Monthly Archives: December 2014

Teaching the Memoir session at MLA 2015

Abstracts below:

Friday, 9 January

  1. Reading Memory: Approaches to Teaching the Memoir

10:15–11:30 a.m., West 210, VCC West

Program arranged by the Community College Humanities Association

Presiding: Stacey Lee Donohue, Central Oregon Community Coll.

  1. “Photo-graphics: Mediating Memory in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” David Bahr, Borough of Manhattan Community Coll., City Univ. of New York
  2. “The Space In-Between: Redefining Autobiography in Theory and Practice,” Sarita N. Cannon, San Francisco State Univ.
  3. “Teaching Autobiography-Fiction Blends: The Labels and the Agendas,” Lorna Martens, Univ. of Virginia
  4. “Reading Memory by Re-membering,” Jewon Woo, Lorain County Community Coll., OH [unable to attend]

For abstracts, visit after 15 Dec.

The following audiovisual request(s) was/were made for your session: Projection equipment for a computer; Speakers for sound from audio device (e.g., iPod)

keywords: memoir, life writing, autobiography, teaching, literature


David Bahr, Assistant Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College-City University of New York


Photo-Graphics: Mediating Memory in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.


In 2013, I taught the first graphic narrative course at my community college. Having taught the seminar at a private liberal arts college, where Fun Home was popular with students, I again taught Bechdel’s memoir. This time, however, my mostly urban students, some struggling with writing skills, were less receptive to Fun Home, largely because of the literary allusions and vocabulary. To work through this resistance, I focused on the family photograph, as a site of memory and revision, with which all my students could identify.


I devoted about two hours on Bechdel’s use of illustrated photographs, or photographics, as I call it. In preparation for the class, I asked students to bring in an old family photograph, digital or material. My goal was for them to think about photography, specifically the illustrated photograph, as a narrative tool and heuristic device in the recreation of memory.


I began my lesson by asking students to free-write about what they viewed as the purpose of photographics in Bechdel’s memoir, notably as a visual epigraph at the beginning of each chapter. As the class had already discussed Fun Home as a recursive narrative, several students identified these opening images as temporal place markers. As we moved on, I invited the class to explore the strategies and effects of the drawn photograph. This line of inquiry encouraged students to think further about comics as a mode of mediating memory. How is a photograph—retraced and re-imagined—transformed by the human hand? What might the illustrated photograph communicate about an author’s point of view and subjectivity? How is the mediation of an already mediated artifact a means of reclaiming, reimaging, and revising our memories? And, finally, how might discussion prompted by these questions add to our understanding of Bechdel’s memoir, perhaps encouraging identification with her process?


Building on the last question, I asked students to take out the family photo that each of them brought and to attempt their own iconic illustration of the photo. I then asked them to write a page about the drawn image, reimagining the story behind, and the person within, that photographic. The exercise energized the class, creatively and intellectually. I would like to share the experience as part of your panel.


This paper is drawn from an essay that I am writing for a proposed collection Approaches to Literature: Teaching Alison Bechdel, edited by Dr. Judith Garner, to be published by Modern Language Association in 2015.

______________ Sarita Cannon is associate professor of English at San Francisco State University where she teaches courses on 20th-century literatures in English, Ethnic American Literatures, the Novel, and Autobiography.

The Space In Between: Redefining Autobiography in Theory and in Practice

In a course I teach on American Life Writing, I foreground the problem of “truth” in memoir on the first day of class by discussing examples of autobiographical hoaxes, including Danny Santiago’s Famous All Over Town, Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, and Margaret Jones’ Love And Consequences. These cross-cultural autobiographical impersonations allow me to contextualize the long history of racial appropriation in American culture; yet they also highlight for students the slipperiness of “truth” in the constructed and far from transparent genre of autobiography. Our aim as scholars of life writing is not to discern whether an event “really” happened; rather, it is to ask how autobiographers frame their narratives and how they position themselves in relation to earlier autobiographical traditions. In this paper, I focus on the ways in which two memoirs I teach that trouble boundaries between memory and invention, N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), allow students to see how members of historically marginalized groups reconfigure the genre of autobiography for political and aesthetic purposes.  This understanding becomes especially powerful when I ask students to write their own short autobiographies in which they draw upon conventions, tropes, and techniques from the texts we have read in the class.  More than any other authors in the class, Momaday and Lorde inspire students as they craft their own narratives.  Thus this paper is driven by two interconnected questions: How does reading Momaday and Lorde enable students to recalibrate their own definitions of autobiography, particularly in relation to notions of “truth”? And how does writing their own memoirs facilitate a more nuanced understanding of the choices that life writers make?


Lorna Martens teaches German and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia and is currently working on a book on women’s childhood autobiographies.

Teaching Autobiography-Fiction Blends: The Labels and the Agendas

On the basis of studying 102 examples of childhood autobiography written by women from the nineteenth-century to the present, I find that autobiography has prototypical characteristics that distinguish it from fiction (albeit fiction can ape anything autobiography does): Lejeune’s autobiographical pact; a justification for writing; conformity to current truth criteria (a veteran truth criterion is completeness, so that an autobiographer does well to create a semblance of completeness, which in turn implies the presence of abundant unmotivated detail); the absence of plot; the thematization of memory; and a serious tone.

In contrast to other theoreticians, I find that stylistic features, so-called “poetic effects,” occur far too frequently in autobiographical writing to be counted as differentiating characteristics. Fictionalization is signaled by real-world impossibility, e.g. extensive remembered dialogue, telepathy.

So there are two distinct genres. Yet autobiography-fiction blends are perfectly possible, indeed commonplace. Labels can be misleading. Authors and publishers often choose labels strategically: in the English-speaking world, an “autobiography” sells better; a “novel” is more discreet.

How to make this state of affairs productive for teaching?

In my childhood autobiography classes, I start by having students write their own autobiographical narratives. I do this at the beginning of the course, before students have read anything. I ask them to write three papers: 1. their first memory (1p.); 2. their most significant childhood memory (2-3 p.); 3. their childhood generally (5p.). These writing assignments get the group talking. Assignments 1 and 2 initiate a discussion of memory. We talk about what is remembered and why, at what age memories start and which ages are remembered best, and about the influence of adults’ stories, photos, and videos. Assignment 2 and especially Assignment 3 lead to the question: did you fictionalize? Nearly everyone admits to having employed some kind of shaping for the sake of making a coherent story in Assignment 3. We then discuss: what do you understand by fictionalization? We go on to discuss the need to select and organize material in life-writing, the pressure to compress events out of consideration for readability and length, the temptation to establish a story line or theme, and effective techniques for telling. All these issues make much more sense if students have tried to write autobiography themselves. We also talk about how the intended audience might have an effect on what one writes, as well as the importance of consideration for living people such as parents or siblings.

Over the course of the term, then, I like to make my students aware of the agendas that drive autobiography-fiction blends and the labels “autobiography” and “novel,” as well as of the characteristic features of these often-mixed genres.