The M.A. Program in Biography and Memoir offers a rigorous and innovative 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: Forms of Life Writing, Research and Methodology in Biography and Memoir, Ethical Problems in Biography and Memoir, Writing and Style in Biography and Memoir (descriptions below). Students will then choose among a rich array of elective courses offered in varied academic fields. A sample of elective courses is included below. Students will complete the program with an individual thesis or capstone project under guidance from a Graduate Center faculty member, in which they plan and produce a short memoir or biography on a subject of their choosing.
BAM 70100 - Forms of Life Writing
This core course is designed to introduce students to different forms of life writing, and to expose them to the many artistic expressions utilized by biographers and memoirists in the past. Through an intensive program of critical reading, discussion, and writing, students will become familiarized with different and classic models of the genre, exploring theme, style, characterization, the deployment of contextualization, or psychology and questions of memory and identity.
BAM 70200 - 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.
BAM 70300 - Writing and Style in Biography and Memoir/ Approaches to Life-Writing
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.
BAM 70400 - Ethical Problems in Biography and Memoir
This course will explore the ethical problems that attend life writing or other forms such as oral history, studying how practitioners have dealt with these matters. Utilizing texts which may include case studies, students will discuss and write about such issues as truth and falsehood; withholding or exposing information; respecting the confidentiality or privacy of others; or writing about marginal or vulnerable populations. Students will also be exposed to the other ethics-related issues, such as plagiarism, libel, copyright infringement, the requirements of the Institutional Review Board, fair-use quotation and the consent of vulnerable subjects.
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 other departments at The Graduate Center that might be chosen by students in the new MA Program in Biography and Memoir:
FSCP 81000. Marc Dolan.
The Biographical Film: Editing a Life.
MALS 70400. Julie Suk and Sara McDougall.
Interdisciplinary Topics in Law: Mothers in Law
HIST 75200. David Reynolds.
Warriors against Slavery: Lincoln, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass.
FRENCH 70500. Domna Stanton.
Writing the Self: From Augustine to Selfies.
CLAS 71800 Jennifer T. Roberts
Thucydides, Politics, Philosophy
Spring 2019 and earlier
ENGL 79020. Mark McBeth
Writing with an Attitude: Navigating/Negotiating Voices within Critical Experimental Writing.
ENGL 80200. Joan Richardson
American Aesthetics: “The mind feels when it thinks”.
ENGL 85500. Jonathan Gray
The Racial Imaginary
ENGL 78000. Nancy K. Miller
Postmodern Memoir: Mostly Women, Also Graphic
ENGL 84300. Richard Kaye
Brontës, Hardy, Lawrence
ENGL 80200. Wayne Koestenbaum
Notebooks and Other Irregular Accountings.
ENGL 75000. David Reynolds.
ENGL 87500. Nancy K. Miller