Studies: Life Writing

Reimagining “America” in Memoir


John David Zuern

TR 1:30 –2:45

Sakamaki B104


This course will introduce you to the theoretical and methodological foundations of life writing studies through an engagement with contemporary American memoirs dealing with a range of issues that inflect the private and public lives of people living in the United States. The memoirs represent the experiences of people of color, Indigenous people, immigrants (documented and undocumented), trans people, and low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet.

In addition to the memoirs, we will read key contributions to life writing studies by scholars such as Ebony Coletu, G. Thomas Couser, Paul John Eakin, Leigh Gilmore, Cynthia Franklin, Anna Poletti, and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson.

Class discussions will focus on productive critical reading practices for works of life writing as well as on the intersection of the assigned texts with current public discourse and legislation related to the issues they treat. Your writing and presentation assignments will build toward an independent research project examining life wrting texts and/or performances outside the class reading list.

Required Texts (subject to change until August 2022)

Castillo, Marcelo Hernandez. Children of the Land: A Memoir

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Beautiful Struggle

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir

Hogan, Linda. The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir

Land, Stephanie. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, & So Much More

I will provide other readings as links or files in Laulima.

Student Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course you should be able to

  • Read life writing texts critically, attending to details such as narrative structure, style, figurative language, allusions, and dominant themes
  • Situate life writing texts in their historical and social contexts, accounting for formal, stylistic, thematic, and other relevant features related to these contexts
  • Demonstrate your familiarity with current theories and methods of life writing studies
  • Mobilize key concepts in life writing studies in your own scholarly writing with confidence and precision
  • Engage in critical dialogue with scholarship in life writing studies in your own scholarly writing
  • Demonstrate the ability to design and conduct an independent research project in life writing studies
  • Conduct research with appropriate online databases and other resources
  • Articulate and support a critical argument in an oral presentation format and respond productively to commentary from peers
  • Articulate and support a critical argument in an independent research project
  • Document sources accurately and consistently using a standard academic citation style


Your grade will be based on your performance in the following assignments. I will provide more detailed descriptions of these assignments in the first week of the semester.

  • one in-class lightning round presentation
  • two 2-page passage analysis exercises
  • one proposal for a term paper based on independent research
  • one term paper based on independent research
  • one midterm examination
  • one final examination