OSL Seminar – Contemporary Debates in Life Writing

Teaching period: March-April 2019 (5 meetings)
Location: University of Amsterdam, TBA
Instructors: Dr Babs Boter (VU Amsterdam) and Dr Marleen Rensen (UvA; course coordinator)
Credits: 5 EC
Open to: RMA students and PhD candidates, OSL members will have first access
Registration will open in September 2018

This course focuses on contemporary debates in life writing as a newly emerging field across disciplines. Life writing is an umbrella term for a wide range of writings about one’s own or someone else’s life, such as biography, autobiography, memoir, diary, bio-fiction and travel writing. In the course we will explore various life stories of men and women in the 20th and 21st centuries, who each had their own unique set of life experiences, beliefs and perceptions. This will help gain a richer understanding of how individuals move through, interact with, and are affected by the major events of their time — and how their lives are narrated, either by themselves or by others.

Participants will be asked to actively engage in the selection and discussion of case studies and readings; periods before the 20th century can be addressed as well. This will be done in the framework of the following five sessions:


Session 1: Life writing: art, science or ideology?

• Mapping the field
• Different disciplines and methodologies
• Hot debates in the field of life writing research

Session 2: Who deserves a ‘ life’, who is eligible to tell it —and how is it put to use by
historians, policymakers and activists?

• ‘Great men’ versus ordinary people
• The power of representation
• Cultural appropriation
• Claiming lost personal narratives of marginalized voices (e.g. women, postcolonial subjects and refugees)

Session 3: The biographer’s dilemma: how to deal with myths, taboos and secrets?

• Private versus public
• Tackling tall tales
• Deconstructing heroic stories
• Ethical issues
• The author’s own subject position

Session 4: What is the scope of the context: national versus transnational?

• Diaspora and migration
• Travelling subjects
• Intersections with race, class, gender
• Cross-cultural networks
• Circulation of life stories

Session 5: What are the effects of new media on practices of self-representation?

• Digital lives, blogs and vlogs
• Democratization and inclusion
• Youth cultures
• Agency and participation
• Creative writing