Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

What is a "life" when it's written down? How does memory inform the present? Why are memoirs so popular? This course will address these questions and others, considering the relationship between biography, autobiography, and memoir and between personal and social themes. We will closely examine some recent memoirs: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Students will write two brief papers: a critical essay and an experiment in memoir.

As a "Sampling," this class offers 6 units, with a strong emphasis on close reading, group discussion, focused writing, and research and presentation skills.

Course Requirements

Class Format

  • Attendance at all classes is required except in cases of family or medical emergency. Students must account for any absence by contacting the instructor immediately. Repeated absences will directly lower the final grade for the class.
  • Written work should be handed in at the beginning of class on the day assigned. Text should be double-spaced, with standard margins (1.25" each side) and font sizes (12 pt), should include a title, and should supply a Works Cited page (if appropriate), quotations, and citations.
  • Each student will choose a topic and prepare a ten-minute oral presentation to the class. The report should include a brief handout with pertinent information, discussion questions, and a bibliography of authoritative sources. After the in-class presentation, each student will submit a brief (2-page) version of the talk with correct bibliography and a statement of how the material relates to themes in the text under discussion. Each report will be graded on the quality of the information and sources; the effectiveness of delivery and discussion questions; and the correct use of bibliographical format.


Buy at Amazon Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father - A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2004.

Buy at Amazon Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. Infidel. Tampa, FL: Free Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780743289696.

Buy at Amazon Wolff, Tobias. This Boy's Life: A Memoir. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780802136688.

Buy at Amazon Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I'm Dying. New York, NY: Vintage, 2008. ISBN: 9781400034307.

Buy at Amazon Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2007. ISBN: 9780618871711.


In-class report20%
Attendance and participation20%

MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement 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 acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom 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 at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.



Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

Author Bio/Reviews


Bechdel, Fun Home (cont.)

Report: Bechdel's Use of Comic Book Conventions or Dykes to Watch Out For


Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life

Author Bio/Reviews


Wolff, This Boy's Life (cont.)

Report: Geoffrey Wolff and Duke of Deception (1979) or This Boy's Life, the Film (1993) OR Wolff's Fiction


Edwige Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying

Author Bio/Reviews


Danticat, Brother

Report: Danticat's Fiction or Haitian Literature Today

Essay 1 due 1 week after Ses #7

Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father

Report: Obama in 1995


Obama, Dreams From My Father (cont.)

Report: Audacity of Hope or Dreams and the Presidency


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel

Report: Author Bio/Reviews


Ali, Infidel (cont.)

Report: Comparison between Ali and another writer from the syllabus or politico-religious debates around Infidel

12ConclusionEssay 2 due