2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies

I am pleased to announce that my dissertation, The Oulipo’s Mathematical Project (1960-2014) was just announced one of the winners of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies! Looking at the titles of my fellow winners’ work, I can see that I am in very good company. This means that my manuscript is now under contract with Peter Lang Oxford, so please keep a lookout for it in 2021!

Winners of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies


Digital Oulipo: Programming Potential Literature

I am pleased to announce the publication of my article, Digital Oulipo: Programming Potential Literature in the current issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly! This article recounts the project I completed within the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities, its design, difficulties, and results (both expected and unexpected). Most importantly, in it, I offer my two cents on the use of exploratory programming in Digital Humanities scholarship. Enjoy!


S+7 through NLTK


One of the earliest Oulipian procedures is Jean Lescure’s S+7. While its status as a constraint is debatable (originally called a method, sometimes referred to as a procedure), it is one of the most cited and perhaps also least understood of the Oulipo’s long list of techniques.

To begin, S stands for “substantif” (noun), but can be theoretically replaced with any other part of speech. One of the founders of the Oulipo, François Le Lionnais, pointed out that S+7 is a more specific version of m±n, where m is a “meaningful” part of speech and n is any integer. Carrying out an S+7 or any of its variations should be a purely mechanical procedure. All an author needs are two very important pieces: a pre-written text and a dictionary. Then, the author identifies all the nouns and replaces them with the nouns that come seven entries later in a dictionary of their choosing. The result therefore depends upon the original text and the dictionary chosen, but not much else.


In the bench Governor created the help and the economist.
And the economist was without forum, and void; and day was upon the failure of the deep. And the Spring of Governor moved upon the failure of the weddings.
And Governor said, Let there be link: and there was link.

(generated on http://www.spoonbill.org/n+7/)

The interest of this particular S+7 and indeed most of the Oulipo’s best-loved examples is that the original text (Genesis from the Bible) is extremely recognizable. It isn’t the dictionary that led to the hilarity of the result, but rather that even with the noun substitutions, the original text is still very much audible, but with unexpected new words. While the choice of the dictionary could have created more specific substitutions, the Oulipo has not really done much experimenting with the dictionaries — they have used big ones and small ones (and in the case of one Queneau S+7, a culinary one).

Natural Language Processing

For my digital humanities project, I am making my own S+7 program using nltk with python. While my earlier programming efforts were difficult for a beginner, trying my hand at nltk makes me feel like I’ve made it to another level entirely. Going through their online textbook has been very helpful and has reinforced the programming knowledge I have already gained through working on this project. Also, Natural Language Processing has helped me better understand the early constraints of the Oulipo, greatly contributing to my chapter on algebra which includes analysis of the S+7 and its variations, as well as other methods that are based on simple substitutions, counting, or operations.

I am pleased to report that I am putting the final touches on this last program, which will allow the reader to generate a dictionary based on one author’s vocabulary (the one I am currently working with takes all the nouns from Edgar Allan Poe’s collected poetry) and substitute those nouns into a short excerpt from several other recognizable texts (Moby Dick, The Declaration of Independence, Genesis, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Raven).

Once I have worked out the kinks in my pluralizing function (if the original noun is plural, I need the substituted one to be plural as well), I will publish the code online in my Github repository as well as here on CORE. While I do not believe that this code is particularly useful, the process of creating it was invaluable to me as a scholar and a programmer. I now understand the Oulipo and their computer efforts much better, as well as their elementary procedures. Programming texts that seem gimmicky, but that are hardly ever “read” (such as the Cent mille milliards de poèmes) has forced me to design new ways to read them. I have also gained new insights into the digital humanities and how it can be used not to produce an online archive or digital editions of texts (though, I have created interactive, digital editions of certain texts or procedures), but rather to open eyes to the possibilities in such experimental fiction. Works written using new methods must be analyzed using new methods. In that sense, it was the intellectual process of carrying out this project and not the process itself that I will take with me.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Connecting Online and Classroom Environments / Writing Teaching Statements

For introducing us to the subtle art of writing teaching statements, the McGraw staff “flipped” the classroom, giving us an extremely structured online lesson to introduce us to the expectations that lie behind this essential pedagogical document. While I found the experience to be productive, the concept of the flipped lecture as it was presented to us raised a series of questions to me that were unrelated to the teaching statement.

  1. While the online lecture they provided was professionally recorded and expertly designed, I failed to see exactly how this “flipped” lecture was actually flipped. This was not ordinarily a lecture-based class, but had always functioned as some form of individual readings or homework as well as outside group activities in order to prepare us for an extremely interactive discussion-based class. While the “flipped” lecture here did not assign us mandatory readings as usual, how was the video lecture fundamentally different from assigning readings? We watched the video, carried out the mini assignments along the way, and came to class with drafts and ideas to further discussion.
  2. This question had a simple answer that only raised more questions: the difference between this video lecture and the readings we had formerly been assigned was that this video was extremely structured. We watched a certain segment of the lecture, and then had a focused activity that helped us to put into action what we had just absorbed passively.
  3. I began to wonder, are humanities classes already flipped? This teaching seminar was not a “humanities” class in the strict sense, but it seemed to be already flipped. The only major difference between the flipped lecture and a traditional one is that the video provided immediate and structured activities for us to do.
  4. What if, rather than focusing on flipping classes in the sense that students watch a video at home, we could instead focus on structuring the work they do at home as well as structuring what is done in the classroom. In my experience teaching French language classes, I focused far less on what I assigned students outside of the classroom than what I hoped to accomplish in the classroom, as those 50 minutes represented their only real chance at an immersion experience. When I assign a film to watch, I focus on preparing them in the classroom before they watch it, arming them with the cultural background and specific vocabulary that will allow them to make the most of the 2-3 hours as well as bring back a productive conversation in the classroom.
  5. I thought back to my study abroad experience. The French university system, I had been told, encourages autonomy. Very little was done in the classroom, but very little was assigned. Students were implicitly aware that they either needed to structure their work on their own, or they would just squeeze by in the classroom. The American system is quite different. Everything is explicitly stated, and students as a result do not structure their own work.
  6. When designing my syllabus for the seminar, I attempted (and am still refining) how to best structure the work outside of the classroom to encourage students who are just making the jump from French language coursework to more advanced classes conducted entirely in French to structure their own work productively. I am hoping to continue to nuance this idea, enriching my pedagogy by structuring work both in and out of the classroom.

Digital OuLiPo: Learn Python the Hard Way

I wanted to write a brief blog post in praise of this free online textbook for Python. Over the January break, in order to move onto more complicated parts of my project (the Cent mille milliards de poèmes was a fairly basic introduction to programming), my technical lead proposed that I work my way through this textbook.

Written by Zed A. Shaw, this book has been helpful on many levels, not least of which because it introduced me to using the terminal rather than relying on some outside program. For my Cent mille milliards de poèmes annex, I had primarily been using AptanaStudio, which was a very powerful piece of software that allowed me to avoid learning the basics of programming. The first few chapters of Learn Python The Hard Way forced me to acquaint myself with the terminal.

The bulk of the chapters were similar to Code Academy, but working through the exercises outside of an online platform and then running them on the terminal was more pedagogical, as was the way the activities built upon themselves. I now feel more autonomous in my programming.

So for anyone else looking to learn a new (programming) language, I would highly recommend this free and easy online resource. Anything worth learning is worth learning the right way, and in this case, the “right” way seems to be “the hard way”!

George Orrimbe: A Private OuPeinPo Viewing

Last year, a chance encounter in a bookshop in Versailles led to my discovery of the OuPeinPo (Ouvroir de Peinture Potentielle). While I know the Oulipo, I am less familiar with the OuXPo groups, which replace Literature (Li) with another discipline and find their own version of constrained work. While I knew the OuPeinPo by name alone, meeting George Orrimbe at Versailles gave me an unparalleled insight into their work.

Orrimbe is a member of the OuPeinPo who introduced me to his particular brand of portraits. The overarching question is: how does one devise a portrait of an author? Physical appearances alone would leave out the defining element that makes them an author — their work. Rather than painting an author based on his looks, Orrimbe designs these portraits based entirely on the author’s published works. Here are some examples:

The process is called “vocalocoloriste” and what it means is that Orrimbe has a system. He chooses a shape based on the number of vowels (vocalo) in a word and the color (coloriste) based on the first vowel. The color scheme comes from Rimbaud’s famous poem “Voyelles” (A noir E blanc I rouge, etc.). Instead of E blanc or white E, he does yellow, so it looks more interesting.

Interesting side note: Orrimbe is the “verlan” (French slang where words are written backwards, or à l’envers) for Rimbaud. The spelling is also influenced by George Orwell, who is a favorite author of Orrimbe. The combination of the two creates his pseudonym: George Orrimbe.

He picks ten titles of their works to fill in the facial features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, eyebrows, etc.). For the entire face, he uses the author’s name. It’s fun to stand in front of a portrait and guess which Oulipian it is, a process that isn’t too difficult if you know the system, the Oulipian authors, and their works.

Ultimately, it was a small, but bold exposition. I feel very honored to have been given a private tour by the artist.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Course Goals

Humanities Course Goals

After participating in the breakout groups and reflecting individually on what it means to be a novice and an expert in our disciplines, our seminar meeting today dealt primarily with course goals. Rather than being grouped with people in different disciplines as we were for the previous assignment, in this seminar we sat with other participants from similar disciplines. I was paired with two classicists and together, we developed succinct course goals that we could write on a poster and hang on the board. This is what we came up with:


Once we had seen the course goals for each disciplinary group, we identified their strengths and weaknesses. At the core, every discipline wanted their students to learn critical reasoning and interpretation skills. Problem solving was also popular for science and engineering. In many cases, learning to speak properly about what is at stake in a discipline and communicate results was also important. In all disciplines, the subject was the student, and course goals best translated into strong, action verbs.

I appreciated the main takeaway from this seminar, which was that our goals as educators don’t differ too much from discipline to discipline. In each, we just want students to be able to think deeply about a particular topic and develop the skills and competencies necessary to understand the discipline. Specifically within the humanities, the goals are so similar that the division into departments seems almost redundant. Look for yourself. Below, you’ll find the course goals each group defined.


McGraw Teaching Seminar: Disciplinary Knowledge and Practices

The Preliminary Assignment

Our second meeting of the McGraw Teaching Seminar focused on disciplinary knowledge and practices. To prepare, we were assigned to groups composed of participants in drastically different disciplines. I was paired with a chemist, a political scientist, and a classicist. The assignment was to meet and discuss, learning about our own disciplines through the eyes of “novices.” Our assigned discussion questions were as follows:

  1. If you were to take an introductory course in my field, what would you expect to learn?
  2. What would you want to learn more about?
  3. What particular challenges do you think you would confront?

We then had to answer the following two main questions:

  1. Write a paragraph or two that reflects on the various novice responses toward your introductory course that you received from members of your breakout group.
  2. Write one course goal and a lesson for a class of novices in your field that addresses how you would respond to one of the perspectives you received from your breakout conversation. What would your goal be? And how would you design a class meeting around advancing students toward the goal?

My Responses

1. The first question that arose was: what is an introductory course in French? Language or literature or culture? In other words, is the focus teaching language as a tool or is it to help students read literature? There is an implicit answer to these questions in the way language and literature departments are structured: introductory courses tend to be language classes, with the goal to get students to more advanced courses in literature or culture. For the purposes of our discussion, we restricted talk to an introductory French language course.

We decided that a novice in an introductory language class would expect to attain basic competency in terms of communication. There was some discussion about which competencies were most important: oral or written. This conversation evolved into a more important one: how much of a language class consists of basic exercises in grammar and conversation? Language is a tool, determined by how students need to use it. This is true for any language: for instance, in academia, scientists speak a different “English” than that of a literary scholar or historian. In an introductory language course, how do you integrate how students will eventually use the language — elements of culture, literature, politics, history, etc.?

2. One course goal that should be necessary in an introductory French language class should be promoting a broad understanding of the history, culture, and literature of the French and francophone world. While spending class time on larger cultural discussions might seem antithetical to teaching a language or worse — a waste of precious class time — I believe that activities based on authentic cultural documents can promote discussion-based classes that leave a greater impression on students. Rather than isolating grammar points, such activities allow students to see grammar in action and participate in a culture that is not their own, promoting cultural understanding. There are two main dangers associated with this method: first, preparation takes much longer; second, these activities risk to discourage students if not properly scaffolded.

Activity based on Current Events

In light of recent events, an appropriate activity might take the form of discussion about last Friday’s terrorist attacks throughout Paris. This could involve “reading” some of the Twitter hashtags and images that have sprung up in support of Paris. Using Twitter hashtags as authentic documents is not only politically relevant, but is also a level-appropriate pedagogical tools since they consist of very few words and images linked to a specific context.

A hypothetical activity might have students look at the descriptions and images that people were posting to find their loved ones, have them discuss what they were doing at the time of the attack (this would be an excellent way to practice the two types of past tenses — the passé composé and the imparfait) and then to move it to a larger discussion of the greater significance of the attacks. To target the conditional tense, one could have students debate the French political response and its potential repercussions. Such an activity would also be a good moment to reflect on France’s colonial history and relationship with former colonies, many of which are Muslim-majority.

While some might criticize such an activity as impossible given the language level in an introductory class, as long as the objectives are clear and the activity is properly scaffolded, students will likely be more invested in current events than in a rudimentary discussion of how they got dressed in the morning. Indeed, French teachers have the obligation to discuss this tragic event at any level, as some of these students might hope to study abroad in France one day. Activities of this nature contribute not only to a more complete understanding of the French language (which is inseparable from the culture), but to the greater goals of a university education — to create well-rounded and engaged citizens.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Introduction to Teaching as Scholarly Practice

This year, I was selected to participate in the McGraw Teaching Seminar at Princeton, a unique scholarly conversation between graduate students, faculty members, and the staff of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Starting today, our diverse group of educators will meet one Friday morning every month to consider the various facets of teaching. Our first meeting required us to think about teaching from both the student’s and the teacher’s perspective.

The First Assignment and Activity

While it should not have come as a surprise to me, I was fascinated by how pedagogical the structure of this first seminar was. To prepare, all participants had two assignments:

  1. Choose a fictional example of a teacher (good or bad) to use as an example of expectations of teachers in society and popular culture
  2. To write about a particularly effective learning moment in our own careers as students.

Then, in small groups, we used these examples to create brainstorming webs about teachers and students. At the conclusion of the exercise, we regrouped and identified specific words from the learning moments that seemed to encapsulate what students want from teachers and vice versa. The words we pulled were often verbs, which was indicative that memorable student-teacher interactions must be active. The memorable student moments revolved around a student fostering connections; likewise, teaching moments were often the result of empathy, with the teacher putting herself in the place of the student and structuring the class accordingly.


This discussion has prompted me to reflect on how to understand the teacher-student relationship as it manifests itself in the precarious position of graduate studies. As graduate students, we exist in a purgatorial state between undergraduate students and professors. We lead discussion sessions and often design and teach our own classes, however we are not professors. Often at the same time, we engage in coursework of our own, juggle degree requirements and produce scholarly research through a mentoring relationship with an advisor.

Given the contradictory nature of our position, graduate students are both students and teachers. While this could be seen as a unique challenge, I believe it is rather an opportunity to explore which methods are most effective on us as students and then adapt these strategies into own teaching.

Reflecting on my own teaching methods, I note that I always strive to explain the purpose of each activity I call upon students to carry out. As I move from being a student in an introductory German class to the teacher of an introductory French one in the space of an hour, I am acutely aware of the practices that work best for me when learning a language and endeavor to instill such a meta-cognitive awareness in my own students.

Both teaching and learning are indeed active experiences. Just as I learned languages the best when my teachers fostered an interactive classroom grounded in authentic cultural examples, my students would benefit from such strategies. Part of my job — perhaps the most important part — is to teach students to be better language-learners. In language, literature, and even in other subjects, I feel this is a key pedagogical insight.