HENK00007U English, 2017 curriculum - Free topic 7: Life-stories and Life Writing in History

Volume 2017/2018

Life-story telling, even as silent recollection, is always located socially and historically as well as psychologically. Consequently the recent study of life-stories cuts across disciplinary boundaries to reveal the structures that underly thought, spoken and (sometimes) written down versions of the past. The first past of this course considers what it means to create one, or many, personal histories, as well as the ways in which historians, sociologists and anthropologists analyse such accounts. We pursue these theoretical considerations through the close examination of various life-stories beginning from the 18th century. Our wider purpose is give students a working knowledge of recent academic debates and methodologies connected with life-stories, oral history and memory; to explore interdisciplinary approaches – historical, social, psychological and cultural – to the study of life-stories, oral histories and ‘memory work’; to foster analytic skills, critical thinking as well as written and spoken expression by the close reading and discussion of various sources. This combination of close analysis and theoretical approaches leads into the second part of the course, which considers how individuals have responded to and articulated decolonisation in their autobiographies and memoirs. A particular focus will be on memory: how reliable are these sources? What can they tell us about the imperial past and the postcolonial context of writing? How do the memories of individuals relate to the way societies commemorate the empire? What is the moral economy of traumatic memories? We will consider the importance of the context and get a sense of the differing experiences of decolonisation in various parts of the former empire, including the Caribbean, Australia and Southern Africa. We will investigate the texts as at once literary texts with aesthetic qualities and historical sources that reveal much about their postcolonial time of writing and consider how this literary genre is harnessed to a project of personal and political positioning.

Life-story, oral history and the archive of memory

Main reading list:

  • James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c. 1707-75), Narrative  (1772)
  • Mary Saxby (1737-1801), Memoirs of a Vagrant Woman Written by Herself (1806)
  • ‘A vagrant boy’ (born c. 1834) in: Peter Razzell & Henry Mayhew, The Morning Chronicle Survey of Labour and the Poor (1850)
  • Ellen O’Neill, Extraordinary Confessions of a Female Pickpocket (1850).                                                                         
  • Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), My Autobiography (1964)
  • Donall MacAmhlaigh (1926-89), An Irish Navvy: the diary of an exile (1964)
  • Bibi Inder Kaur (1917-96), oral testimony


Additional readings:

Various extracts and articles – supplied online.


Memories of Empire

You must purchase the following two books – available in the university bookstore:

  • Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs
  • Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
  • Other readings are available on Absalon – see course room under “Files”.
Classes, with particular emphasis on reading primary and secondary texts, oral discussion and developing proficiency in English.
Life-story, oral history and the archive of memory will be taught in weeks 37-44, four hours/week.

Memories of Empire will be taught in weeks 44-50, four hours/week.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 353,5
  • Total
  • 409,5
Type of assessment
Portfolio, A joint portfolio for both courses uploaded in digital exam: Deadline January 10th 2018
1. Essay assignment, 11-15 pages (1/2 weighting):
Discuss the psychological, social and political uses of life-stories using one, or at most two, examples from the course materials. Deadline: late October 2017

2. Synopsis & Student conference (1/2 weighing):
Each student will present a topic of his/her own choosing based on course readings and additional research. Synopsis, research questions and bibliography are submitted as part of the portfolio. Deadline: Medio December; synopses to be submitted the penultimate week of the course
Criteria for exam assesment