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- Research Program Mentor

PhD at Princeton University


Literature, English, philosophy, music, German, queer studies, classics (Latin and Greek), linguistics, interdisciplinary humanities, critical pedagogy


My name is R.J. Bergmann (pronouns "they"/"them"/"their"), and I recently earned my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between music and literature in German and English art songs (also known as "Lieder"), which are poems set to music by a composer who is usually a different person than author of the poem; the two artists may or may not know each other, and usually aren't working in collaboration. So far I have mostly focused on the Lieder of Franz Schubert and others in nineteenth-century Germany or Austria, but I hope to expand into other countries, languages, and time periods eventually. My dissertation is called "Half a Life: Dialectics of Music and Poetry in German and English Art Song," referring to the complicated and sometimes paradoxical interaction between the music and the poem in these strange hybrid creations. I'm not a very accomplished musician, but grew up playing the classical guitar and just started taking lessons again. Apart from my research and teaching (both of which I love very dearly and take great joy in), I enjoy cooking anything vegetarian, whittling, woodburning, and walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I have a wonderful partner named DiCo, whom I married in 2014, and we have a ridiculous cat named George who sits in funny positions and likes to be held in ways most cats would never tolerate.

Project ideas

Project ideas are meant to help inspire student thinking about their own project. Students are in the driver seat of their research and are free to use any or none of the ideas shared by their mentors.

Confession and Camouflage: On Saying What's Hardest to Say

My favorite subject to teach is the novels of Thomas Mann, who had to find artful and sometimes sneaky ways to talk about forbidden subjects, most of all his own queerness. We can look at how writers and artists "say without saying" the things that they most need to express but are most afraid to say--and how we, as critics, often do the same thing!

Literary or Philosophical Analysis--Project of Your Choice!

Critical reading of any text that sparks your interest.

Critical Humanities Study of Your Choice

We can design and carry out together a project on anything in the humanities that interests you. Though I'm mainly a scholar of literature, philosophy, and music, we can work on anything in the humanities that interests you.

Liberatory Pedagogy: Radical and Transformative Ways to Teach and Study the Humanities

One of my greatest joys is exploring how studying the humanities in collaboration with others can build community and address the joys and sorrows of human experience, in ways often avoided in traditional academic settings. Looking to scholars such as bell hooks for inspiration and guidance, we can talk about ways to make the humanities more serviceable to, well, humanity, than they sometimes are on university campuses.

"Research, Me-Search": Reading Ourselves Reading

One of the bravest and most honest things we can do as humanities scholars is to reflectively consider our own investments--personal, political, psychological, cultural--in the work that we do. This has been crucial to all of my own research, and we can work together to both reflect on and practice the concept with respect to anything in the humanities (literary or otherwise) that speaks to you.

Music and Poetry: Song, Opera, Lyrics, Fiction, and More

In my dissertation, I took a personally and politically reflective look at the relationship between poetry and music in the songs (or Lieder, in German) of Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms, and so forth. We can do something similar for anything that interests you at this interface between what writers and composers do, and how performers and audiences mediate these inter-artistic conjunctions. I'm most comfortable with music in the tradition of European classical music, but we can explore any genre that interests you.

Art Interpreting Art: Where One Medium Meets Another

Though my own work is mostly about the interface between music and literature, we can explore any kind of art that combines art forms, such as music and painting, painting and poetry, drama and music, and so for. The possibilities are endless!

German Art Song (Lieder)--the Philosophy of Music and Poetry

I wrote my beloved dissertation on a form within the so-called German classical music tradition called "art songs" or "Lieder" (singular: "Lied"). A Lied is a poem set to music, usually by someone other than the poet. The poet may or may not have known the composer, or given their blessing to having it set to music--there was no copyright in those days, so the composer could use any text they wanted and do anything they pleased with it. My greatest fascination is with the meeting--or confrontation--of two separate artistic wills, and the magical transformation that happened when a composer like Franz Schubert or Robert Schumann set a poem to music. When it went well, the whole is more than the sum of its two parts. I'm hoping to turn this dissertation into a book and will need help with many parts of the process, including finding citations for quotes and sources that I already have, and also finding new material to enhance or deepen the argument. I might even need help getting permission from various places to use quotes, materials, or pictures (don't worry, I'd help you help me with technical stuff like that!). If you're interested in queer studies, there's also a connection (even if not a very obvious one) between that and my German art song project that I'd love help developing. Knowledge of German, or at least curiosity about it and a desire to learn, is helpful though not required--same goes for music.

Queer Connections in the Novels of Thomas Mann

The renowned German author Thomas Mann had a lifelong problem--he wanted to be "the most respectable German" of his generation, but he was also mainly attracted to men. Being gay might not have been a problem (until Hitler and Nazism made it a problem, that is), but the Most Respectable German had to have a wife and a family--so Mann married and had six children (half of whom also turned out gay or bisexual). Mann wrote very explicitly about his conflicted love for men in his diaries, which he kept hidden during his lifetime but ordered to be published twenty years after his death (they are all now publicly available as a result). In nearly all of his fiction, Mann planted hidden expressions of his dangerous secret. Critics have discovered many of these, but I believe that some of the most cleverly concealed confessions in Mann's novels evade general notice to this day. I'm working on an article drawing attention to some of these moving, haunting, and sometimes troubling testaments to queer love in Mann's novels, especially his two most famous works, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. I'll need help looking through the critical literature on Thomas Mann to see if there might be discussions of these little secrets that I haven't found yet (I want to give credit where it's due!). If you can read German, so much the better--if not, that's okay, too. I'll also need help looking for arguments in queer theory, literary theory, or other fields of philosophy that might help support or deepen the claims I want to make in this article. I might even ask for help looking for clues in other works by Thomas Mann himself, including his short stories, most of which I still haven't read.

Languages I know

German, Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish; reading knowledge of French, Italian; intermediate knowledge of Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle High German

Teaching experience

I've been teaching at Princeton, first as a grad student "preceptor" (Princeton word for T.A.) and now as a Lecturer, since 2015. A class on Tolstoy's War and Peace was my first teaching assignment--and also my first time reading War and Peace! That experience helped me realize how much I love teaching and confirmed my intuition that students don't need you to know everything, but rather to be brave, human, and honest about the full range of human experience, from struggle of all varieties to the joy of self-actualization. During my years of teaching, I not only learned how to embrace my longstanding nature as a nonbinary person--I was open with my students first about my worries over taking on "they"/"them" pronouns, and then about my life-changing decision to go ahead and do it!--but also realized that doing this was the greatest gift I could offer my students, far more than any piece of "information" or "knowledge" I might transmit. My greatest joy has been teaching and reteaching a course I designed on Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. I have also taught courses on writing and literature through Princeton's Prison Teaching Initiative, a joy and a challenge of a different but equally rewarding variety.


Work experience

Hofstra University, Honors College (2023 - Current)
Adjunct Professor
Baruch College (CUNY) (2022 - Current)
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Engish and Comparative Literature
New York University (School of Professional Studies) (2013 - 2014)
Administrative Aide, Dean's Office
Simon & Schuster, Henry Holt & Co., and other publishing houses (2008 - 2012)
Assistant Editor


Harvard University
BA Bachelor of Arts (2008)
Princeton University
MA Master of Arts (2018)
Comparative Literature
Princeton University
PhD Doctor of Philosophy (2021)
Comparative Literature

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