“I hope to get a better grasp on what drives creativity”
On August 1, Rudolf Mahrer, Professor of French Linguistics and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Lausanne, became the new director of the Social and Human Sciences Program (SHS) at EPFL's College of Humanities.
Why did you want to become the new director of the SHS program?
There were three main reasons that I applied. First, I was especially sensitive to the fact that sustainability would be a priority of the program in 2024-25. The theme is not new to the program, but it's becoming really central, and that's something I feel very strongly about. As a linguist, I don’t have many professional opportunities to contribute to reflection and action on the environment, so this is exceptional and unexpected.
It's also an opportunity to build bridges between the language sciences that are at the heart of my teaching and research, and the scientific and technical disciplines taught at EPFL. For me as a linguist, language is what makes us human, a singular species. Yet language, through which we form our thoughts and social relationships, is a phenomenon that is in part natural, in part cultural and in part technological. Are the "language" of bees, computer "languages" and our natural languages the same? Can we lump all of them together under the category of language? Not to mention the language of mathematics or music. I believe that such questions are important when training future engineers, given the challenges they face. I also believe that there is much to be learned by discussing our views on the fundamentally heterogeneous phenomenon that is the activity of producing discourse.
The third motivation is linked to the previous one: it's the interdisciplinarity of the SHS program, the strong diversity of skills it brings together. Let's start with language, which, as you've seen, is my primary focus – there is no one truth about it. There's the understanding developed by psychologists, sociologists, neurologists and linguists, but alongside that are the technological approaches that enable us to understand how writing tools (from pens to generative AI) transform the way we produce texts, and thus the way we think about the world and how we act. What I say about language applies to all complex objects (nature, human beings, art…). They require the cooperation of researchers from all horizons – and the SHS program offers a diverse group of them!
How did you end up in the field of French linguistics?
I took a roundabout route. First, I attended secondary school in St. Maurice in Valais, where I particularly enjoyed the philosophy classes. I then went on to study at the University of Lausanne, planning to eventually teach philosophy. While there, I became interested in the French language, which is how I discovered the connection between philosophy and linguistics; I was very curious to understand what language contributed to human beings. At the end of my studies, the Faculty of Arts was looking for a linguist to study the writing of [Charles Ferdinand] Ramuz, whose complete works were in the process of being published. The subject immediately interested me, as Ramuz's writing is seen as a representation of spoken language. I devoted my master's thesis to this subject. Then I did my doctoral thesis between the University of Lausanne and Paris 3, Sorbonne Nouvelle on the question of how to translate the spoken word to the written word. Ramuz led me to think about something quite abstract: the relationship between writing, which are signs in space, and orality, which is made up of successive sounds in time.
What are you looking forward to about leading the SHS program?
Meeting with students, alumni and teachers to identify which skills future engineers need to take care of the world upon which we depend, and which today depends on us. By “world”, I mean the diversity and heritage of human beings, as well as non-humans: animals, plants and minerals. The SHS program, which has now been in existence for 20 years, must continue to evolve and adapt to the new realities and needs of engineers, or rather to the social needs to which engineers must respond. I look forward to contributing to this development.
I'd add another expectation, another hope, which is related to the second central issue in my research: creativity. In my work on “textual genetics”, I try to better understand the mechanisms of text development and the sources of our inventiveness. Starting with text, genetic questioning extends to other cultural domains as well: painting, music, architecture, cinema, games, and more. As the director of the SHS program, I will meet each day with colleagues who have a wide range of skills. I hope to draw on their expertise to gain a better understanding of the driving forces behind our extraordinary creativity. I also hope to be able to teach a course in textual genetics as part of the program in the near future.
In trying to make the program “useful” for engineers, is there a risk of losing the “unexpected” aspect that can be found in certain disciplines?
This is an essential point. We need to respond to the current needs of engineers while remaining open to a variety of disciplines that stimulate our creativity. It’s our job to navigate between identified societal needs – such as sustainability, food security, communication and artificial intelligence – while at the same time acting as an incubator for new ideas.
In concrete terms, although I’ve just begun to think about it, each course in the SHS program should be one of two distinct types: those which tackle issues that have already been identified as social challenges, and those which bring the general skills needed to craft new and unexpected questions – and then hopefully answer them. In a nutshell, these skills are critical thinking, responsibility, imagination and culture. Each course – from arts, such as literature and video games, to social history, philosophy, ethics, psychology, sociology, management, and political science to name a few – develops these skills differently.
Apart from your research, how do you spend your time?
Before I became Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts at UNIL, I used to run around 100 km a week. Today, I mostly run between UNIL and EPFL! But I'm still a sports addict. I try to keep up with my son who is a cyclist. I go running with my daughter, and I exercise with my friend Alicia, who has a black belt in a dangerous Korean martial art. If I go two days without exercising, I become unbearable.
I also love to cook. My father was a chef at the first gourmet restaurant in the canton of Jura, and I inherited his taste, but unfortunately not his talent. I love walking in the forests and mountains, and I find birds especially fascinating. I also sing, which I enjoy in an amount inversely proportional to my abilities, with a singing teacher who has truly earned her place in heaven by teaching me.
I love to play all sorts of games, and at the moment, thanks to Nicolas Donin, Professor of Musicology in Geneva and the recent film Tetris, I'm once again piling up bricks at breakneck speed in between reading linguistics articles. In short, I find it a bit difficult to sit still and do nothing, but I would like to learn how.