Name: Natalie Berkman
Year: Class of 2011
Hometown: Clarence, NY
In Diderot’s novel Jacques le Fataliste et son maître, the title character claims at one point: “Je prie à tout hasard” or that he prays to all chance. While the book is horribly misleading – for one, Jacques isn’t a fatalist– I found during my Introduction à la littérature française class while reading this book that I really enjoyed that line. This might have been because it a combination of random chance and serendipity that led me to be a French major. I’ll explain:
So, I chose Hopkins because I was indecisive. I liked creative writing and math, and wanted a school that could offer me courses in both subjects at a high level. For the Writing Seminars major, one requirement is a foreign language through the intermediate level – after all, does a monoglot ever truly understand his or her own language? My Intermediate French TA was German, spoke English without an accent, and French with the perfect accent. One day in class, we asked her which language was her favorite, and she responded (after some reflection): Spanish. She apparently also spoke Italian.
This is just one example of what makes the French department incredible: no matter what your level in French, through the language classes, it is virtually impossible not to improve. While you might think that being taught by a TA isn’t as fruitful as being taught by a professor, trust me when I say the graduate students in the French department are fantastic teachers, and supervised by professors. If your goal is to speak French fluently, the language courses work. I can personally attest to that!
My sophomore year was crucial in perfecting my French. Even though I had completed the language requirement, I decided to take advanced French. I had an incredible TA who was just studying at Hopkins for a year through our exchange with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. During her office hours, she compiled a list of about forty French books she thought I would enjoy. As a double major, I had a lot on my plate, but I made time to read one of the books my TA suggested. It was fantastic. The problem was, every time I read a book she suggested, she would recommend more – you can imagine how quickly this list grew into something impossible to finish.
That is another unique aspect of the French department – it’s not just limited to just the permanent professors who teach here in Baltimore. While most TA’s are doctoral candidates, there are endless amounts of visiting lecturers, students, and professors. With an exchange program with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris (one of the most prestigious grandes écoles in France) at the graduate level and another with Sciences Po (another prestigious grande école devoted to political science) at the undergraduate level, the department provides direct contact with the brightest and most successful minds in France at every level. And it goes both ways as well – undergraduates can spend a year in Paris at Sciences Po (or through various other exchange programs) and graduate students can study at the ENS in Paris or the Université de Genève.
The next year, I had exhausted the basic language courses, so I took the first semester of the Introduction to French literature class with Professor Jacques Neefs. The course basically started with the beginning of French literature and finished in the middle of the 18th century. That course really prepared me for my semester abroad in Paris. I studied abroad in Paris through an organization called CUPA (Center for University Programs Abroad). Directly immersed in French culture, I lived with a host family, took courses at three different French schools, and attended intellectual and cultural events in the greatest city in the world. While I was taking French literature, history, and philosophy courses to satisfy my remaining Writing Seminars requirements, I realized that I wasn’t, in fact, thinking of these courses as satisfying requirements. I loved French thought, French literature, the language, and everything about it! I was facing the very real prospect of graduating with a double major in Writing Seminars and Mathematics and never being able to take another French course. That was just unacceptable. I came back to Hopkins and added French as a third major last September (then rearranged the order so French would be my first major).
Studying abroad is a crucial moment for a French major at Hopkins, and even though I wasn’t technically a French major while I was abroad, the importance of such a total immersion wasn’t lost on me. Time abroad is meant to be a chance to apply what you learn in your classes and gain a different perspective. The French methodology is different, but logical, and learning to write a dissertation in the French style actually helps your academic writing in English. The vocabulary you pick up in a homestay living situation is valuable as well – there’s no way to realize which common words you didn’t learn in a classroom without being constantly placed in new situations.
That’s basically my story, and overall, even though I’ve only been a French major for a few months, I love it! There is a wide range of courses offered beyond just language courses – you can take either cultural or literature ones to satisfy the requirements. I’ve taken mostly literature courses in which I’ve read such authors as Dumas, Verne, Hugo, Queneau, Balzac, Sand, de Troyes, etc. But, you can also take advanced French language courses – Eloquent French, Medical French, Legal French, Real French – to enrich your background in the language. As for cultural courses, there’s a two semester sequence of La France Contemporaine, as well as film courses and various other options that aren’t really literature based. For the major, you need six courses beyond the two semesters of introduction to French literature, one of which must be the Senior Seminar. In this course, you write a forty page senior thesis in French. Don’t be intimidated – it’s highly structured and they help you every step of the way. Since they let you choose whichever topic you find most interesting, you aren’t limited to writing a forty page book report (unless you want to, of course).
So, why is the French major at Hopkins so awesome? Because French is awesome! And I love that I was able to discover that at Hopkins, even if only by accident. Despite becoming a French major late in the game, I’ve gotten to make crêpes and quiche with the French club, attend conversation tables, read a ton of French literature, study abroad, and attend conferences. And knowing another language in this day and age is only a plus. You can teach French in the United States, teach English in France, become an interpreter, work for the government, translate. There are plenty of options available to students who graduate with a degree from one of the most respected departments at Johns Hopkins. I’m going on to a Ph.D. program in French literature next year, which leads me to another great aspect of the department – since it’s small, the individual attention you receive is incomparable. This type of situation is ideal for getting letters of recommendation, advice, or just having discussions.
Overall, I feel as though I’m not out of line in saying that the French department here literally changed my life. I went from doing writing and math to getting accepted to several fully funded doctoral programs in French literature in one semester, which attests to the efficacy of the department and the level of language instruction, even to those who aren’t French majors. There’s a reason a degree from our French department is recognized by the French government (one of only three such programs in the US). The plentitude of opportunities available to those who speak French goes without saying. When you can write a long blog entry about the French major without mentioning the food, you know it has to be good.
To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the French questions thread._______________________________________________________________________________