Seminar in Life Writing: Human Lives, Uncivil States

The course “Human Lives, Uncivil States” addresses the slippery status of the human and the political power and ethical stakes that accompany our understandings of how humanity is defined, and who it does—and does not—include. To investigate this question—currently a pressing one in the humanities—we consider life writing texts in conjunction with contemporary theory that takes up the questions of the human. The course engages with texts and concerns central to a number of different fields: life writing, human rights, affect studies, queer studies, studies of race and ethnicity, settler colonial studies, (post-) humanism, trauma studies, and civility studies. Students should emerge with some fluency in these fields.

The life writing texts we will read are ones that occasion or are produced in response to a public controversy or scandal that throws the question of the human into crisis. As we read these texts, we consider how life writing narratives can be mobilized to resist as well as support forms of dehumanization that are key to the everyday workings of society.

The course will be divided into four sections. Each section focuses on individual stories that bring public awareness to forms of dehumanization that are central to the structure and everyday workings of civil society. The life narratives we study provide insights into the possibilities and limitations of addressing various forms of dehumanization through eliciting readers’ affective engagements with narratives about an individual human’s life, and sometimes death.

The first few class sessions will feature readings that take up theoretical challenges of defining the human, and the possibilities and limits of employing different frameworks (legal, human-rights based, humanistic) to counter human rights abuses. Then, in Section 1 we will consider how Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians, and US support for them, depend upon casting Palestinians either as terrorists or as non-existent, and we will read life narratives coming out of the US and Palestine/Israel that counter this dehumanization. Key texts for this section are My Name Is Rachel Corrie (play); the special 2014 issue of Biography, “Life in Occupied Palestine”; the 2014 web-based projects Humanize Palestine, The Gaza Names Project, and We Are Not Numbers; oral histories by child prisoners collected in Norma Hashim’s Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak; Atef Abu Saif’s diary The Drone Eats with Me; Jewish Israeli Miko Peled’s autobiography The General’s Son, and Palestinian American writer Steven Salaita’s Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.


Section 2 will consider the significance of those in New Orleans whose lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were so disregarded by the US government and by the broader US citizenry, as well as what it means to treat human lives with such disregard. Theory and articles that provide historical context will be placed in dialogue with auto/biographical narratives about Katrina (Zeitoun, and Trouble the Water), and we also will consider Beasts of the Southern Wild in relation to ways it intersects with life writing concerns.


Section 3 looks at the spate of police or security guard killings in the US of Black men including, for example, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. We consider how these killings catalyzed the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), that focus on the lives and premature deaths of Black people to issue structural condemnations of racism and police violence, militarization, union labors, imperialism, and capitalism. We will view the film Fruitvale Station (about Oscar Grant) and read Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Citizen and excerpts from Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. We will situate these texts in relation to internet campaigns, music videos (by, for example, Beyonce and Solange), and other related cultural texts that stories of Black lives; we will pay particular attention to how these life writing texts articulate with the M4BL policy platform.


Section 4 takes up contemporary cases in the United States of transgendered youth (Gwen Araujo, Brandon Teena) and those who have committed hate crimes against them. In this section we will analyze a tv movie (A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story), a documentary (The Brandon Teena Story), a feature film (Boys Don’t Cry), and memorial websites to explore how transgender identity exposes—and can challenge—exclusionary conceptualizations of the human. Readings in queer theory will guide our inquiry. We will conclude this section with a viewing of the documentary Kumu Hina as a counter to these texts focused on violence and dehumanization.

As we consider these life writing texts that illuminate the humanity—and inhumanity—of supposedly civil states, we will explore the particular power life writing has to define and complicate understandings of the human. We will consider why some autobiographical or biographical genres are more given over to some subjects than to others. We also will think about how these various life writing texts articulate with the theoretical and critical texts we read—what can theory do that life writing texts cannot, and vice versa? And how do the life writing texts support, but also at times challenge and rework, theoretical formulations?


Weekly letters to the class, two of them focused on events attended outside of class that relate to its themes (20%). Class presentation + accompanying handout (15%). Brief (5-page) analysis of a text (15%). Seminar paper (~15 pages) and proposal, annotated bibliography, and outline of the paper (45%). Presentations of the final paper (5%).

General Student Outcomes:

  1. Through our interdisciplinary focus, you will gain a greater “understanding of the discipline of English and its relationship to other disciplines.”
  2. Through written and oral assignments, you will develop your to place your own scholarly work within broader critical conversations and to contribute to these conversations by conducting independent research.
  3. Through oral presentations, you will gain experience delivering concise, informed, focused, and thought-provoking presentations to peers in the field.


Primary texts:



Abu Saif, Atef. The Drone Eats with Me

Corrie, Rachel. My Name Is Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun

Franklin, Cynthia, Morgan Cooper, and Brahim Aoude, “Life in Occupied Palestine,” a 2014 special issue of Biography

Hashim, Norma, editor. Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak

Peled, Miko. The General’s Son

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric

Salaita, Steven. Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom



Coogler, Ryan (director), Fruitvale Station

Hamer, Dean and Joe Wilson (directors), Kumu Hina

Holland, Aknieszka (director), A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story

Lessin, Tia and Carl Deal (directors), Trouble the Water

Muska, Susan and Gréta Olafsdóttir (directors), The Brandon Teena Story

Peirce, Kimberly (director), Boys Don’t Cry

Zeitlin, Behn (director), Beasts of the Southern Wild

Secondary readings by authors including, for example, Judith Butler, Samera Esmeir, Jack Halberstam, Saree Makdisi Mia McKenzie and Patrick Wolfe, will be posted to Laulima or available on the web.