Women's and Ethnic Studies Department
WEST 3020 (Autobiography and the Creation of the Self) Course Description:
I am currently teaching a course I created titled Autobiography and the Creation of the Self. I have taught this course on several occasions, and rethink and consequently revise it every time it is offered.
The course is designed to introduce students to the concept of identity formation, and the manner in which this term has been conceptualized through a wide range of art forms including painting, film, literature and various written and oral testimonial expressions. Students are asked to consider the manner in which the various authors and artists present the self (in terms of delivery and form), and pay special attention to the role that race or ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, cultural heritage and the idea of nationhood play in their works. More specifically, we consider the ways in which authors and artists from various backgrounds have used their autobiographical writing and art work to position themselves as subjects within, and engage in a dialogue with, both their own communities and within dominant society.
In addition to writing 2 critical essays, which focus on and compare and contrast at least 2 works or texts treated in class, students have a mid-term examination, and they are asked to develop a final presentation that is autobiographical in its focus. Students are given the opportunity to submit critical questions for the exam; and they are given the opportunity to focus on a single work in their first critical essay, and then build upon this work in their second essay. Those who choose to develop their first essay not only capitalize on the work they have already done for the course—something that many choose to do given their incredibly complex schedules—but they simultaneously benefit from my comments, etc., which they receive on their first essay.
At the most fundamental level, this course overturns traditional approached to autobiography and challenges students to consider the manner in which identity and self can become performative. This final presentation is perhaps the most challenging and complex of all of the course requirements, for it calls on students to contemplate the representation of the self. In this sense, I am implementing what many scholars refer to as an embodied pedagogy.
For my part, the most difficult aspect of the course is calibrating how to present what more often than not proves to be poignant and painful narratives (such as Elie Wiesel’s Night or Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) from an intellectual perspective without losing sight of the human experience—the agony and the suffering—that is at the core of many of these narratives.
Although I receive feedback from students at the end of the course in the form of FCQ’s, I ask students for specific oral feedback following the mid-term and again at the end of the semester. Nearly all of the changes/alterations I have made in my syllabus or in my approach to teaching the course are based on this very important feedback.