21L.512 | Fall 2013 | Undergraduate

American Authors: Autobiography and Memoir


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week; 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

What is a “life” when it’s written down? How does memory inform the present? Why are autobiographies and memoirs so popular? This course will address these questions among others, considering the relationship between biography, autobiography, and memoir and between personal and social themes. We will examine classic authors such as Mary Rowlandson, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Mark Twain; then more recent examples like Tobias Wolff, Art Spiegelman, Sherman Alexie, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Edwidge Danticat, and Alison Bechdel.


Attendance 10
Class participation 15
In-class reports 15
Essays (15% each) 60


This is a discussion class where your attendance and participation in class are vital. You are expected to attend every class. Do not sign up for this class if you have a conflict with another class, recitation, sports commitment, or job. If you must miss class because of a medical or family emergency, please notify the instructor beforehand.

Class Participation

This class is designed to practice oral communication as well as writing skills. Be prepared to contribute to class discussion, not only by speaking but also by listening and responding to others.

In-Class Reports

Each student will prepare and deliver a 10-minute in-class report on one day’s reading. This report should include research, drawing on materials from print and online sources and presenting a bibliography on a handout to be distributed to the class. It should raise questions and offer ideas for class discussion. You will be graded on content, delivery, and ability to generate class discussion.


Essays are due by the end of the day assigned. Late essays (only with an extension from the instructor) will receive credit, as long as they come in by the following class. After that they will drop a full grade for each day late. Essays must be double-spaced and adequately margined, should include a title, and should observe the conventions of grammar and spelling. Students may meet with the instructor at any time throughout the semester and will have one required conference in the second to last week of the term.


Each student will be allowed 1 excused absence; an excused absence means that you have an urgent reason to miss class and have contacted me in advance. For any additional or unexcused absence your attendance grade will be reduced by one point.

Lateness of essays will result in lower paper grades. For each day that your paper is late, your grade will be lowered by 1/3 (i.e. a B+ will become a B after one day, a B- after 2 days and so on. Weekends will be included).

Because of the writing-intensive nature of this course and the swift reading pace, extensions may be granted only in extreme situations (illness, family crisis, or other equally difficult circumstances). You will need to contact me at least 24 hours before the paper is due in order to receive an extension.

Intellectual integrity is imperative in all of our work. Plagiarism, co-opting of another’s work, will not be tolerated in any class. This is the Literature Section’s policy on plagiarism: Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgment—is a serious offense. “It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgment for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom, including images and other media, must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center, 12-132, and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.”

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2013
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Instructor Insights