ENG 145: Readings in Memoir

Professor Amy Butcher, aebutche@owu.edu
Spring 2016
Office Hours: By appointment in Sturges #306 on M 1-3pm & Th 2:30-4pm

Course Description:
Once upon a time, long before the Age of Oprah, writers who had lived through something fascinating or terrible or both would turn their experiences into fiction. Nowadays, however, these stories equally take the form of memoir—a sub-genre of the diverse and expansive genre we typically call creative nonfiction. Between the 1940s and 1990s, for example, the number of books published as memoir tripled; more recently, the Neilson Bookscan reports a recorded 400% increase in the number of memoirs published between 2004 and today, and many of these are soon thereafter developed into summer Blockbuster movies. What does this mean? It means, in part, that the form is increasingly considered both artful and necessary; experiences once deemed so humiliating or painful that people hid them are now so remunerative that some writers make them up. But what is a memoir, how does it function, and how is it differentiated from autobiography and simple recollection? In this class, we’ll study the form and read a wide variety of contemporary and popular examples and discuss the primary elements that comprise a memoir. But perhaps more importantly, we’ll work daily to engage and understand the idea that memoir is less interested in the past than it is the act of remembering and the ways past selves continue to inform who we are in the present. We will, in short, talk quite a bit about truth, identity, and veracity in art.

Course Texts (must be purchased in physical form—no e-readers, please):
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 978-1400043149
Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala, Vintage, ISBN 978-0345804310
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, David Eggers, Vintage, ISBN 978-0375725784
Lying, Lauren Slater, Penguin, ISBN 978-0142000069
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, Mariner Books, ISBN 978-0618871711
Selected course readings, available on our Blackboard site (all readings must be printed and brought to class)
Notebook (to be brought to class daily for analytical and occasional creative writing)

Class Participation and Behavior:
This class depends and in fact thrives upon the individualized interpretation and thoughtful engagement of each and every student, and as such, class participation comprises a large percentage of the final grade. Many students make the unfortunate mistake of thinking that it is enough to complete the reading and attend class; on the contrary, I consider class participation to be the act of demonstrating yourself to be an actively engaged and enthused part of our classroom conversation. There is, in other words, no place in my classroom for intellectual apathy, and it is not enough to show up and warm a seat. Please note that I also expect all students to self-regulate; those who attempt to regularly monopolize conversation or make tangential or anecdotal comments will be equally penalized. Ultimately, one of the most integral skills we’ll aim to develop over the duration of the semester is how to respond intelligently, thoughtfully, and nonthreatening to other people’s ideas and analyses, which is to say that while you’re welcome to disagree with your peers or with me, of course, please remember that all comments should be considerate, thoughtful, respectful, and grounded in close analysis of the text. In my experience, the best participants in a discussion-based seminar such as this one not only listen to what their classmates have to say, but work to engage, build upon and complicate those sentiments rather than simply waiting for their turn to speak or reiterating what has already been presented. In addition, because it is my firm belief that an engaged and respectful student gives their full attention to the materials and the discussion at hand, I do not allow computers or e-readers in my classroom without a note from the learning specialist, your phone should not be on your desk, your laptop should not be open, and under no circumstances should you be texting or falling asleep in class. Repeated failure to do so will result in an F for class participation.

A Note On Reading-Intensive Courses:
As this is a reading-intensive course, the majority of your time each week will be spent completing the assigned reading; our page count will invariably fluctuate, but typical weekly reading assignments will range from 80-170 pages. It is therefore very important that you set aside time each week to do the required reading and stay current with our assigned work, which not only ensures your success in course quizzes and exams but facilitates our weekly discussions. The kind of reading we’ll be doing in this class—critical reading—entails not simply letting your eyes glance at the words on the page and getting the basic gist of a text, but instead reading these memoirs carefully, paying attention to detail, working to engage the ideas we’ve discussed in class, and taking note of things that interest, surprise, and/or confuse you. I expect all students to come to class with the day’s readings in hand, the reading completed in its entirety and with your full attention, and the marginalia marked to evidence passages you found relevant, thought provoking, significant, curious, or especially well-written. I expect you, too, to look up all words or terms you’re unfamiliar with and to engage with the work at the level it demands—that is, looking up a historical event, term, or geographical location if you’re otherwise unfamiliar.

Leading Discussion:
Twice during the semester, you’ll work in partnered pairs to lead our class in a thorough and analytical discussion of the day’s assigned reading. Please note that while this discussion will ultimately involve the whole class, it is the task of the discussion leaders to guide us in a very specific, analytical and conversational interpretation; I am therefore expecting pairs to have not only completed the assigned reading, but to have worked together to digest the material and subsequently form a thorough and processed understanding and a structured plan of engaging the class in this discussion. If it is the first day of a new book, pairs may begin by introducing the author, their career summary, or any other useful or relevant information that will help to put the work in context, but on the whole, these discussions should largely comprise of a guided critical and analytical close reading. Pairs should work to identify key passages and concepts, assert how they feel they contribute to the memoir’s overall significance or interpretation, raise questions the memoir invariably poses, and share what they feel the author is attempting to say or gesture towards. As a means of stimulating thoughtful and intelligent conversation, all pairs must prepare a handout that focuses on at least three key passages (please transcribe the passage and include page numbers) as well as five discussion questions that target key moments, ways of understanding or interpreting the memoir, and/or thematic connections to larger issues. These questions should be relatively sophisticated and specific in scope and should aim to engage the memoir far beyond the surface level (IE: do not ask, please, “What happens in today’s reading?” and/or “Did you enjoy it?”). While you are certainly encouraged to do some research, I expect students to formulate their own analysis and interpretation of the assigned material; please do not rely on Sparknotes or any other reading summary website. Partners are welcome to structure their time however they feel would be most effective—students might, for example, begin with asking the class to respond individually in a notebook to a question before guiding us in their particular interpretation, or else partners might split the class into small groups halfway through the discussion to analyze a particular passage or moment. Students are also welcome to bring in any relevant audio or visual component they feel would be helpful; if you need help with anything, please do let me know and I’ll do my best to accommodate.

Critical Response Journals:
To supplement our weekly reading, students will complete weekly journal entries that examine and analyze the memoir and the many questions or ideas it will invariably raise about truth, art, subjectivity, or any number of related concepts. You should be, in other words, performing a close reading of the memoir and analyzing the writing as a carefully crafted piece of art that was formed from, above all, true accounts. While less formal than a paper, these entries should nonetheless construct a coherent narrative, be scholarly in tone, employ complete and grammatically sound sentences, and be free of spelling and typing errors. The goal of this journal is to explore and analyze the way the week’s reading contributes, complicates, or is in conversation with the memoir as a whole and the experience the author posits based on the author’s precise use of language. Please refer to our in-class handout for further illustration of the level of engagement and effort I expect. These journal entries should be strictly 600-900 words in length (any entries significantly under will be penalized at 50%) and must be uploaded by the start of class on the day that it is due to our course Blackboard site. Because these journal entries are designed to foster intelligent conversation in class, no late journal entries will be accepted; if Blackboard is down or you experience complications in trying to upload the file, please email it to me before the start of class for credit. Please note that these entries—of which there are 12—make up a significant percentage of the final grade, so failing to regularly complete and submit them will significantly affect your final grade.

Midterm & Final Exam:
This course culminates in both a midterm and final exam, both of which test reading and comprehension skills as well as your ability to identify and interpret select passages from the assigned texts. Both exams are designed to show that you have completed all assigned reading, taken notes, and otherwise demonstrated yourself to be an engaged, analytical, and critical close reader. The final exam will be a take-home, open book exam and will ask that you comment on the memoir form as a whole as well as the connections shared between texts.

Reading Quizzes:
These will be unannounced and frequent and are designed to ensure that all students are keeping up with the reading and giving it their undivided attention. If you are absent on a day in which a reading quiz is assigned, you will receive a 0%; please note, too, that a low grade in this section can seriously damage your final grade.

Blackboard Grades:
Please note that Blackboard displays grades for assignments turned in on Blackboard only; large components of this class, including class participation, leading discussion, and both midterm and final exam grades are not recorded here and therefore not included in any visible totals. Therefore, it is not an adequate reflection of your course grade. Please refer to the formula below and don’t hesitate to contact me about individual grades.

Absence and late work policy:
Because this class depends upon the thoughtful engagement of each and every student, you are allotted two course absences, and I do not differentiate between excused and unexcused. Any additional absence beyond these two will automatically result in the deduction of one subset from your final participation grade; that is, a B will automatically become a B- with the addition of a third absence. Any student who misses 6 classes or more will earn an F for this course. There are no exceptions. I consider it your responsibility to keep track of your absences, however I am happy to clarify should you seek assurance. If you are absent, please note that I still expect you to turn in any work prior to the start of class; if you miss class on the day you are expected to lead discussion, you cannot substitute for another day or make up those points. Late work is not accepted without extenuating circumstances and my advanced approval. Finally, please remember that because lateness is, in essence, a disregard for our weekly appointment and a disruption to discussion, regular tardiness will not be tolerated and any student who is late beyond ten minutes will be marked absent for that day.

Concerns On Course Content:
Because memoir is often defined as an examination of a life or experience uniquely not our own, please be aware that many of our course texts will concern sensitive topics and situations that may prove uncomfortable for some. If you have any specific concerns, please don’t hesitate to come speak with me early in the semester.

Plagiarism:
Please remember that I am a professional reader of words and will therefore immediately notice any changes in sentence structure, vocabulary, or content or language that simply does not sound like your own. If you are caught plagiarizing, you will fail the assignment and likely the course. Furthermore, as an instructor of this university, I am required to report all cases of plagiarism to the Dean of Academic Affairs; penalties include academic probation, suspension, and expulsion. Please don’t do it, don’t think about doing it, and don’t even think about thinking about doing it.

Students With Special Needs:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protections for persons with disabilities. Among other things, the legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you have, or think you may have, a disability (e.g., mental health, attention, learning, chronic health, sensory, or physical), please contact Disability Services in Corns 315 or call (740) 368-3925 to arrange a confidential discussion regarding equitable access and reasonable accommodations. If you are registered with Disability Services and have a current letter requesting reasonable accommodations, please contact me as early in the semester as possible to discuss how your accommodations will be applied in our course. For more information, consult the Disabilities Services website, http://ldac.owu.edu/index.html.

Grading and Evaluation:
Each assignment will have its own specific criteria and will be discussed as the deadline approaches. However, as a general rule, A-level work is well-written or presented, incorporates original ideas alongside those discussed in class, and shows sophisticated critical thought and creativity with a level of effort that reaches far beyond the minimum requirements. B-level work exhibits a firm understanding of most of the key concepts discussed in class but doesn’t attempt to think beyond them, yet exceeds minimum requirements. C-level work adequately meets the minimum requirements without exceeding them and exhibits understanding of some of the key concepts, but struggles with others. D-level work fails to exhibit a grasp on most of the concepts discussed in class and does not meet minimum requirements. F-level work is inadequate, incomplete, or plagiarized. The final grade is determined by the following:

Class Participation 20%
Reading Response Journal 30%
Leading Discussion #1 10%
Leading Discussion #2 10%
Reading Quizzes 10%
Midterm 10%
Final Exam 10%


Course Schedule:
Tuesday, January 12th: Course introduction, syllabus distribution, discussion on memoir and creative nonfiction, in-class reading of micro-memoirs from Brevity, in-class listening to NPR segment on 6 word memoirs, write 6-word memoirs; assignment: complete micro-memoir assignment, pick up books, review course Blackboard site

Thursday, January 14th: Micro-memoir due (13 copies). Read excerpt from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir” (Blackboard), Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender” (Blackboard), and Lee Gutkind’s “What Is Creative Nonfiction?”

Tuesday, January 19th: Read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (pg. 1-61)

Thursday, January 21st: Read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (pg. 62-121); assignment: critical response entry #1 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, January 26th: Read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (pg. 122-174)

Thursday, January 28th: Read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (pg. 175-227); assignment: critical response entry #2 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, February 2nd: Read Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (pg. 1-57)

Thursday, February 4th: Read Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (pg. 58-108); assignment: critical response entry #3 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, February 9th: Read Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (pg. 109-154)

Thursday, February 11th: Read Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (pg. 155-204); assignment: critical response entry #4 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, February 16th: Read Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (pg. 205-228)

Thursday, February 18th: Read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (cover-pg. 46); assignment: critical response entry #5 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, February 23rd: Read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (pg. 47-104)

Thursday, February 25th: Read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (pg. 105-165); assignment: critical response entry #6 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, March 1st: Read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (pg. 166-239)

Thursday, March 3rd: Read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (pg. 240-310); assignment: critical response entry #7 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, March 8th: No Class (Spring Break)

Thursday, March 10th: No Class (Spring Break)

Tuesday, March 15th: Read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (pg. 311-437)

Thursday, March 17th: No Class (Professor Butcher at Conference)

Tuesday, March 22nd: In-class midterm exam

Thursday, March 24th: Read Lauren Slater’s Lying (pg. 1-60); assignment: critical response entry #8 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, March 29th: Read Lauren Slater’s Lying (pg. 61-106); assignment: critical response entry #9 due by 1pm on Tuesday

Thursday, March 31st: No Class (Professor Butcher at Conference)

Tuesday, April 5th: Read Lauren Slater’s Lying (pg. 107-158)

Thursday, April 7th: Read Lauren Slater’s Lying (pg. 159-221); assignment: critical response entry #10 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, April 12th: Read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (pg. 1-54)

Thursday, April 14th: Read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (pg. 55-86); assignment: critical response entry #11 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, April 19th: Read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (pg. 87-151)

Thursday, April 21st: Read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (pg. 152-232); assignment: critical response entry #12 due by 1pm on Thursday

Tuesday, April 26th: In-Class film screening at Beeghly Library Media Center

Thursday, April 28th: Take-home final exam distributed. Last day of class and course evaluations

Saturday, April 30th: Final exam due by 8:30am in bin outside my office