“Teaching helps me think more objectively about certain presumptions”

Jean-François Bert, the winner of the 2023 best teacher award for EPFL’s Social and Human Sciences (SHS) Program - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Jean-François Bert, the winner of the 2023 best teacher award for EPFL’s Social and Human Sciences (SHS) Program - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

It’s not easy to convince engineering students that learning about the human and social sciences can be useful. Yet that’s precisely what Jean-François Bert has set out to do, (almost) always with a smile.

“The students who walk into my classroom are usually quite skeptical – I have to spend a lot of time explaining how the subjects I teach can help them later on,” says Jean-François Bert, the winner of the 2023 best teacher award for EPFL’s Social and Human Sciences (SHS) Program. However he gets where they’re coming from: “The social sciences are light-years away from what they’re accustomed to studying as engineering students.”

So how can the human and social sciences be useful to the next generation of chemical engineers, computer engineers and materials scientists? “Engineering students tend to think these topics are a nice to have – general subjects that don’t concern them directly,” says Bert. But if they look at their work through the lens of the human and social sciences, they can “hone their critical thinking skills and develop an analytical framework that will serve them across all disciplines, both while at university and in their careers.”

Bert, a sociologist and social-science historian, teaches at both EPFL and the University of Lausanne (UNIL). His classes are designed to build bridges between information, knowledge and beliefs. “I encourage students to avoid taking the information superhighway and instead meander through the backroads, even if those roads end up going nowhere,” he says. His students often work in groups and are asked to use sources other than those found online. “I give them a lot of freedom in choosing their study topics, methods and concepts – provided their work is based on sound reasoning and reliable documentation.”

Centered on decentering

Bert admits that his job isn’t a walk in park. “My classes are optional and there’s no requirement to keep taking them over several semesters,” he says. As a result, “I had to figure out a way to make each one a stand-alone module, so that students could come with little or no prior knowledge about the historical relationship between science and religion.”

This absence of any prerequisites is especially important for his Master’s classes. “I estimate that at the start of each school year, sometimes upwards of a third of my Master’s students haven’t taken one of my classes before,” says Bert. By the same token, each class must be designed as a complete unit since there’s no guarantee students will continue into the following semester. “That prompted me to change my way of teaching,” he says. “As I mentioned earlier, my goal isn’t to fill students’ heads with raw information but instead to introduce them to the way of thinking that’s inherent to the social sciences, while linking it to what they’ll be doing after they graduate.”

Bert’s approach is based on the idea of decentering, borrowed from anthropology, which helps students rapidly develop skills like critical and analytical thinking. “I believe the things we discuss in class should serve as a springboard, in that each topic – whether brought up by me or the students themselves – could form the basis for a complete research project.”

Well-hidden pearls

Bert clearly isn’t someone to shy away from a challenge. “My situation is fairly unique, which forces me to get out of my comfort zone and try new methods,” he says. And when he finds one that works particularly well, he carries it over to his classes at UNIL – although there, he teaches to a more receptive audience since his students are mainly majors in history and the anthropology of religion.

Bert developed a taste for teaching while working as a teaching assistant during his PhD. “What initially drew me was how important our role is, and that there’s real meaning to what we do,” he says. Yet he soon discovered the inherent beauty of the profession. “I love teaching! It helps me think more objectively about certain presumptions and consider my research from a fresh perspective.”

Bert also enjoys the theatrical aspect of giving a lecture. “A classroom should come alive!” he says. And, just like with a stage performance, “you never know exactly how things will play out, or whether your presentation will resonate with a given audience.” But even if some students don’t catch on, all is not lost – on the contrary. “The hidden pearls are often found among the students who require a little more effort.”

Author: Patricia Michaud

Source: Teaching Portal

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