Enlt398 Autobiography Or, Contemporary American Memoir

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ENLT398 Autobiography


Contemporary American Memoir

Emily J. Isaacs Office: Dickson Hall, rm. 460

Office Hours: Classroom: Dickson 170

Tuesday: 10-11 Email: IsaacsE@mail.montclair.edu

Required Texts/Purchases:
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

She’s not There by Jennifer Boylan

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

The Color of Water by James McBride

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Lying by Lauren Slater
Texts placed on Blackboard and handed out in class.


This course will focus on the contemporary American memoir. Although the memoir is not a new form, it has in recent years become popular and notorious, adored and maligned. What is the genre of memoir will be part of the subject of this course. We know that it is always in the first person, it is always subjective, and it relies on readers’ expectation of truthfulness for at least parts of its effect. We will look at memoirs as literature and also in terms of their appeal to mass audiences. How are they received by the masses? By the academy? What are the possibilities and limitations of the genre for readers? In our exploration of memoirs and critics’ discussion of the genre we will consider how memoirs function for readers. How is the memoir different from the novel, if at all? What kinds of stories are told in memoirs? Whose stories?

This is not a class in writing memoir.

Attendance, Preparedness, and Participation. 20%

I expect that you will attend class each time we meet and that only very rarely (maybe once) will you come to class without having completed the reading. At this point you are all advanced students and so I am sure you are willing and enthusiastic participants. 1I am expecting that you will all be eager to share your ideas, questions, and problems. If for some reason class participation is a particular problem for you, do see me.

Reading Journal/Notes

To state the obvious, writing helps thinking. So I’ll ask you to write regularly in your reading journal. The reading journal is a place for the pleasure of thinking, but also for notes for papers, and for class discussion. In this journal you might

      • Ask questions of the text

      • Write about what is interesting to you, or what doesn’t make sense

      • Make a note of a passage that helps you figure out the text, or that helps you understand a central question that you have about memoirs

      • Raises a question for you about the importance of truth and the truthfulness of the author

      • Answer a question that is asked by me, or my one of your classmates

      • Make a note about a point you want to be sure to bring up in class

Short Research Assignment. 10%

Two page papers, single spaced, on assigned topic. These papers will be shared with the whole class and will provide background for the fiction we will be reading. See below.
Mid-Term Essay 20%

At mid-term you will be given an assignment to be completed at home over a few day period.

Personal Choice Essay (6-7 pages) 30%

Open topic. From questions raised by me, the class, or through your own reading and writing, you will propose a topic (which I will review) and write a 7-8 page paper on the topic of memoir.

Final Exam 20%

This essay will be in response to a fairly broad question that allows you to discuss a few of the memoirs we have read.

What I'm Looking for in Your Essays:
Focus (having a main point): When you finish your paper you should be able to verbalize what the main point of your paper is. You need to either have some overarching question that you are aiming to answer or have a main argument that you are supporting. Be careful about writing about a terribly broad subject that you can't possibly cover in one paper. It might make sense to talk over paper topics with a classmate before you get too far into it. Discussing your ideas even just a little bit might steer you in the right direction.
Reflection/Critical Thinking: I'm interested in seeing you analyze, work through, or discuss the statements you make about the text you are discussing.. I want you to be reflective—to anticipate and answer the questions which readers might ask you. One way of thinking about reflection is to imagine that you are answering a series of questions which start broad and then move in closer as your analysis develops. Ideally, you will want to reflect and think critically with an awareness of a theoretical perspective. The critical articles I give you, as well as critical articles from other courses (particularly Pursuits of English) will be useful.
Development of a line of thought or point: A developed paper is one in which the main point is substantiated by textual evidence and thoughtful discussion. There are no exact rules as to the order in which a writer should make an argument our lead in exploration. However, more effective arguments are generally discussed in some depth. Importantly, plot summary—re-telling what happened in a given scene or in the novel as a whole—does not help you develop your point. I also just can’t stand it. Each point you make should be convincingly and substantially demonstrated through specific discussion of the text.
Clarity: I am looking for reasonable connections between paragraphs and between points. Proper use of language, grammar, and mechanics all contribute to the clarity of your paper, and so are essential.
I welcome revision work, though your revision must be substantive and thoughtful. I will raise paper grades if revisions warrant it. I’ll be glad to discuss my revision policy in class or individually.
Academic Honesty and Plagiarism
Definition of Plagiarism (from Student Handbook):
“Plagiarism means the use of another’s words as if they were your own, and the unacknowledged incorporation of those words in one’s own work offered for credit. The following guidelines for written work will assist the student in avoiding plagiarism:

a) General indebtedness for background information an data is acknowledged by inclusion of a bibliography of all works consulted.

b) Specific indebtedness for a particular idea, or for a quotation of four or more words from another text, is acknowledged by footnote reference to the actual source. Quotations of 4 -5 words or more from a text are indicated by the use of quotation marks.”
I expect honesty from you. I expect that the work in will always be your own, and that you will never copy sentences, phrases, paragraphs or whole essays from any other person’s work, for that is plagiarism. Plagiarism is dishonest, and against both University policy and my own. If you are found to have plagiarized you will fail the class and be reported to the dean’s office.

Note: We will discuss the reading on the day that it is listed. Make sure you look ahead in the syllabus so that you can keep up with the reading as we will move at different rates at different times.
Wednesday, September 3

Introduction to Course

Critical reception vs. popular reception

“Act One: Guilty As Charged” from “Life After Death” This American Life, Episode 359. Darin Strauss.

Monday, September 8

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Wednesday, September 10

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
SRA1: Grealy (Katie DeVito)

SRA2: Popular reception of book (Brittany Tobjy)

Monday, September 15

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

SRA3: Critical reception of book (John Vorsteg)

Critical Reading – Patricia Hampl, “Memory and Imagination,” in I could Tell You Stories. On Google Scholar; direct link through Bb.
Wednesday, September 17

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

SRA4: Patchett (Adrianne Moe)

Monday, September 22

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

SRA5: Popular reception of book (Marybeth Obrycki)

SRA6: Critical reception of book (Jessica Lozak)
Wednesday, September 24

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Monday, September 29

“Hijacked By Grief,” by Suellen Grealy. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/aug/07/biography.features.
Wednesday, October 1

The Color of Water by James McBride

SRA7: McBride (Jackie Ragueso)

Monday, October 6

The Color of Water by James McBride

SRA8: Popular reception of book

SRA9: Critical reception of book
Wednesday, October 8

The Color of Water by James McBride

Monday, October 13

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

SRA10: Danticat (Josh Sunarso)

Wednesday, October 15

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

SRA11: Popular reception of the book

SRA12: Critical reception of the book
Monday, October 20

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Critical Reading on Bb: “Problems of Memory and Factuality in Recent

Holocaust Memoirs:Wilkomirski/Wiesel:” by Susan Rubin Suleiman

Wednesday, October 22

Draft of midterm due – 3-4 pages.

Monday, October 27

She’s not There by Jennifer Boylan

SRA13: Boylan (Lisa Escolano)

Wednesday, October 29

Class Canceled

Papers due – in my mailbox on the 4th floor. By 4:00 pm
Monday, November 3

She’s not There by Jennifer Boylan

SRA14: Critical reception of the book (Justine Burke)

SRA15: Popular reception of the book (Tiffany Moallern)

Choice Essay Proposals Due

Wednesday, November 5

She’s not There by Jennifer Boylan

“Reading Spaces” by Nancy Miller.
Monday, November 10

She’s not There by Jennifer Boylan
Wednesday, November 12

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

SRA16: Burroughs (Maureen Grimaldi)

Monday, November 17

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Choice Essay Drafts Due for Peer Review

SRA17: Critical reception of the book (Kerin Kupyn)

SRA18: Popular reception of the book (Kelly Franco)
Wednesday, November 19

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Critical Reading: “Reading Spaces” by Nancy Miller (on Bb)

Monday, November 24

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Wednesday, November 26

Class Cancelled – Thanksgiving!

But, if you want me to read a draft of your paper, email it to me today.
Monday, December 1

Lying by Lauren Slater

SRA20: Critical reception of the book (Lauren Uschmann)

SRA21: Popular reception of the book (Shante McGlone-Burgess)
Wednesday, December 3

Lying by Lauren Slater

Choice Essay Final Draft Due
Monday, December 8

Lying by Lauren Slater

Final exam: due on exam day.

Final Exam Paper Question: Spend a few hours drafting the start of a memoir and then write a short essay, 3-4 pages, about what if anything you gained from the experience. Essentially this is my question for you: Does your understanding of the genre shift as you take on the author role? How? You can take on any aspect of memoir that we have discussed this semester and take it under review. I don’t expect you to have one answer.


Short Research Assignment
For this class I would like to gather your collective research skills to create for ourselves research reports on relevant topics will be useful to all of us as we read and discuss the memoirs. There are 21 “SRAs” on your syllabus – one for each of you.

1. Choose a topic from the list.

2. Research your topic and write a 2 page (single-spaced) summary of your findings. The goal of this paper is to present information and some analysis. I don’t expect you to be able to write anything like a definitive treatise. As you research and read make choices about what you think is interesting and might be relevant to our class.
3. How much to do? Please, do not spend more than a couple of hours on the research. You only need to consult a couple of sources. (Do list these sources—in appropriate MLA form--at the bottom so that we can see where you got your information.) What sources you use – public internet sites or academic articles – depends on what kind of assignment you’ve taken on.
4. As far as the writing goes, this is not a typical paper. You are not making an argument, necessarily, and you certainly (for this one time) are not expected to have original ideas. Your goal is to provide interesting information for your classmates to read and so you therefore need to organize and write it for your audience.

  1. Turn in assignment 48 hours before it is due so that I can post it on Bb for your classmates to read. Simply send me an email with a word attachment.

  1. Submit your file to me two ways: as a hard copy and via email as a word document (in class on the day we meet).

1 Do not text-message, surf the web, check your email, or otherwise use technology (old or new) to do something other than attend to class and the discussion at hand. It’s rude and it bothers me a lot, even if out of distaste for conflict I pretend to ignore you ignoring me and your classmates.

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