Studies from 20thC to Present: Life Writing and Human Rights

“The human” may seem like an obvious term. However, it defies definition, and is continually being challenged. Understandings of who and what constitute the human are complex and politically charged. Whether individuals or groups are granted human status can determine whether they live or die. This course explores how individual life narratives, especially when situated in relation to collective traumas, can expose ways in which some people are excluded from the category of the human, or deemed “subhuman.” These narratives also can challenge—on ethical and legal grounds, as well as through appeals to emotion—violence-inducing human/inhuman divides. In exploring understandings of the human and struggles for human rights by those denied those rights or even the status of human altogether, the course works through four different historical examples. (1) Holocaust narratives; (2) narratives about life in occupied Palestine;  (3)  accounts of Hurricane Katrina; (4) life writing texts (poetry, social media campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter as well as film) that contest police violence against Black Americans; and (5) contemporary US texts that address transgender rights.

Please note: material for this class can be emotionally challenging and texts may also be politically controversial. Those taking the course should be prepared to engage the material, and to do so with respect for opinions and positions other than their own.


Atef Abu Saif, The Drone Eats with Me.

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

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun.

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

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz.

Miko Peled, The General’s Son.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric.

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

Art Spiegelman, Maus: My Father Bleeds History.


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

Ryan Coogler (dir), Fruitvale Station

Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, Kumu Hina

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

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

Kimberly Peirce (dir.), Boys Don’t Cry

ASSIGNMENTS: A short essay (5-6 pages) and a term paper (10-12 pages). A few short writing assignments and several quizzes. A presentation + annotated bibliography. Group journals. Attendance is mandatory; missed classes will negatively impact your grade.