Autobiography: History

Great Works 143

Fall 2014

Sarah McNair Vosmeier

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Course Description

Studying autobiographies provides both pleasure and practical benefits. Reading an autobiography can be like taking a time machine into the past -- it takes only a little imagination to feel like you are there. Reading, discussing, and writing about autobiographies also provides the practical benefits that are at the core of a liberal arts education. We will learn to analyze difficult texts, to make historical arguments, to use historical imagination, and to appreciate great works.

This term, we will focus on autobiographies and identity. How do we know what any one else is "really" like? How do we decide what to tell others about ourselves? We will consider these questions in a variety of contexts, from the first contacts between Native Americans and European colonists to life at Hanover in the past and present.

Calculating Grades


10% Revision Exercise

10% Analysis Paper

18% Research Paper

10% Diary


10% Prepared Interview

5% Article Presentation

10% Participation


12% Midterm Exam

15% Final Exam

Nota Bene

Our class time provides an opportunity, rare in modern life, to focus for an extended time on a single task and conversation. Please do not multitask - to avoid distraction for others and temptation for ourselves, we will not use laptops, cell phones, etc. in our classroom. You will need to bring assigned texts to class in paper form.

Late papers will be penalized, and in-class assignments cannot be made up. If you have an emergency and want to request an exception to this rule, contact me before the due date.


About items needed for this class

All assigned readings are available on reserve at the Duggan Library or online. Our discussions will be based on close readings of those texts, and you will need notes on the texts in the form of marginalia. Thus, you should budget appropriately for printing and photocopying in addition to the books you purchase. The following are available at the bookstore:

Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975)

Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers (seventh edition, 2012).

Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away (2007)

a bound journal

About Participation, Presentations, Exams, and Papers:

Participation: Good discussion depends on everyone's participating fully. People who excel in participation show evidence of preparing carefully for class, they make useful comments in class or ask helpful questions, and they facilitate others' participation as well. Included in the participation portion of your grade are occasional brief assignments that allow you to give evidence of your preparation - such as marginalia checks or study guide contributions.

Presentations: The prepared interview is an oral presentation of self and of history, similar in form to a job interview. The article presentation is a more formal presentation of a historian's argument.

Exams will include identifications and essay questions.


Revision Exercise: This exercise replicates the first steps in writing a history paper (500-1000 words)

Analysis Paper: Students make a historical argument supported by evidence from specified primary sources. (1200-1500 words)

Research Paper: Students make a historical argument supported by evidence from research in primary and secondary sources. (1500-2500 words)

Diary: Students will keep a nineteenth-century-style diary. (Most people spend ten minutes or so on each entry.)


Autobiography and Personal Narratives

August 28, 2014 (Thurs.) Lecture: "Defining Terms."

September 1, 2014 (Mon) Research Workshop: Hanover in the Seventies. Purdy, "Watergate" (online); "Hanover Remembers the 40th Anniversary of a Devastating Tornado" (online).

September 2, 2014 (Tues) Writing Workshop: Diaries. Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away, 2007 (pp. xvii-9, 56-58).

September 3, 2014 (Wed) Workshop on college success: Vosmeier, "On Marginalia," 2014 (online); Taylor "Survive & Thrive" essay, 2014 (online). Reisser, Commencement Address, 2014 (excerpt online); Scott, Commencement Address, 2013 (excerpt online). Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 1975 (2005 edition on reserve: pp. xiii-xv, 3-6, 379-87).

Autobiography and Seventeenth-Century Virginia

September 5, 2014 (Fri) Lecture: "Seventeenth-Century Virginia."

September 8, 2014 (Mon) Workshop on historical imagination.

September 9, 2014 (Tues) Capt. John Smith, True Travels, 1630 (excerpt online).

September 10, 2014 (Wed) Writing Workshop: Drafting. Hacker ch. 1-2; In-class essay for Revision Exercise.

September 12, 2014 (Fri) Capt. John Smith, General History of Virginia, 1624, and other autobiographical excerpts, 1608, 1617 (excerpt online).

September 15, 2014 (Mon) Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), 71-91. Intellectual skill to master: Reading a monograph.

September 16, 2014 (Tues) Writing Workshop: Revision. Hacker 3-4, 8, 11, 16. Penultimate draft for Revision Exercise due.

September 17, 2014 (Wed) Pocahontas, autobiographical fragments, c. 1608-1616 (online).

September 19, 2014 (Fri) Workshop: Discussion with Homecoming alumni. Hanover College personal narratives, 1970s (online); Purdy, "Watergate" (online); "Hanover Remembers the 40th Anniversary of a Devastating Tornado" (online).

September 22, 2014 (Mon) Rountree, "Powhatan Indian Women," 1998 (online -- click on "view pdf"). Intellectual skill to master: Reading a scholarly article.

September 23, 2014 (Tues) Rolfe, letter to Dale, 1614 (online); Mann, "America Found, and Lost," 2007 (online).

September 24, 2014 (Wed) Speaking Workshop (Margaret Krantz, guest). "Art of Interviewing" (handout). Dean, Blind Ambition, 1976 (pp. 11-25)

September 26, 2014 (Fri) "Memorable Americans," 2014 (online); Frisch, "American History and the Structures of Collective Memory," 1989 (online). Or t.b.a.

Autobiography, John Dean, and Watergate

September 29, 2014 (Mon) Dean, Blind Ambition, pp. 89-99, 121-31, 167-68, 184-91, 197-212, 223-27.

September 30, 2014 (Tues) Dean, Blind Ambition, pp. 271-76, 303-309, 322-25, 328-34, 339-41, 353-58, 362-67, 369-73, 376-79, 395-98.

October 1, 2014 (Wed) John Dean classroom visit (2:00, meeting place t.b.a.).

October 1, 2014 (Wed) John Dean, "Vietnam and Watergate," 7:00pm CFA.

October 3, 2014 (Fri) Review. Hand in diaries (at least 16 entries).

October 6, 2014 (Mon) Midterm exam.

October 7, 2014 (Tues) Prepared interviews (schedule t.b.a.).

October 8, 2014 (Wed) Prepared interviews (schedule t.b.a.).

October 10, 2014 (Fri) Prepared interviews (schedule t.b.a.).

Winter Break

October 15, 2014 (Wed) Assignment t.b.a.

October 17, 2014 (Fri) Writing Workshop: Use of Sources. "Chicago Manual Footnote Style" (online); Hacker, ch. 37c, 42a, 55, 57. Meet in Learning Center.

October 20, 2014 (Mon) Archives Workshop: Civil War letters. Meet in Duggan Library Archives. Hacker 39c.

October 21, 2014 (Tues) Writing workshop: Prose Mechanics. Hacker, ch. 17-20, 32, 33.

Autobiography, Slavery, and Civil War.

October 22, 2014 (Wed) Lecture: "Slavery and Civil War."

October 24, 2014 (Fri) Writing Workshop: Mechanics and Copyediting. Hacker, ch. 12, 13b, 22, 23, 41, 44b. Penultimate draft of Analysis Paper due.

October 27, 2014 (Mon) Assignment t.b.a.

October 28, 2014 (Tues) Analysis Paper due.

October 29, 2014 (Wed) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861 (excerpt online).

October 31, 2014 (Fri) Research workshop: Primary Sources. Meet at the Duggan Library computer lab.

November 3, 2014 (Mon) John Jacobs, "True Tale of Slavery," 1861 (excerpt online).

November 4, 2014 (Tues) Research Workshop: Historical detective work. Meet in Duggan Library archives.

November 5, 2014 (Wed) Research workshop: Secondary Sources. Meet at the Duggan Library computer lab. Hacker, ch. 53.

November 7, 2014 (Fri) Workshop: Mechanics and Integrating Sources. Hacker, ch. 9, 37, 39, 41, 58.

November 10, 2014 (Mon) Paper consultations.

November 11, 2014 (Tues) Article presentations.

November 12, 2014 (Wed) Article presentations.

November 14, 2014 (Fri) Article presentations.

November 17, 2014 (Mon) Writing Workshop: Writing advice. Penultimate draft of Research Paper due.

November 18, 2014 (Tues) Paper consultations.

November 19, 2014 (Wed) Research paper due.

November 21, 2014 (Fri) Clarke, "So Lonesome I Could Die," 2007 (online - click on "pdf full text").

November 24, 2014 (Mon) Civil War letters (online).

Autobiography, Portraits, and Other Personal Narratives.

November 25, 2014 (Tues) Portraits and self-portraits, t.b.a.


December 1, 2014 (Mon) Ebert, "Great Movies," 2000 (online); Pocahontas (film excerpt), 1995; The New World (film excerpt), 2005.

December 2, 2014 (Tues) Assignment t.b.a.

December 3, 2014 (Wed) Student selected assignment. Hand in diaries (at least 36 entries).

December 5, 2014 (Fri) Review.

LADR Objectives and GW143/GW144 "Autobiography"

The following are some suggestions for how this course can help you achieve the LADR objectives associated with Great Works courses.

1. Students can provide criteria for identifying what makes a work "great."

We will consider autobiographical works that are widely considered to be "great," and we will make our own evaluations of greatness.

2. Students can articulate whether there are enduring objective standards for the evaluation of human productions and inventions.

In each course, we will consider a different discipline's approach to evaluating productions of self, and we will consider similarities and differences across disciplines and over time.

3. Students can explain the key ways of knowing and of evaluating evidence in the fine arts and humanities.

In each course, we will approach autobiographies from a different disciplinary perspective, and we will engage in that discipline's "key way of knowing and of evaluating."

4. Students can analyze some of the great works of human creativity, both from the western world and beyond.

We will consider autobiographical works from both the western world and from other cultures, contrasting, for example, autobiographical evidence from Euro-Americans with that of Native Americans.

5. Students can demonstrate the capacity to analyze and interpret primary texts - texts that are considered of enduring value.

We will analyze and interpret primary texts in almost every class discussion and assignment.

6. Students can identify different ways of defining art and creativity.

We will consider autobiographies as art, and we will have the opportunity to do some creative work of our own.

7. Students can reflect systematically and meaningfully on ethical dilemmas and issues that face citizens as they are expressed in works considered "great."

Analyzing autobiographies naturally incorporates ethical dilemmas and issues facing the individual, and we will have opportunities to reflect on them in almost every class discussion and assignment.

8. Students can speak and write effectively.

We will devote significant energy to mastering effective analysis, writing, and speaking. Every class discussion and assignment will further this effort.

The following are some suggestions for how this course can help you achieve overall LADR objectives.

1. Students can explain the kinds of questions that are asked by various disciplines and describe overlapping and complementary interests in various fields of inquiry. They can explain their abilities to view things from alternate perspectives.

Each course will introduce approaches for evaluating productions of self from its discipline, and we will consider similarities and differences in evaluating autobiographical work across disciplines. The study of autobiography naturally lends itself to seeing things from alternate perspectives.

2. Students can demonstrate skills in independent thinking by developing their own thesis statement, supporting that thesis with logical rationale and appropriate evidence, and presenting the thesis in a convincing fashion, both orally and in writing.

We will have significant written and oral assignments. Many class discussions and almost every written or oral assignment or exam will help students master thesis, evidence, and presentation.