“My experience in the classroom feeds into the research I do”
Her knowledge of China is what opened the door for her at EPFL. Florence Graezer Bideau, a senior scientist and senior lecturer at EPFL’s College of Humanities, is a firm believer in the benefits of an anthropological approach. She even uses it in her teaching – and apparently successfully, as she was named best teacher in the humanities and social sciences (SHS) programme for 2022.
Suppose a group of city officials inaugurates a new bridge, hailing it as a masterpiece of engineering prowess, architectural design and technological know-how. The bridge is intended to link a residential neighborhood to the city center, and the mayor who commissioned it is just as proud of the new structure as the engineers who built it. But fast-forward to just a few days after the inauguration ceremony, and you could very well find that hardly anyone is using the bridge, even during rush hour.
“Scientists, engineers and architects can employ all the latest technology they want, but if the system or structure they’re developing isn’t suited to the way people will actually use it, then they aren’t meeting a genuine need,” says Graezer Bideau. That’s why she believes it’s so important to consider local customs and the societal and cultural context “right from the start of the development process, whether you’re creating a building, bridge, smartphone app or everyday object,” she says. “To that end, an anthropological approach is ideal for making sure all the various real-world factors are taken into account.”
The SHS (Social and Human Sciences) programme, where Graezer Bideau won the award, is a cross-disciplinary program open to all EPFL students regardless of their field of study. The focus of her research is anthropology, which looks at how different societies are structured and how people interact with their social, technical and natural surroundings. She uses a combination of field experiments, cultural immersion, observation and interviews with locals. “These are all really useful tools for better understanding key research issues and gaining insight into research practices in general and daily life,” she says.
Experience in China serves her well
While Graezer Bideau could have chosen to work in the humanities or social sciences department of a university, she instead took a position at EPFL. “I was hired in 2010, the year after EPFL introduced a minor in China to give students an opportunity to learn about cultures and societies outside Europe,” she says. Modern China is Graezer Bideau’s area of expertise; she lived in China for five years after first visiting the country while on exchange in Beijing, as part of her degree program at the University of Lausanne. She obtained a PhD in History and Civilization from EHESS in Paris, completing her thesis on the use of public spaces by cultural organizations (such as for “daily urban carnivals”) and exploring the relationship between culture and power in 20th century China.
Her knowledge of China was what led Graezer Bideau to be hired by EPFL as a scientist and the assistant director of a cultural studies center. “I quickly saw that when students are introduced to a new culture, their outlook changes and they have a more flexible mindset,” she says. “As a result, the way they approach their discipline – whether in science, engineering or another field – improves.” She therefore started incorporating concepts and methods from anthropology into the classes she taught at EPFL. “Students in my Anthropology of the Urban class are asked to go out into the city and collect data, and then compare what they saw on the ground with the theory they studied.”
A collective body of knowledge
When asked if she wouldn’t be happier teaching the next generation of anthropologists or sociologists, she demurs. “At EPFL, I get to teach students from a broad range of fields, which makes my classes highly interdisciplinary,” she says. “And it’s precisely this kind of interdisciplinary approach that many university deans are calling for.” She even feels that the cross-disciplinary teamwork emphasized in her class, coupled with the opportunities for interaction – among her students, her peers and herself – helps her carry her research forward. “My experience in the classroom feeds into the research I do,” she says.
Graezer Bideau also points out that “my lessons are designed to take full advantage of the complementary skillsets that my students bring to the table.” The cultural topics she covers – such as the Vevey winegrowers’ festival, the Lausanne town fair, the oral heritage of the Montreux Jazz Festival, urbanism in Asia, the cultural heritage of Carouge, and Alpine architecture in the Goms Valley – are all interrelated, borrowing from each other and building on each other so as to create a collective body of knowledge. Regardless of their particular competencies, interests or field of study, “every one of my students contributes to this knowledge,” she says.