Autobiography: History

Great Works 144

Winter 2015

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 provide 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, to understand historiography, and to appreciate great works.

This term, we will focus on autobiographies and identity and individualism. How do we know what anyone else is "really" like? How do we decide what to tell others about ourselves? How do the people we discuss make those decisions? Does the American culture of individualism shape the people we discuss? We will consider these questions in the context of change over time, from the first contacts between Native Americans and European colonists to life here at Hanover College.

Calculating Grades


10% Revision Exercise

10% Analysis Paper

18% Research Paper

10% Diary


10% Prepared Interview

5% Article Presentation

10% Preparation and 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

Our discussions will be based on close readings of 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.

All assigned readings are available on reserve at the Duggan Library or online. 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)

You will also need a bound journal - choose either a good quality journal with acid-free paper or an inexpensive composition book. Both are available at the bookstore.

About Preparation, Participation, Presentations, Exams, and Written Assignments:

Preparation and Participation: Good discussion depends on everyone's preparing and participating fully. Occasional brief assignments - such as marginalia checks or study guide contributions - allow you to demonstrate careful preparation for class. People who excel in participation make useful comments in class or ask helpful questions, and they facilitate others' participation as well.

Presentations: The prepared interview is an oral presentation of self and of history, similar 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

January 5, 2015 (Mon) Lecture: "Defining Terms."

January 6, 2015 (Tues) Writing workshop on diaries: Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away, 2007 (pp. xvii-9, 56-58).

January 7, 2015 (Wed) Workshop on college success: Vosmeier, "On Marginalia," 2014 (online); Taylor "Survive & Thrive" essay, 2014 (online); Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 1975 (2005 edition on reserve: pp. xiii-xv, 3-6, 379-87).

January 9, 2015 (Fri) Archives workshop on Hanover College personal narratives: Reisser, Commencement Address, 2014 (excerpt online); Scott, Commencement Address, 2013 (excerpt online). Meet in Duggan Library archives.

Autobiography and Seventeenth-Century Virginia

January 12, 2015 (Mon) Lecture: "Seventeenth-Century Virginia."

January 13, 2015 (Tues) Workshop on historical imagination.

January 14, 2015 (Wed) Capt. John Smith, True Travels, 1630 (excerpts online).

January 16, 2015 (Fri) Writing workshop on drafting: Hacker 1-2; Hanover College personal narratives (1970s). In-class essay for Revision Exercise.

January 19, 2015 (Mon) Capt. John Smith, General History of Virginia, 1624, and other autobiographical excerpts, 1608, 1617 (excerpts online).

January 20, 2015 (Tues) Writing workshop on revision: Hacker 3-4, 8, 11, 16.

January 21, 2015 (Wed) Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), 71-91. Review pp. xiii-xv (2005 edition), 3-6, 379-87. Intellectual skill to master: Reading a monograph.

January 23, 2015 (Fri) Speaking workshop on interviews (Margaret Krantz, guest): "Art of Interviewing" (handout). Dean, Blind Ambition, 1976 (on reserve, pp. 11-25). Revision Exercise due.

January 26, 2015 (Mon) Pocahontas, autobiographical fragments, c. 1608-1616 (online).

January 27, 2015 (Tues) Rountree, "Powhatan Indian Women," 1998  (online -- click on "view pdf"). Intellectual skill to master: Reading a scholarly article.

January 28, 2015 (Wed) Rolfe, letter to Dale, 1614 (online); Mann, "America Found, and Lost," 2007 (online).

January 30, 2015 (Fri) Prepared interviews (schedule t.b.a.).

February 2, 2015 (Mon) Prepared interviews (schedule t.b.a.).

February 3, 2015 (Tues) Prepared interviews (schedule t.b.a.).

February 4, 2015 (Wed) Workshop on notetaking and exams.

February 6, 2015 (Fri) "Memorable Americans," 2015 (online); Frisch, "American History and the Structures of Collective Memory," 1989 (online).

Autobiography, John Dean, and Watergate

February 9, 2015 (Mon) Writing workshop: Use of Sources. "Chicago Manual Footnote Style" (online); Hacker, ch. 37c, 42a, 55, 57. Meet in Learning Center.

February 10, 2015 (Tues) Lecture: "Watergate and the 1970s."

February 11, 2015 (Wed) Dean, Blind Ambition, 1976 (on reserve, pp. 89-101, 121-31, 167-68, 184-91, 197-212, 223-27).

February 13, 2015 (Fri) Dean, Blind Ambition, 1976 (on reserve, pp. 271-76, 303-9, 323-25, 331-34, 339-41, 353-57, 362-67, 369-73, 376-79, 395-98).

February 16, 2015 (Mon) Review. Hand in diaries (at least 16 entries).

February 17, 2015 (Tues) Workshop t.b.a.

February 18, 2015 (Wed) Midterm exam.

February 20, 2015 (Fri) Archives Workshop: Civil War letters. Hacker 39c. Meet in Duggan Library archives.

Winter Break

Autobiography, Slavery, and Civil War.

March 2, 2015 (Mon) Lecture: "Slavery and Civil War."

March 3, 2015 (Tues) Assignment t.b.a.

March 4, 2015 (Wed) Writing workshop: Prose Mechanics. Hacker, ch. 17-20, 32, 33.

March 6, 2015 (Fri) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861 (excerpt online).

March 9, 2015 (Mon) Writing Workshop: Mechanics and Copyediting. Hacker, ch. 12, 13b, 22, 23, 41, 44b. Penultimate draft due.

March 10, 2015 (Tues) Analysis paper due.

March 11, 2015 (Wed) Research workshop: Primary Sources. Meet in the Duggan Library computer lab.

March 13, 2015 (Fri) Workshop: Mechanics and Integrating Sources. Hacker, ch. 9, 37, 39, 41, 58

March 16, 2015 (Mon) Research workshop: Secondary Sources. Meet in the Duggan Library computer lab. Hacker, ch. 53.

March 17, 2015 (Tues) John Jacobs, "True Tale of Slavery," 1861 (excerpt online).

March 18, 2015 (Wed) Paper consultations.

March 20, 2015 (Fri) Article presentations.

March 23, 2015 (Mon) Article presentations.

March 24, 2015 (Tues) Article presentations.

March 25, 2015 (Wed) Paper consultations.

March 27, 2015 (Fri) Writing Workshop: Writing advice. Penultimate draft due.

March 30, 2015 (Mon) Research paper due.

March 31, 2015 (Tues) Research Workshop: Historical detective work. Meet in Duggan Library archives.

April 1, 2015 (Wed) Clarke, "So Lonesome I Could Die," 2007  (online - click on "pdf full text").

April 3, 2015 (Fri) Civil War letters (online).

Autobiography, Portraits, and Other Personal Narratives.

April 6, 2015 (Mon) Portraits and self-portraits, t.b.a.

April 7, 2015 (Tues) Ebert, "Great Movies," 2000 (online); Pocahontas (film excerpt), 1995; The New World (film excerpt), 2005.

April 8, 2015 (Wed) Blanc, "The Very Best Journaling and Logging App," c2014 (online), or assignment t.b.a. Hand in diaries (at least 36 entries).

April 10, 2015 (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 as art portraits and other forms of self representation, 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.