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.
The Biographical Narrative: Forms of Life Writing
This course will interrogate various forms of so-called "life writing" (biography/fictional biography/memoir) to investigate the meaning, aims, ethics, pitfalls, and possibilities of the genre as practiced in literature. We will therefore examine a wide range of topics that various forms of life-writing encounter: the relation between fact and fiction; the significance of politics and historical context; the impact of individual psychology; point of view in narration; the function of imagination; the use or exploitation of marginal figures. And to the extent that life-writing depends on the creation of character, this course looks closely at how such characters are created from real people: how a living, breathing person seems to arise out of a mass of sometimes contradictory “facts”; how characters are made to change, that is, if they do; how characters can make a story move; and of course how or if forms of life-writing might be liberated from its traditional borders.
Research and Methodology in Biography and Memoir
This core course will teach students historical methodologies and basic research skills in the writing of biography or memoir. They will learn how biographers and autobiographers acquire information through interview techniques, oral history collections, research in government and private archives, or sophisticated use of databases and digital humanities sources. Students will make personal trips to New York area archives and libraries, and will conduct practice oral history interviews with sources.
Ethical Problems in Biography and Memoir
Janet Malcolm once famously wrote that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The same harsh words might be applied to biographers and memoirists, who navigate a minefield of ethical issues when it comes to the private and public lives of their subjects. In writing memoir, how much does one reveal about one’s family and its secrets? In a biography, even of a long-dead subject, is there any aspect of the individual’s life that should be withheld? What exactly is the moral and ethical stance of the biographer or memoirist in relation to his or her subject (or family and friends, in the case of the memoirist?). And what about issues of privacy, confidentiality, and consent? This course will explore these perennial problems, studying how biographers and memoirists have dealt with these matters. Students will also be exposed to the other ethical issues, such as plagiarism, copyright infringement, the requirements of the Institutional Review Board, fair-use quotation and the consent of vulnerable subjects.
Approaches to Life-Writing: The Art and Craft of Biography and Memoir
Ever since Plutarch brought Alexander the Great blazingly to life in his seminal Lives (2nd century CE), people have loved to read—and write—biographies. Approaches to Life Writing will be an exploration of the art and craft of the genre. What do great biographies or memoirs have in common--and how do they differ? How are scenes set, facts organized, context provided? How novelistic can a biography be? And is there, finally, such a thing as “truth” in biography or autobiography, or a “definitive” account? From biography as gossipy inside edition (Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson), to biography as irreverent debunking (Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians), to contemporary biography, discussed with the biographers themselves, we will explore the many ways a writer can tease out the “figure under the carpet,” as Leon Edel, the great biographer of Henry James, put it.
But for those who wish to do so, this is also a course about practicing the art ourselves. For the final paper, in lieu of a more conventional essay, students will have the opportunity to write an autobiographical chapter, or else research and write a chapter of a biography.
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 74000: History and Literature in Early Modern England and Ireland (3 credits)
HIST 75800: Topics in US Urban History (3 credits)
HIST 75300: The Gilded Age and Progressive Era (3 credits)
HIST 75800: History of the City of New York (3 credits)
HIST 74900: American Jewish History (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)