The Course

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, and Claudia 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 by Sidonie Smith: Book Cover

Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Second Edition)
–New/Used, $17/$15

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: Book Cover

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca (University of Nebraska Press)
–New/Used: $14.75/$9

Autobiography and Other Writings by Benjamin Franklin: Book Cover

Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography and Other Writings (Oxford University Press)
–New/Used, $9.95/$4.75

Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Book Cover

The Classic Slave Narratives (Signet Classics)
–New/Used, $7.95/$1.50

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: Book Cover

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel
–New/Used, $11.16/$3.77

Don't Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine: Book Cover

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
–New/Used, $11.20, $6