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Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

This concentration is no longer accepting students. Current students can complete the degree. If you wish to apply to the new M.A. program in Biography and Memoir, please write to

Diarists and bloggers and writers of letters and emails enjoy what some call “life writing”; celebrity culture and the media have increased popular interest in biography and autobiography. In a broad variety of professions, people write profiles, obituaries, or case studies. Within the academy, personal writing provides source material for historians and biographers; literary scholars continue to trawl the archives for hidden gems in these so-called minor genres; and theorists of autobiography and biography continue to amass a formidable bibliography. The aim of the MALS concentration in Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir is to explore the various kinds and the long history of life writing (from, e.g., Plutarch) and its importance within the disciplines (from art history to science studies) and around them.

Degree Requirements

MALS students take four classes within the program — Seminar in Interdisciplinary Studies, two core courses in their chosen concentration, and the thesis/capstone project — and choose their remaining electives from among courses offered across the doctoral and certificate programs in the Social Sciences and Humanities at The Graduate Center.

This master's degree program requires the following coursework for a total of 30 credits:

  • A required introductory course [MALS 70000: Seminar in Interdisciplinary Studies] (3 credits)
  • Two required core courses to introduce students to Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir [MALS 70900 and MALS 71000] (6 credits)
  • 18 credits from courses of the student's choice that are relevant to the student’s concentration or studies
  • A master's thesis/capstone project [MALS 79000] (3 credits)

Core Courses

MALS 70900 Approaches to Life Writing, 3 credits
Great life writing tells the tale with panache, wedding the precision of scrupulous scholarship with the insight and narrative thrust of a good novel. This course offers a sustained look at biography, autobiography, and memoir as genres that combine the strengths of both non-fiction and fiction. Students will explore the art of life writing through a range of subjects, styles, and periods. A survey of seminal biographers—Plutarch, Augustine, Vasari, Boswell—will acquaint students with the defining theories of life writing, while more contemporary works such as Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, or Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals will demonstrate the variety of forms that life writing can take. Through the reading and writing assignments for this course, students will have the chance to explore the lives of fascinating figures, such as Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and to experiment with life writing of one’s own.

MALS 71000 Forms of Life Writing, 3 credits
The second core course will focus on a particular form or theme within life writing. The class might focus, for example, on autobiographical writing, reading works that provoke comparisons of fictional with "actual" autobiographies, and/or to making distinctions between confessional writing and different modes of self-presentation in letters, diaries, and blogs.  Or the semester might be devoted to spousal biographies, or family histories, or the lives of scientists or of actors, or the differences between case studies and journalistic 'profiles.'  Students might read and compare several "literary" biographies, or a group of biographies about a single figure (e.g., Napoleon) or the works of a single biographer or group of writers (e.g., the Bloomsbury set) who had an impact on the development of the genre. Students will encounter multiple examples of how life stories can be crafted and learn to analyze critically the authors’ narrative tools and objectives. 

Elective Courses

Electives can be chosen among courses offered across most of the doctoral and certificate programs in the Social Sciences and Humanities at The Graduate Center.
For related coursework in Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir, students may look to offerings in the doctoral programs in English and Comparative Literature


MALS faculty associated with this concentration:

Other GC faculty associated with this concentration:


Library Resources

Visit the GC Mina Rees Library's Liberal Studies Research Guide.
Students' contact for Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir research is reference librarian Shawn(ta) Smith.