First Exchange Student from Syracuse in Bochum


For the first time, an exchange student from Syracuse University's Department of Religion visited the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) for an entire term. Both instutions agreed an exchange program in 2018 which includes teaching and research. Shortly before he returned back to the U.S., PhD candidate and Syracusian John Abercombie had been interviewed on his experiences while being in Bochum.

You are the first student in the exchange program. Having been here for the last five months and given your international experience in institutions of higher education in the US and China how would you characterize the CERES?

Much of my experience with CERES has come through the KHK and this seems quite different from other institutions I have taken part in. The work on broad theoretical frameworks and careful comparison is very interesting and I've been impressed at how the researchers are able to come together and work on such varied projects toward the goals of understanding fundamental dynamics of religion. Getting the opportunity to join the KHK colloquia every week and learn from the different people here has been very beneficial.

What are the similarities and differences between courses in the American and German system of higher education?

My understanding is still limited, but from what I have seen, the undergraduate students at Bochum have had a clearer sense of the focus and purpose of their studies from the start than I would normally expect from American students. In the classes I have attended this has meant that discussions have often been geared more towards getting an understanding of the field of study, the current theoretical issues and debates. Also, I have enjoyed learning classical Chinese in the East Asian department here, seeing the strong emphasis on languages that the department has.

What classes did you attend while studying in Bochum? Have they had an impact on your PhD project?

I attended a course with Prof. Licia Di Giacinto on the history of Daoism and a course with Prof. Joerg Plassen translating part of the Zhuangzi Zhu Shu, a commentary on the Zhuangzi. Prof. Di Giacinto's class was helpful in deepening my understanding of the development of Daoism and also thinking through how to structure a course on Daoism that I hope to teach one day. Prof. Plassen's course helped greatly to strengthen my classical Chinese skills and start working through religious and philosophical texts that may feature in my future research.

What else have you been doing while being guest PhD-student at CERES?

As this is the third year of my Phd work in Syracuse, much of my time has been devoted to reading for my comprehensive exams. But I have also had the chance to join the KHK colloquia on Mondays and some of the graduate student colloquia on Thursdays, and I have enjoyed getting to know many of the students and researchers in their spare time.

What was your best moment here? And what was your weirdest one?

Apart from the weekly dinners following the KHK colloquia, my favorite memories were with my parents when they came to visit. Among other things, we went to Soest to see a friend I had met in China and we joined in the festivities for the CERES Christmas Party. These experiences were very special for all of us. The weirdest experience might be tasting Eierpunsch for the first time at the Bochum Christmas market.

What did the stay abroad in Bochum meant for you personally?

This is my first time living in Germany and adjusting to life here has, I think, helped with a lot of personal growth. I also viewed this as a great way to start understanding how research projects work in Europe because I was fairly unfamiliar with how this research system worked before getting to spend time at CERES.

Do you have any advices for other Syracuse students which want to come to Bochum?

As there are many steps in the registration process, I would recommend doing as much preparation as possible before arriving, contacting professors and coming up with plans, and getting a good sense of the requirements for registering as a student at the university to ensure a smooth transition. Also, I would recommend taking advantage of the German language classes to help ease communication and form ties with other visiting students.

Picture: To the left John Abercombie, to the right Dean of Students Jens Schlamelcher, © CERES, 2019, Interview by U. Plessentin