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The M.A. Program in Biography and Memoir offers a rigorous and innovative 30-credit curriculum that teaches students to write compelling narrative prose and exposes students to rigorous practices of archival research, oral history, and rich scholarly material dating back thousands of years.
Students will take four core courses (12 credits total): Survey Course on the Art of Biography, Biographical Research and Methodology, Writing and Style in Biography, and Ethical Problems in Biography (descriptions below). Students will then choose among a rich array of elective courses offered in varied academic fields (5 courses or 15 credits total). A sample of elective courses is included below. Students will complete the program with an individual capstone project (3 credits) under guidance from a faculty member, in which they plan and produce a short biography on a subject of their choosing.


Core Courses

Survey Course on the Art of Biography (3 credits): This core course will expose students to the history of biography through the ages, including ancient Greek and Roman biography, English Victorian biography and 20th century biographical works. Students can select as their concentration either literary biography or political/historical biography—and read the appropriate texts, i.e. biographies of literary/artistic figures or political/historical figures.
Biographical Research and Methodology (3 credits): This core course will teach students basic research skills. They will learn how biographers acquire information through interview techniques, oral history collections, and research in government and private archives. Students will make personal trips to New York area archives and conduct oral history interviews with sources.
Writing and Style in Biography (3 credits): Students will be required to read such texts as Nigel Hamilton’s Biography: A Brief History, Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Biography: The Craft and Calling, and William Zinsser’s edited anthology, The Art and Craft of American Biography. They will read the contrasting styles of such biographers as Robert Caro, Lytton Strachey, Stacy Schiff and Blake Bailey. They will be asked, “What are the essential ingredients of a biography or memoir?” And every week or two they will write an 800-word obituary about a real person—living or dead—and thus learn how to summarize quickly the essence of a whole life.
Ethical Problems in Biography (3 credits): This course will delve into some of the perennial problems biographers encounter, both ethical and psychological. They will read Janet Malcolm’s famous indictment of biographers as invasive snoops. They will learn about the problems of writing about a living subject as opposed to a dead figure. They will study a bit of childhood psychology to learn about the problems associated with writing a narrative about their subject’s early life. They will study how biographers have dealt with psychological issues afflicting their subjects— but they will also be taught to avoid psycho-babble in their life narratives. Finally, they will be exposed to the slippery dangers of plagiarism, copyright infringement and fair-use quotation.


Areas of Concentration 

There are two optional areas of concentration: political/historical biography or literary/artistic biography. Either of these concentrations represents a different aspect of biography, and, by focusing coursework within a broad topic area, students will be better prepared for their biographical work or for Ph.D. programs and careers in the field.


Sample Elective Courses 


Select examples of courses previously offered in the English and History departments at The Graduate Center that might be chosen by students in the new Biography and Memoir program to fulfill their 15 elective credits:
ENGL 85410: Lost & Found (3 credits)
ENGL 85410: Occupied America: Method, History, Poetics (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: Shape of Time / The Poetics of Literary & Cultural History (3 credits)
ENGL 86000: The Politics of Experience: Countercultures in the Age of Decolonization (3 credits)
ENGL 86200: Old Worlds/New Worlds: Transmission, Trajectories & Breaks (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: Inheritance & Liberation: History, Scholarship & the Poetics of Influence (3 credits)
ENGL 87200: Contexts of Textual Scholarship: A Workshop in Materials of the “New American Poetry” (3 credits)
ENGL 86200: A Workshop in Contexts of 20th Century North American Poetry (3 credits)
ENGL 85000: From the Cold War to the Prison-Industrial Complex: Association and Intimacy in 20th Century American Poetics (3 credits)
ENGL 86800: Writing the World: Multiple Modernities, Women, and the Archive (3 credits)
ENGL 76200: Identities (3 credits)
ENGL 86500: Barbarism (3 credits)
ENGL 86500: Postcolonial Poetics: Body, Archive, Memory (3 credits)
ENGL 76200: Body, Affect, Landscape: Postcolonial Reckonings (3 credits)
ENGL 76200: Partition, Migration, Memory (3 credits)
ENGL 87500: Autobiography, Archive, Lyric Time (3 credits)
ENGL 86500: Postcolonial Poetics (3 credits)
ENGL 86500: South Asian Writing: Body, Memory, Text (3 credits)
ENGL 84500: Sherlock: A Character and a World (3 credits)
ENGL 80600: Distant Reading (3 credits)
ENGL 86000: Literature as Industry: The Business of Writing and Reading (3 credits)
ENGL 85410: Character: The Commodification of Subjectivity (3 credits)
ENGL 88100: Write Like a Man: Baldwin, Mailer, and the Flowering of American Masculinity (3 credits)
ENGL 76300: Serial Narrative (3 credits)
ENGL 86400: Literature after ‘Literature’: US Fictions since 1989 (3 credits)
ENGL 76100: Thomas Pynchon's America (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: American Aesthetics: Magic Words, Modes of Thought, & Language Games (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: American Aesthetics: ‘The mind feels when it thinks’ (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: American Aesthetics: Entanglement, or ‘spooky action at a distance’: A Theory of Reading & Writing (3 credits)
ENGL 75100: : American Aesthetics: ‘…a feeling of if’ (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: American Aesthetics: Pragmatism as Experience (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: American Aesthetics: Out of the Ordinary: Emerson and William James; Wittgenstein and William James; Emerson, Cavell and Wittgenstein (3 credits)
ENGL 80200: American Aesthetics: The Fact of Feeling (3 credits)
ENGL 85000: American Aesthetics: Transcendentalist Pragmatism 2 (3 credits)
HIST 72600: Human Rights and the Non-Western World
HIST 72100 : The Protestant Reformation and Its Impact (3 credits)
HIST 80020: Literature of European History I (3 credits)
HIST 74000: History and Literature in Early Modern England and Ireland (3 credits)
HIST 84900: Seminar in American History II (3 credits)
HIST 75800: Topics in US Urban History (3 credits)
HIST 84900: Seminar in American History I (3 credits)
HIST 75300: The Gilded Age and Progressive Era (3 credits)
HIST 75800: History of the City of New York (3 credits)
HIST 80010: Literature Survey II – American History (3 credits)
HIST 74900: American Jewish History (3 credits)
HIST 84900: Literature of American History I (3 credits)
HIST 72800: Global Perspectives on the Enlightenment (3 credits)
HIST 72100: The History of Liberalism from Locke to Rawls (3 credits)
HIST 72110: The Intellectual Politics of the French Revolution: Then and Now (3 credits)
HIST 71200: The 18th Century Enlightenment (3 credits)
HIST 71200: Intellectual Politics of the French Revolution (3 credits)
HIST 84900: Seminar in Non-American History II (3 credits)
HIST 71000: The Politics of the Enlightenment (3 credits)
HIST 72100:  Madame de Stael and the Problem of the Female Intellectual (3 credits)
HIST 71000: History of Liberalism (3 credits)
HIST 72600: Deviance and Colonialism (3 credits)