English 664:1 Biography: Life Narrative, Self Story, Oral History  Craig Howes 


Monday, 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.   Synchronous—with many individual conferences


Course Description—Goals, Methods, Salient Questions, Outcomes


This course provides a detailed introduction to the texts, methodologies, and theories of a few of the major genres in life writing, and examines in what ways, and with what reservations, life writing can contribute to literary and cultural studies projects with a variety of orientations. 


The course explores three related generic designations: Biography, Autobiography, and Oral History. The Biography readings and discussions will situate the genre historically, and suggest something about the range of its applications in other fields. The Autobiography readings and discussions will be focused on the issue of autobiography as a strategy of gender, cultural, or national politics. Oral history, film, and digital Life Writing will also be discussed throughout the course, introducing students to the techniques for recording, preparing, creating, adapting, and publishing resources for studying people’s lives, and to the kinds of works being created in these genres.


This course has received both the Literary Studies and the Cultural Studies Asia Pacific designations. The LSE designation is fairly self-evident—a series of texts, some of them canonical, and extending over a long period of time, are examined in the light of criticism and theory dealing with the genres of life writing over the past two thousand years. The Cultural Studies designation is appropriate, because as Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have observed, the history of life writing criticism and theory over the past thirty-five years has been heavily articulated with race, gender, class, and Indigenous theory, and life writing texts themselves often appear prominently in decolonizing nations and cultures as politically engaged texts. The course assignments, and particularly the oral history assignment, also move discussion into areas of autoethnography, alternative archives, and the creation of other narrative and critical resources.


Student Learning Outcomes


MA Curriculum—The course provides a detailed introduction to lifewriting theory, addresses issue of ethical research, and provides instruction in conducting interviews within IRB guidelines. Oral and written presentations of research are integral to the course. A substantial amount of the surveyed material situates the subject within Hawaiʻi and the Pacific.


PhD Curriculum—The course strongly foregrounds critical analysis and a detailed engagement with research methods. The format strongly encourages students to develop material for professional conferences, and offers the opportunity to use assignments to develop approaches to area examinations and to compose prospectus drafts for doctoral dissertations/eventual monographs. 




Many M.A. projects and theses and doctoral dissertations in a number of disciplines have begun in this class. Since the students’ own research interests will be remarkably diverse—preliminary work for writing a biography, life writing as a pedagogical issue, extensions of biographical issues into cultural and/or rhetorical and/or race and/or gender studies, narrative theory, biographically-oriented literary or film criticism, a commitment to creative non-fiction, interests in graphic genres or online life writing, life writing and Indigenous Studies (for Hawaiʻi, moʻolelo, moʻokūʻauhau, kanikau) and so on—I want class members to learn as much as possible from each other. 


A report on a selected topic, complete with a discussion of the problems it raises for the student, as well as an initial and a final draft of a substantial seminar paper or equivalent will be required. (In the past I have had students use this final assignment to draft a Ph.D. prospectus, or write a paper for delivery at a conference.) In cooperation with the re-established Center for Oral History at the university, all students will conduct an oral history interview, transcribe the recording, edit the text, and then prepare selections for specifically identified research purposes. Students will also deliver at least two brief reports on class reading over the course of the semester. And finally, weekly postings to an e-mail list about upcoming readings will be required.






“Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John,” The Bible

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama 

Sigmund Freud, “The Wolf Man” and “Leonardo” 

Jackie Huggins and Rita Huggins. Auntie Rita 

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X 

Alexander Masters, Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards 

Plutarch, Selections from Lives 

Lytton Strachey. Eminent Victorians 


Citizen Kane (Welles) 

The Lives of Others (Polley)


At least three weeks will be devoted to Indigenous life writing—with the emphasis on selections from Hawaiian and Oceanic texts—John Papa ‘Ī‘ī, Samuel M. Kamakau, Joseph Poepoe, Liliʻuokalani, John Dominis Holt, and Jackie and Rita Huggins. 




  1. Thomas Couser, Memoir (2012)

Justice, Daniel, Alice Te Punga Somerville, and Noelani Arista, Indigenous Conversations about Biography, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly

Howes, “Life Writing.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (2020)

Julie Rak, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) 

Noenoe K. Silva, The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History (2018) 

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Second Edition.

UH Center for Oral History, How to Do Oral History 

A substantial amount of criticism and theory from recent and chapters from collections and articles, some drawn from Biography.


The Instructor


Craig Howes has been the Director of the Center for Biographical Research since 1997, the co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly since 1994, and a Professor of English since 1980. His book Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Fight (Oxford, 1993), a study of the many different lifewriting genres used to represent this group of military and civilian captives, was a Choice Notable Book for 1994. With Miriam Fuchs, he co-edited Teaching Lifewriting Texts (MLA 2007), the first major collection on lifewriting pedagogy, and served as a co-producer and series scholar for six documentaries in the Biography Hawaiʻi television series, regularly broadcast on PBS Hawaiʻi. A founding member of the International Auto/Biography Association, he has administered IABA-L, with its 1317 subscribers, since 1999.