- Miriam Fuchs (Editor) and Craig Howes (Editor)
Teaching Life Writing Texts. Modern Language Association of America (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Simon Rolston
There is a sense among life-writing scholars that the discipline has yet to find its place as a legitimate field of study. This may have something to do with the variety of narrative forms that fall under the life-writing rubric. Autobiography, biography, diaries, journals, ethnography, letters, testimonio, even obituaries and blogs (to name a few) are all covered by the life-writing umbrella, which makes generic conventions hard, if not impossible, to pin down. Because it encompasses so many genres, life writing is decidedly interdisciplinary, showing up in departments of law, sociology, anthropology, language, gender studies, and art history. Fortunately, life-writing scholars have embraced life writing's indeterminacy and interdisciplinarity, even though its protean nature makes it something of a stepsibling in humanities departments-loved, certainly, but still a bit of an outsider.
As part of the Modern Language Association's Options for Teaching series, Teaching Life Writing Texts, edited by Miriam Fuchs and Craig Howes, is a timely collection that does the difficult but necessary work of providing pedagogical tools (like classroom activities, course suggestions, recommended reading material, syllabi, curricula, assignments, and theory) for this indeterminate and interdisciplinary field of study. Like the field in which it makes its intervention (which is large, containing multitudes), this collection is vast in scope, covering a wide variety of disciplines in at least seven countries, and across all levels of postsecondary education.
Even though most chapters are developed around specific courses, the methodologies discussed in the book are quite flexible. Those interested in finding pedagogical tools for teaching Canadian life writing, for example, are well-served with excellent essays by Gabriele Helms on the slippery nature of genre in Canadian life writing, Michael Young on early American and Canadian Life Writing, and Daniel Heath Justice on the ethics of teaching Indigeneous life-writing narratives. But reading beyond one's own subject area will prove fruitful here, as teaching strategies focused on one subject can be easily transferred to another. Consider Alison Booth's innovative assignments that (among other things) help students recognize and historicize their own reading practices, or Cynthia Huff's approach to teaching archival work through highly innovative collaborative research projects (in both cases, their appended assignments are extremely useful). Sandra Chait and Ghirmai Negash's cutting-edge "pedagogical experiment," where students at the University of Asmara in Eritrea were partnered with students at the University of Washington in order to "teach ethnographic life-history writing through internet exchanges," suggests an ambitious and important future trajectory for life-writing pedagogy in an increasingly globalized community. There is a wealth of information here-and this collection is well worth perusing.
I have two quibbles with Teaching. First, the collection is not as user-friendly as it could be (a subject index would have been a great help, for example). And second, some (fortunately not many) contributors do not rely enough on current scholarship and debate in preparing their classes or guiding their students toward an exploration of the major discussions that eddy around life-writing texts and practices. For example, while Kenneth Womack's course on the Beatles is an engaging concept, he relies too heavily on the work of a single theorist-albeit an important one, James Olney-rather than offering multiple ways for his class to engage with the "various narrative-driven aspects of the Beatles' musical canon." Consequently, the course seems restricted and narrow in its development, too close to the instructor's own concepts rather than providing students with the means to develop concepts of their own. Likewise Joanne Karpinski's course on diversity in American life writing makes use of Philipe Lejeune's On Autobiography (1989), but she uses no other texts that theorize how race, class, sexuality, or other forms of diversity are negotiated in America, or in life writing (and reading) practices generally. Perhaps as a consequence, Karpinski makes several problematic assumptions about race and class relations. For example, she suggests that reading enables her middle-class students to experience "exactly the same predicament" as poor people of colour-a misinterpretation that could have been avoided through a deeper engagement with theories of race and class that are integral to life-writing studies.
But these are, as I say, just quibbles. On the whole, Teaching Life Writing Texts is an invaluable resource. And what better way to address the legitimacy of life writing than by developing exciting and engaging classrooms, the necessary spaces of learning that will nurture the next generation of life-writing scholars.
- "Notes to Self" by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Marian Engel's Notebooks: "Ah, mon cahier, écoute" by Christl Verduyn and Hobnobbing with a Countess and Other Okanagan Adventures: The Diaries of Alice Barrett Parke, 1891-1900 by Jo Fraser Jones
- Legacy of the Bear's Lip by Heather Hodgson
Books reviewed: Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman by Yvonne Johnson and Ruby Wiebe
- Pursued by Monsters by Marlene Briggs
Books reviewed: Trauma and Dreams by Deirdre Barrett and Zero Hour by Kristjana Gunnars
- Reading Lessons by Donna Palmateer Pennee
Books reviewed: Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy by Wendy S. Hesford and A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Preent by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
- McLuhan Redux by Christopher Keep
Books reviewed: McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse by Glenn Willmott and Virtual Realities and Their Discontents by Robert Markley
MLA: Fuchs, Miriam, Howes, Craig, and Rolston, Simon. Legitimate Children. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #201 (Summer 2009), Disappearance and Mobility. (pg. 164 - 165)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.