if it questions any inherent presuppositions, biases, shortcomings, flaws, or gaps,” said Comfort.

Rebecca Watts Hull, assistant director of Faculty Development for Sustainability Education Initiatives in Georgia Tech’s Center for Teaching and Learning, said that study at the crossroads of the global humanities and the SDGs is key to the development of Georgia Tech students.

“Transformative sustainability teaching and learning includes experiences that lead students to challenge and reframe attitudes, assumptions and perspectives in ways that empower them to advance solutions effectively. Global humanities perspectives are essential to this process,” said Hull.

“Georgia Tech’s commitment to teach the SDGs across the curriculum reflects our understanding that students need to explore complex societal challenges from multiple disciplinary perspectives to develop the skills needed to collaborate with diverse others on solutions.”

What’s Next?

Comfort would like to expand the course into an asynchronous format, with modules on each of the global humanities texts. She would also like to include interviews with the artists, authors, and directors.

“The idea is to keep building up the course modules so that we could have larger audiences of students and reach more people,” said Comfort.

A Global Humanities Approach to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: Understanding People, Planet, and Prosperity was published by Routledge in 2023.

The book was made possible by grants from the School of Modern Languages, the Atlanta Global Studies Center, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, the Office of International Education, Global Student Experiences, and Sustainability Next.

The team-taught pilot course was made possible by a 2023-2024 Undergraduate Sustainability Education Innovation Grant and additional support from the School of Modern Languages, Global Student Experiences, and Sustainability Next.

Chapter Authors and Works

  • Associate Professor Amanda Weiss – Aya Hanabusa’s Holy Island: Nuclear Power and Political Resistance in Iwaishima, Japan
  • Associate Professor Britta Kallin – Barbara Dombrowski’s Tropic Ice: Dialog Between Places Affected by Climate Change — Photographs and Art Installations of People and Landscapes
  • Professor Kelly Comfort – Fabrice Monteiro’s The Prophecy: Trash Art Photography Protests Trashing the Planet
  • Associate Professor Natalie Khazaal – Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn’s Cowspiracy: Animal Agriculture and the “Sustainability Secret”
  • Assistant Professor Miguel Rosas Buendía – Fernando Contreras Castro’s Única Looking at the Sea: Marginalization, Community, and Politics from a Garbage Dump
  • Professor Stéphanie Boulard – Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I: From Waste to Wonder—A Cinematic Odyssey on Food Loss and Gleaning
  • Mirla Gonzalez, assistant director of Undergraduate Studies, Online and Professional Education – Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh: Devouring Each Other in Consumerist Society
  • Lecturer Seung-Eun Chang – Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos’s Bending the Arc: Public Health Pioneers Fight for Universal Health Equity and Global Justice
  • Lecturer 
  • Smita Daftardar – Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger: Stagnation or Social Mobility in Modern India
  • Professor Emerita Vicki Galloway – Ivan Sanjinés, Nicolás Ipamo, and Alejandro Noza’s Cry of the Forest: Sustainable Development and the Indigenous Communities of Bolivia
  • Assistant Professor Lu Liu – Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”: Unequal Time and Space in a Dystopian City
  • Associate Professor Jin Liu – Wang Jiuliang’s Plastic China: Unveiling the Façade of Prosperity
  • Kelly Comfort and Jennifer Hirsch, senior director, Center for Sustainable Communities Research & Education – Conclusion — Think Global, Act Local: Partnerships and Projects

The authors will celebrate on Thursday, Mar. 28, from 1 to 2 p.m. See the website to register.

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Contact For More Information

Stephanie N. Kadel
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts