Get to Know Our Professors/Lecturers
Prof. Dr. Stéphanie Homola
Prof. Dr. Homola is our former professor who is currently a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a member of the French Research Institute for Eastern Asia (IFRAE).
Q1. Could you briefly describe the courses you taught at SDAC?
Could you briefly describe the courses you taught at SDAC? (e.g., names and corresponding course descriptions, and if possible, can you explain the ideas or focus that run through them?)
I have created the class “Decision-Making Across Cultures” specifically for the SDAC program. It was a great responsibility because, as a mandatory class during the first semester, it was meant to “set the tone” of the whole program and its experimental culturally-based approach of decision-making. I have taught this course every Winter Semester from 2017 and have tried to improve it gradually based on students’ feedback. The main idea was to make students grasp how decision-making could be shaped (or not) by factors and institutions that varied culturally such as religion, notions of fate, or resort to specific practices such as divination or drawing lot rituals. I also took it as an opportunity to introduce case-studies from various contexts such as Pakistan, China, or Morocco.
In parallel during the Winter Semester, I taught the methodology of the interview in the “Interdisciplinary methodologies” course. This led to one of the developments that I most cherish from my experience at SDAC. The aim was to coach the students to interview an international student at FAU on the process that led him/her to make the decision to choose and attend a program there. From the very first steps of preparing the interview to analyzing the interview transcription as raw data, we gradually went through the challenges – from gaining the trust of the interviewee to how to deal with embarrassing situations – that anthropologists meet when conducting interviews. Initially, this exercise was also meant to foster bonds between SDAC students shortly after their arrival in Erlangen as many SDAC students interviewed each other. Not only did they learn about different cultural contexts, but it also showed them how trust can be built through sharing a common experience. I was very happy to hear that many friendships were initiated during this process. I was above all very lucky to have a bird’s-eye view, from 2017 to 2021, of the socially- and culturally-informed process through which international students from Japan, Russia, or Egypt end up in Erlangen. I think this exercise also played a major part in developing the personal teacher-student relationship that makes the specificity of the SDAC Program.
I gave two other classes focusing on China. “Individualism and the Changing Moral Landscape in Chinese Society” was meant as a general (but also detailed) introduction to the huge intellectual, social, and economical transformations that have affected Chinese society since the 1980s and that are still going on today. We understood these changes by contrasting the Chinese traditional networks-centered society before 1945 – as analyzed by anthropologist Fei Xiaotong – and how this social structure was transformed and shaped by communist and capitalist developments.
Another class “Contemporary Chinese society and culture through the media” introduced Chinese Internet culture, including blogging, social networks, censorship issues, Internet language, and social control. I am not a specialist of Chinese media and had a lot of fun preparing for this class. It was really a co-creation with the students and it evolved every year with the fast-changing Internet environment in China. Students made their own inquiries on specific topics and I learned a lot from them since they are far better equipped than me to navigate social media. Another aim of the class was to equip students with relevant and useful tools to search for reliable online information on China.
Q2. What knowledge and skills did you hope your students to gain?
When you taught at SDAC, what knowledge and skills did you hope your students to gain?
I have tried to give students tools and concepts to help them better grasp their own direct environment as well as global changes.
For instance, through the work of anthropologist Yan Yunxiang, we have studied the on-going changing moral landscape in China from a traditional “particularistic morality”—that governs a society organized along local networks where moral norms depend on the situation and on the social status of the persons involved, and which induces general distrust toward strangers— to an emerging “universalistic morality”—an optional individualistic morality based on shared universal values, general trust in institutions and fellow citizens, and new types of sociality with unrelated individuals, which may account for the wave of volunteerism among the young generation in China. The clash between these two types of morality in contemporary China created disturbing situations such as when a passer-by helps an unrelated person who has been victim of an accident (based on a “universalistic morality”) and is then falsely accused by the victim to be responsible of the accident (based on a “particularistic morality” that sees nothing wrong in accusing a stranger who can obviously pay for the hospital costs).
I remember one student from Taiwan who gave an example in class that particularly catches the point of this dichotomy. She said that when the first IKEA store opened in Taipei, young married couples and their families felt relieved because they no longer had to pull strings through their networks to get discount at the furniture shops in the traditional Dihua Street in Taipei. Since (real) prices where not indicated in these shops, the buyers had to develop a relationship with the sellers to get a normal price and/or good products. In the IKEA store, prices were displayed and the same for everybody, regardless of the buyer’s relationship with the store owner.
Recently, I watched the popular Korean TV Drama “Hometown cha cha cha”. I remember the detail of a scene which perfectly illustrates the same dichotomy in a nuanced way. The heroine, an ambitious and competent dentist who graduated from a University in Seoul and opened a practice in a small sea-side town, meets a local young man who spends his time helping the neighborhood and the elderly and refused to be paid more that the minimum wage. Although his life-style involves local arrangements (like sharing the money he earns with the person who got him a job), he is portrayed as a positive character with a big heart who dedicates his life to others. The urban-style heroin appears as a colder person who, contrary to the young man, refuses to get involved with others’ lives. But we learn that she also has a big heart when she receives several letters that attest her involvement in international charities such as the red cross. One character gives to the local community, the other one, who does not want to be involved with the local community for fear of meddling, gives to international charities. In the end, the local-community warm life-style – although it also means constant checking and gossips by neighbors – is portrayed in a more positive way than the urban, freer but more impersonal, life-style.
Q3. What did you have in mind when engaging with your students?
What did you have in mind when engaging with your students? Was there any intended attempt or techniques that you employed?
The main challenge for the teachers of this program is to deal with students who come from all over the world with different education culture, background, experience, and training. To meet this challenge and to make it a strength rather than an obstacle, my motto has been to focus on methods. I am convinced that anybody can succeed if the methods are clearly exposed.
A good example is the Spring School that I have designed and taught for several years in collaboration with other SDAC colleagues. I taught the methodology of fieldwork and of Research Project Crafting. My habit is to start from the very basis – including aspects that are often kept quiet because they are taken for granted or to preserve a certain aura of the anthropologist or of scholars in general – and then gradually grow in complexity. I tried to convey to the students that there are no naïve or stupid questions and encourage them to relate notions or concepts to their own situation and to what they experience in their own society. I knew that the class alchemy was successful when we all learned from each other.
Q4. What do you think you have brought to SDAC?
What do you think you have brought to SDAC, and how would you evaluate your contribution?
As Director of the Program, I have tried to promote simple and sound relationships between the staff and the students based on mutual understanding and respect. From the beginning of the Program, we were all aware that this program was new and challenging and the staff and the students have worked together to improve it every year. I always considered the feedback from the students with great care, and I also trusted them to provide valuable and legitimate suggestions. All in all, the most important thing for me was that students did not get bored during my classes and got new insight that they could bring with them outside the class.
Q5. What do you think has changed most significantly between your early involvement with SDAC and now?
What do you think has changed most significantly between your early involvement with SDAC and now?
When it was launched, the SDAC Program was an experimental program. Everything was new, from the main topic of teaching (Decision-making Across Cultures), to the teaching staff, the international recruitment of our students, and the semester at Peking University. The beginning of the program has been challenging in many aspects for the staff and for the students. Five years later, the very positive feedback of the students shows that it has become a success story, thanks to the hard work of the team and contribution from the students. For many students, attending the SDAC Program is a life-changing experience and I am proud to have contributed to it, even so little.
Q6. What do you consider to be the characteristics or advantages of SDAC?
What do you consider to be the characteristics or advantages of SDAC?
What makes the strength of the SDAC Program is that it is truly international, from the professors to the research fellows, staff, and students. Where else could a graduate of Roman studies from Sri Lanka sit next to a lawyer from Argentina in a class taught by a Malaysian philosopher? At SDAC, we don’t only teach intercultural communication, open-mindedness and enthusiasm for other cultures, we experience it daily. Similarly, the small size of the cohorts means that students develop close bonds together and with the teaching staff. The program can thus offer personalized training and advice.
Q7. Conversely, if you see something that can be improved further at SDAC, would you please share it with us?
Conversely, if you see something that can be improved further at SDAC, would you please share it with us?
Because this program is unique in the education landscape, it is not always easy for the students to explain its specificity to outsiders. The Program can better help students showcase what they learn at SDAC and how it can benefit the organizations and companies where they will work.
Q8. What is the name of the organization and position you will be involved with?
What is the name of the organization and position you will be involved with, and what specific research will you be pursuing there?
I am now a Researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a member of the French Research Institute for Eastern Asia (IFRAE). In my new research project, I study the modes of transmission and circulation of Chinese traditional knowledge in contemporary societies. In particular, I am interested in body-based memorization techniques that are used to apply and transmit daily life or technical knowledge in various, mostly non-institutionalized, fields of knowledge such as Chinese medicine, Taoist rituals, divination, mental calculation, orientation… My hypothesis is that these techniques are a kind of traditional tool of data management through which people develop skills and forms of sociability that favor the appropriation and dissemination of a certain type of knowledge. What these different kinds of knowledge have in common is that they are either based on Chinese cosmology or are, like Chinese cosmology, structured in the form of data. A major underlying question is to understand the contemporary fate of Chinese cosmology, how it produces meaning in contemporary societies, and how it can be a source of political structuring, including in States that, historically, have an ambiguous attitude towards it.
Q9. Do you think your teaching experience at SDAC will have an influence on your next career?
Do you think your teaching experience at SDAC will have an influence on your next career? If so, could you tell us a bit more about your expectation?
I have learned a lot at SDAC, not only in developing my own teaching, but also when organizing the Program’s curriculum and teaching plan every semester. I also gained a lot of experience in supervising Master Thesis. I enjoyed it very much and this will definitely be useful in the next step of my career as I hope to support young scholars in the future and – who knows? – inspire them to work in my field of research.
Q10. Finally, could you please give a message to future SDAC students?
Finally, could you please give a message to future SDAC students?
I would like to tell future SDAC students that they are lucky to attend this program at this point, as it becomes more fluid every year. An important message is also that every cohort brings something new to the program. So, after a few months’ adaptation and observation, I hope that they will be bold enough to enrich the program in their own ways, develop new opportunities and new paths that will benefit to all.