The University of Maryland is developing a cultural literacy curriculum geared toward students studying abroad in China, Russia and the Middle East.
The program, which is in its first month of development, is funded by a $750,000 grant from the National Security Education Program and the Institute of International Education, said Lorraine Graham, the arts and humanities college's communications officer. The grant was awarded in October.
Two sets of materials will be developed by the college's faculty and staff, said Graham — one targeted toward students learning Arabic, Chinese and Russian, the most popular flagship programs at this university, and another separate set of materials in English that will be developed for students of any major.
"The underlying principle of the grant is that cultural literacy needs to be addressed separately from learning a language or from studying history of a culture," Graham said.
While this material is a continuation of this university's work at the Language Science Center, the languages, literatures and cultures school and the Language Flagship programs in Arabic and Persian, the grant will centralize and focus the effort into language classes at the university, especially for individuals studying abroad, Graham said.
Zachary Goldblatt, a student in the Arabic flagship program, has studied abroad in Morocco, Jordan and Oman.
Many students don't realize what a country is like until they travel there and live in a full immersion environment with a host family, Goldblatt said.
"One thing this grant could do is to review the basics of what a host family is really like, what type of cultural discrepancies there are from home life in the states to home life abroad," said Goldblatt, a senior Arabic studies and government and politics major.
Students at this university will be the first recipients of this curriculum, but it will eventually serve public institutions across the country. The materials will be completely online to ensure that everyone has access to it, said Valerie Anishchenkova, a professor of Arabic studies and core faculty member in film studies.
Senior Arabic studies and criminology and criminal justice major Daniella Medel said that the flagship program at Maryland has played a big role in her success learning Arabic.
"We meet with a native language speaker for an hour a week, which is super informal, but it broadens everything we have learned in class," Medel said.
The flagship program already does a great job aiding cultural literacy, but it is hard to teach full immersion, Medel added. The program currently has a visiting scholar from Morocco who taught students about the life and culture in his home, Medel said.
Nobody has tried to create educational models like this curriculum before with this degree of depth, Anishchenkova said.
Compared to the university's general education diversity requirements, the curriculum will be much more targeted, said Anishchenkova. The curriculum is primarily for students going abroad, in order to create a comprehensive set of materials that will help students reach high levels of cultural proficiency before studying in a foreign country, she said.
"The materials will work to deconstruct the prejudices and stereotypes and the unfortunate baggage a lot of Americans bring with them when they go abroad," Anishchenkova said.
Bonnie Thornton Dill, the dean of the arts and humanities college, said she believes that it is very important for college students to be culturally literate.
"When we understand how our own values shape our perspective of the world, we can interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds with empathy, curiosity and critical awareness," Dill said.
Faculty in the languages, literatures and cultures school will purposefully incorporate these cultural literacy lessons into their language teaching, according to Dill.
University staff has already begun to survey former students to see what they were lacking in terms of cultural literacy when they went abroad, said Anishchenkova, in order to create materials that will address those gaps.
"Our goal is to change the way culture is taught in the U.S. because we don't really teach it the way it needs to be taught," said Anishchenkova, "making Americans more aware and prepared to deal with multicultural environments."