This course provides a detailed introduction to the texts, methodology, and theory 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 discussion will situate the genre historically, and suggest something about the range of its applications in other fields. The Autobiography readings and discussion will be focused on the issue of autobiography as a strategy of gender, cultural, or national politics. Film and digital Life Writing will also be discussed throughout the course, and a collaborative orientation with the Center for Oral history will introduce 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 the Literary Studies and the Cultural Studies Asia Pacific designation. 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 point out, 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 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.

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 their Ph.D. prospectus, prepare a subject-related grant application, or write a paper for delivery at a conference.) Students will also prepare and deliver at least two brief reports on class reading over the course of the semester. In cooperation with the 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. And finally, weekly postings to an e-mail list about upcoming readings will be required.


Primary: “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, Lives; Behrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison; Noenoe K. Silva, The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen (2018); Lytton Strachey. Eminent Victorians; Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Third Edition.


Several films will be discussed. At least three weeks will be devoted to Indigenous life writing—selections from Hawaiian and Oceanic texts—John Papa ‘Ī‘ī, Samuel M. Kamakau, Joseph Poepoe, Liliʻuokalani—as well as from Indigenous Conversations about Biography (Justice, Te Punga Somerville, and Arista) will also be assigned.


Secondary: G. Thomas Couser, Memoir (2012); Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History (2010); Julie Rak, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market; (2013) Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. 2nd Edition (2009); and a substantial amount of criticism and theory from recent and chapters from collections and articles, some drawn from Biography.

Student Learning Outcomes

For MA candidates, the Student Learning Outcomes include an introduction to or reinforcement of their critical, theoretical, and methodological knowledge regarding the Literary Studies and Cultural Studies Asia/Pacific concentrations. Studying life writing requires the exercise of close reading skills and detailed comparative methods. The various course requirements are designed to strengthen the students’ abilities to present work orally, in written form, or through combinations of images and written and spoken words.  

PhD candidates will be encouraged to expand and refine the same skills listed for the MAs. But as current or future in-service teachers and/or public intellectuals, PhD candidates will also be asked to consider in greater detail how to develop pedagogy related to the course materials that can inform their own post-secondary teaching, and their advising, consulting, or instructing outside of the university. The range of academic genres available for possible final projects will also allow students from English or any other department to customize the course deliverables to fit with their program requirements or ongoing research endeavors.

I have taught this course frequently, and many M.A. projects and theses, doctoral dissertations, and books have begun in this class. I have been co-editing Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly for the past twenty-nine years; in 1993, I published Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Fight (Oxford), a study of the many different lifewriting genres used to represent this group of military and civilian captives that was a Choice Notable Book for 1994. Miriam Fuchs and I co-edited Teaching Lifewriting Texts (MLA 2007), and I’ve co-produced and served as series scholar for six documentaries in the Biography Hawaiʻi television series, broadcast on PBS Hawaiʻi. In the past six years, I have had thirteen subject-related essays, reviews, and interviews published in edited collections, special issues of lifewriting journals, and online. Two of these have been invited tributes and collection introductions to major figures in the field (Philippe Lejeune, Paul John Eakin). One is the principal entry on Life Writing in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Another is forthcoming. For the past twenty-four years, I have been the manager for the International Auto/Biography Association Listserv, with 1,535 subscribers.