Amy Rubens is an Associate Professor of English, and the Interim Associate Dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research at Radford University.
Moderated by Jillian Abbott, this roundtable on the role of lifewriting in contexts other than the undergraduate literary classroom brought together four dynamic perspectives spanning not only international borders but also sectors and roles within the academy: Laura Beard, who presented on the ways lifewriting scholars can utilize their unique expertise in academic leadership roles; Lauren Fournier, who spoke about teaching lifewriting as a research topic and craft to students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the arts; Rachael Hanel who discussed teaching lifewriting to advanced undergraduate journalism students; and Kirsi Tuohela, who described teaching lifewriting about what she termed “psychic suffering” in a medical humanities course for life-long learning (i.e., continuing education) students.
Each panelist offered a unique perspective on the role of lifewriting in their work in the academy as researchers, teachers, scholars, and professionals. However, their collective presentations and the ensuing moderated discussion highlighted some interesting commonalities regarding motivations, outcomes, and contextual factors.
The panel began with remarks from Beard, a lifewriting scholar who is now a vice president of research at her institution. In telling her own story about how she carries her expertise in lifewriting into her work supporting others’ scholarly work, Beard made a strong case for the relationship between lifewriting and activities like grantwriting and empirical data collection that are more common within (but not exclusive to) non-humansitic fields.
Next, attendees heard from Fournier, who shared her approach to teaching students pursuing formal degrees in art about lifewriting by visual artists. Aided by research from her recently published book, and drawing from insights teaching a similar undergraduate course this past summer, Fournier created a graduate-level course that will include study in traditional and practically-oriented genres, such as the artist’s statement, but also experimental modes and their attendant critical lenses. Additionally, based on feedback and observations from her summer course, her upcoming graduate course will include “studio time” during which students can produce their own lifewriting texts and media.
Extending yet focusing this concentration on teaching, Hanel described a writing project she assigns in her advanced journalism courses. In this assignment, students read a personal essay that is meant for “mass consumption” and then write a personal essay of their own that might ostensibly be published in a magazine, newspaper, or blog; Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story provides a conceptual frame that guides students’ in their work and in their metacritical reflection on it. According to Hanel, the assignment helps students expand their repertoire as mass communications specialists, as they come to learn that the “I” point-of-view indeed has a place in journalism.
Tuohela also spoke about a specific teaching initiative, but she addressed one that is for life-long learners, or those who are taking a course for enrichment purposes and not necessarily to earn credits towards a specific degree or credential. In Tuohela’s medical humanities course, students learn about the history of melancholia and depression alongside two lifewriting texts: Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe and a contemporary memoir that also is about what Tuohela calls “psychic suffering.” Through this work, students become more attuned to the ways in which illness has “history,” or a context against which personal experience with illness takes shape.
Despite the varied contexts in which the speakers described engaging with lifewriting, some common themes emerged. Namely, the roundtable reaffirmed the importance of personal narrative as an important tool for expression, connection, and comprehension. Many disciplines other than literary studies engage with lifewriting, but most importantly, so do many professions. Moreover, as the roundtable participants and listeners noted, although social media has naturalized the desire to consume and tell personal stories, lifewriting teacher-scholars can help students, especially those who have “grown up” with social media, be more informed and intentional when engaging with lifewriting.
Ultimately, the sheer presence of a roundtable called “Lifewriting Beyond the Undergraduate Literary Classroom” demonstrates that there’s an undeniable need for the active engagement with lifewriting in contexts other than where it traditionally has been located. I suspect that many of the attendees, though, didn’t need convincing, and I count myself in that category: I teach lifewriting in the undergraduate literary classroom, but also in professional and technical writing and in my institution’s new health humanities minor; I also am an academic administrator. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from this roundtable, and I congratulate the participants and moderate on a job well done!
If you’d like to connect with the panelists, you may find them here:
Twitter: @Rachael18 ; Instagram: rachael_hanel
Link to my forthcoming book: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/autotheory-feminist-practice-art-writing-and-criticism
Jillian Abbott (moderator) : Instagram: @TheMindfulMouth