Exploring Auto/Biography

Submitted by Sarah Horowitz

This session was designed for a first-year writing seminar called “Truth and Techno-Identity: Auto/Biographies” which explored issues of truth, self-presentation, and social media.

The goals of the session were to introduce students to special collections and give them hands-on experience working with original primary sources, for students to explore the similarities and differences in the self-presentation found in these materials and digital social media, and for students to improve their ability to analyze a primary source.

Before class, students were asked to read Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, “Life Narrative: Definitions and Distinctions” from Reading Autobiography and the introduction to Ellen Garvey’s Writing with Scissors.

In the class session, students were divided into four groups of three. Each group rotated among four stations where they explored and interrogated a source which involved self-presentation and autobiographical writing. The sources included the diary of a Haverford student in the early 20th century, a personal scrapbook from a Haverford student, a journal kept by a woman participating in the Civil Rights movement, and a scrapbook of a 19th century man interested in local news and social movements.

At each station, students were asked to answer the following questions:
What kind of document do you have? How do you know?
What motivated the author to create this document?
What sort of self-presentation do you see in this document? What can you tell about the background of the person who created the document?
What is the audience for this document? How does that influence your reading of it?
What external forces shape the author’s manner of self-presentation? What clues do you find in the document?
How do the visual and physical aspects of the material influence your reading of it? Consider spacing, layout, handwriting, images, and organization.
What is surprising, interesting, or raises questions for you about the material?

After spending time in groups working with the materials and answering these questions, the class discussed them as a group. Each group was asked to say something about the material in front of them, and other groups contributed from their observations.  Students were also asked to draw connections among the materials from special collections and the discussions about self-presentation they had previously had in class, much of which was focused on the digital and social media environments. They were also asked to relate what they had seen to the readings for the day.