Graduate alumna wins 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Berkman pictured with Jennifer Lopez’s producer, Sergio George

Berkman pictured with Jennifer Lopez’s producer, Sergio George.

Natalie Berkman, who earned her Ph.D. in French literature in 2018, won the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies in the 20/21st-century category for her dissertation “The OuLiPo’s Mathematical Project (1960-2014).” Her dissertation will be published in Modern French Identities in 2021.

Berkman answered a few questions about her dissertation and her experience as a graduate student in the Department of French and Italian.

1. Can you share a short synopsis of your dissertation, “The OuLiPo’s Mathematical Project (1960–2014)”?

My dissertation examines the unique combination of mathematics and literature as practiced by the French writing workshop, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo). Founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau (and still very active today!), the group seeks to find a productive marriage of literature and mathematics, theorizing and applying the notion of constraint, a rigorously defined rule for composition. I trace the group's mathematical project from the first generation of members who focused primarily on algorithmic constraints through the more structural constraints of the group's famous second-generation members: Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec. Throughout this research, I demonstrate how the Oulipo makes intentional use of mathematics, capitalizing on an image of the discipline that was popular in the postwar era and resulting in an influential body of experimental literature that invites the reader to participate in abstract, mathematical thought.

This work has three main contributions to literary scholarship more largely. First, understanding the Oulipo’s mathematical methods and group culture can explain the group’s singularity among other twentieth-century artistic movements. Second, a more thorough understanding of the group’s interdisciplinary collaborations with mathematicians and computer scientists solidifies the group’s role as historical actor in the development of computer science, producing some of the earliest examples of digital humanities research and electronic literature. Finally, understanding the Oulipo sheds new light on disciplinary questions, suggesting that creative practices can bridge the divide between the humanities and STEM fields.

2. What is your current professional role?

I currently live and work in Paris as the directrice pédagogique of the SAE Institute, one of over 50 campuses worldwide. SAE originally stood for "School of Audio Engineering," but in the past few decades has branched out into other fields of the creative media industry. At SAE Paris, we have programs in Audio Engineering, Music Production, Filmmaking, and Games (Game Art, Animation, Design, and Programming).

As the directrice pédagogique, I'm in charge of everything related to academics, which includes managing the heads of the various departments (as well as our academic budgets), ensuring academic quality, liaising with our university partners (Middlesex University and L’université Paris-Est-Marne-la-Vallée), curriculum design, observing classes, and much more.

Through this job, I've also gotten to attend the Cannes Film Festival (where I saw Sylvester Stallone in person!), Paris Games Week, and I've even gotten to be the translator of Sergio George (Jennifer Lopez's producer, as well as many other artists). Concurrently, I also consult with two international EdTech companies, ViaX (based in Beijing) and Crimson Education (based in New Zealand). You can find more information on my LinkedIn or my personal website.

3. Do you have any favorite memories from your experience as a graduate student in the Department of French and Italian?

All of my favorite memories from my experience as a graduate student in the FIT department revolve around the wonderful people there. My academic work was so profoundly enriched by David Bellos' seminars on the OuLiPo and Les Misérables (which I was lucky enough to take and then co-teach with him a few years later) and Christy Wampole's seminar on Italo Calvino (where we all got to bring in baked goods related to the books we read on the last day — I brought in homemade tagliatelle since according to Calvino's “Cosmicomics,” that dish caused the Big Bang).

I also had the most wonderful time learning about Italian language, literature, and pop music with people like Sara Teardo, Elisa Dossena, and Simone Marchesi. Outside of the classroom, my happiest memories were all with my truly amazing colleagues such as Melissa Verhey, Charlotte Werbe, Lindsey Richter, Liliane Ehrhart, and Elisabeth Bloom (to name a few).