Jay Parini has called autobiography the quintessential American genre–one deeply concerned with crafting and critiquing ideals of national belonging and national self-consciousness. How has the seemingly minor act of reflecting on one’s self helped to define a nation? How have personal narratives forged from the experience of exclusion, slavery, disenfranchisement, and marginalization been crucial to the genre from the start? And in what ways have technologies of autobiography–from portraiture to photography to Facebook–influenced how, why, and where people choose to tell their personal stories?
Over the course of the semester, we will answer these questions–and many more–as we study this durable genre. We will begin by building a foundational knowledge of autobiography as a genre–its history, its various sub-genres, interpretive strategies we can bring to it, and ways we can begin thinking of writing a piece of our own life narratives. Once we have a firm grip of the theory and practice or autobiography, we will proceed in roughly chronological order, beginning with per-contact (to the extent possible) Native American autobiography, and then continuing on to discovery narratives, American spiritual autobiography, early-American women’s life writing, and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
After Spring Break, we begin with the slave narrative before moving on to immigrant autobiography and other emerging voices. During the final part of the course, we will turn to questions of identity and experiment as we read works by James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldua, and Maxine Hong Kingston. We’ll conclude the course with Alison Bechdel’s graphic (as in comic-style) memoir Fun Home, andClaudia Rankine’s post-9/11 hybrid work of poetry and autobiography Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric.
In addition to regular (at least 10) quizzes and 2 exams (a mid-term and a comprehensive final) this course will require you to compose 10 highly polished posts (300-500 words each) on the course blog–Auto[BLOG]raphy and also to comment at least once on my weekly “ClassWrap” entries.
This course covers the pre-1900 American requirement for the old major and the Literature in History pre-1700 requirement for the new one.
In addition to the books listed below, there will be either a course packet in the bookstore or downloads available through the corse website.
Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Second Edition)
The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca (University of Nebraska Press)
Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography and Other Writings (Oxford University Press)
The Classic Slave Narratives (Signet Classics)
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
In this assignment you are going to examine some of your own experiences. Your essay will focus on aspects of your life and your interpretation and analysis of how that has shaped you.
In the essay you need to describe your experiences in vivid detail for your readers, who have not seen what you have seen. Details matter. You can close your eyes and see the events that have happened in your life; your readers cannot see anything you do not describe in detail on the page. Use whatever description, scenes, dialogues and so on that you wish.
Cultural autobiography is a reflective, self-analytic story of your past and present. Write an autobiography that addresses the following three areas listed below (in any order).
- Narrate your life experiences. You may include typical and/or exceptional events from your childhood, religious life, family life, memorable experiences, etc...
- Family values toward education. Educational background of your parents/guardians. Attitudes and values of parents/guardians toward learning, schools, teachers. Attitudes family members have/had about cultural and ethnic diversity.
- Role of school in your life.
- Describe your schooling experience
- Describe the cultural, ethnic diversities and social activities of your school.
- Describe significant positive and/or negative school experiences
- Looking back on your own memories of schooling, how did your race/ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, ability and/or sexual orientation shape your schooling experience? Address all that apply to your experiences. Omit any you are uncomfortable with addressing.
- Describe your personal accomplishments in school.
- How do your memories of schooling affect your practice/pedagogy and/or your beliefs about schooling?
- What is your philosophy of multicultural education?
- What factors do you think contribute to the “ideal” multicultural education setting?
- Whose needs are met in your philosophy of multicultural education? Whose needs are ignored?
Apply the Writing Process As You Create Your Autobiography
What is the Writing Process? A process of thinking, gathering information, writing and rewriting with the end goal of creating a polished piece of writing.
Prewriting - The first step of reading, discussing, and thinking about a topic in a variety of ways, such as doing research, taking notes, making lists, and developing outlines. Also includes unconsciously thinking about the topic
Drafting - Writing your essay, in the first draft you get your ideas on paper in complete sentences and paragraphs, then you can read what you have written and decide how to make your essay better, you can also ask others to read your essay and suggest how to improve it
Revising - Making changes in a draft. Take out ideas, add ideas, rearrange ideas, or combine ideas
Exercises to Encourage the Prewriting Stage
- Brainstorming - Take 5 minutes and think about everything related to the topic of your essay, list on a sheet of paper, everything that you can think of.
- Freewriting - Choose a topic and write about it for several minutes without stopping, don’t worry about grammar or spelling, keep writing if you can’t think of what to write, write something like "I don’t know what to say next" until a new thought comes into your mind.
- Visualizing - When you visualize, you close your eyes and try to relive the experience, after doing this for several minutes, jot down what you visualized
- Questions - Asking questions can help you focus on a topic when you are not sure how to begin, for your topic write a question beginning with the following words:
Who, What, Where, When, Why
- Grouping A good technique to use for organizing your ideas after you have selected and thought about a topic, when grouping a kind of map is drawn that shows how ideas and details are related