Combining Service, Learning, and Memoir: An Intergenerational Approach and Syllabus

four generations -- all have stories

My mother, my son, and two grandchildren -- all have stories

Since I am preparing to teach memoir to college students, I’m anticipating a question: How write about a life when it does not yet contain a long timeline with twists and turns in it?

There are many solutions to this problem:

  • Memoir thrives on the short view anyway. It is not the chronicle of a long life but a slice in time as seen from the present. So even older children can write it.
  • Young people are closer to their childhoods, that time of life closest to wonder. They have better access to the feelings of the child. That’s an advantage.
  • Older people can help young people. Young people can learn more about how to live their own lives by paying serious attention to the old.

Which is where today’s syllabus takes us — to a class that brings the old and young together around the creation of stories. Thanks to Professor Vi Dutcher for sharing this creative idea.

Senior Seminar:  Orality and the Written Memoir

ENG:  49091-600 Kent State University, Stark Campus, Fall 2004

Instructor:                 Dr. Dutcher

When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time.

–Xinran in The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

“I have always trusted this voice.”

–Eudora Welty in “Listening”

Course Description:

In this course you will both read and write memoirs. Although you will write a short personal memoir, the course is focused upon the memoirs you will write for residents of St. Luke Lutheran Community.  These memoirs will undergo several drafts with critiques from your writing group and me.  Your work will change substantially from first to last draft as you learn to make clear why your story is significant to your partners, to “show” rather than “tell” the stories, to eliminate interesting details that are not relevant to the “spine” of your story, and to keep your readers, the descendants of your partners at St. Luke’s, firmly in mind.  Journal assignments and class discussion will often ask you to reflect upon problems with the interviews, with your classmate partners, and with those in your writing group.  You, a competent writer, will become a better writer this semester.  You will also develop sharper critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  And you will receive the added bonus of a new understanding of history:  it will become real to you like never before.

Course Objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course, you will

•  Develop writing skills by writing personal memoirs, life stories, and

reflective essays.

•  Develop critical thinking skills as you discover and use the conventions of

memoirs and critique each other’s work.

•  Integrate theory and practice by comparing theories of memoir and aging with personal experience gained from working with residents at St. Luke Lutheran


•  Learn to interact successfully with classmates and seniors by recognizing

and solving problems through reflection and discussion.

Residents of St. Luke Lutheran Community ( will

•  Enhance and preserve memory through telling the stories of their lives.

•  Preserve stories of the past (and of their past) for their children and


Required Texts:

Allison, Dorothy.  Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.  New York: Plume, 1996.

Dyer, Joyce.  Gum-Dipped:  A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town

Ellis, Neenah.  If I Live to Be 100.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis.  Colored People

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki.  Farewell to Manzanar

Jacobs, Harriet.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Zinsser, William, ed.  Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir.  2nd ed.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Handouts provided by instructor

Course Requirements and Course Grade:

Grading Procedures:  Final class grade will be based on:

  • 9/08  Assignment #1:  Discovering the conventions of writing memoir        5%
  • 9/22  Assignment #2:  Writing a personal memoir                                       10%
  • 10/06  Assignment #3:  Attitudes toward aging                                            5%
  • 10/25  Assignment #4:  A brief life history of your client at St. Lukes      10%
  • 11/08  Assignment #5:  Memoir #1                                                             10%
  • 11/17  Assignment #6:  Memoir #2                                                             10%
  • 11/24  Assignment #7:  Memoir #3                                                             10%
  • 12/06 Assignment # 8: Revised Life History                                              10%
  • Final Exam :        Reflective Essay                                                              10%
  • 6 reflective journal entries                                                                            10%
  • Participation:      Participation in interviews* and group work**               10%

*The service-learning component of this advanced writing course will require you to meet with and interview a resident of St. Luke Lutheran Community at least five times during the semester.  (You will be paired with another student for the interviews.)  Assignment #4-8 will be based on the interviews. The first interview will be conducted at St. Luke’s during a regularly-scheduled class period; subsequent interviews will be scheduled weekly at the resident’s and your convenience.  It is vital that you be on time for the interviews you schedule.  Cassette tape recorders and blank cassette tapes may be checked out at the library.  You are responsible for lost and stolen equipment. Please note:  You are responsible for submitting corrected final drafts of these assignments in a form that has been approved by the client and is copy-ready.

** You will be placed in a writing group for each assignment.  Since much of the success of the revision process depends on feedback from students in your writing group, you must attend all classes and have drafts ready on time.  To receive a grade, all assignments must be on time, neatly typed (double-spaced), and should include pre-writing, all drafts, and copies of feedback from me and from your writing group.


  1. All papers must be written according to MLA requirements and handed directly to the instructor on the informed due date.  Late papers are not accepted.
  2. The usage of cellular phones and pagers is not permitted in class.
  3. Unexcused absences:  Your final grade may be lowered by one full letter grade if you miss more than two classes without documented excused absence evidence.  More than three unexcused absences may result in an F for the course.  Use your two allowed unexcused absences for transportation problems, court appointments, day care glitches, short illnesses, appointments, etc.
  4. Excused absences:  Absences will be excused only with written proof of medical, emergencies, death in the family, or participation in an approved university activity which prevents attendance on the day in question.  The written verification of absence must be provided by another person as witness or authority and presented to the instructor prior to the absence.
  5. Lateness and/or missing a portion of our class session is strongly discouraged and is disruptive to the class session.
  6. To plagiarize means to present as one’s own a material portion of the ideas or words of another without full and proper credit to the source of the ideas, words, or work.  Cheating and plagiarism constitute fraudulent misrepresentation for which no credit can be given and for which appropriate sanctions are warranted and will be applied.  This policy applies to all students of the University.

7.         Students with Disabilities:  In accordance with University policy, if you have a documented disability and require accommodations to obtain equal access in this course, please contact the instructor at the beginning of the semester or when given an assignment for which an accommodation is required.  Students with disabilities must verify their eligibility through Kelly Kulick.  Her office is in Student Services, and her extension is 53287.  After the middle of September, the Office of Student Disability Services will be relocated in the new Campus Center on campus.  The new Office number for the Office of Student Disability Services will be # 47.  The new phone number will be 330-244-5047.

  1. The Writing Center is an excellent resource for writers at any level or at any

stage in the writing process.  Take advantage of the free individual tutoring that you receive there.  I would be happy to see that you’ve consulted with them, but I do not require you to do so.  You may choose to keep any visits confidential.

  1. Since this course is conducted in workshop format, student writing is considered a

part of the public domain and may be used anonymously for teaching purposes.  Please notify me if any of your essays contain writing of a personal nature that you do not wish to see duplicated or read aloud.

FYI:  The last date to withdraw from this course without a grade of “W” is September 11, 2004.  The last date to withdraw from this course is November 6, 2004.

Course Schedule

(Subject to change to meet class needs)

Note:  I strongly urge you to fully read each book before we begin discussing it in class.  It’s best to be able to talk about works of literature as a whole instead of in pieces.   As a result, I will not be limiting my comments on the first day of a novel, for example, to only the first 50 pages or so.  Rather, we will be discussing each text as a whole.


Monday, 8/30  Intro to course. HOMEWORK:  Read Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison; first chapter in Zinsser

Wednesday, 9/01  Uncovering Your Most Vivid Childhood Memories; Discussion of Allison and Zinsser (first chapter). HOMEWORK: Assignment # 1; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl pp. vii-172; Continue reading Inventing the Truth.



Wednesday, 9/08  Introduction to Inventing the Truth;  Due: Assignment # 1 HOMEWORK: Continue reading Inventing the Truth and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.


Monday, 9/13  Uncovering your most vivid childhood memories; Discussion of Jacobs.  HOMEWORK: Continue reading Inventing the Truth and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Write a first-draft of your memoir, taking into account the response of your writing group and the pre-writing exercises you were given in class today.

Wednesday, 9/15 Writing Groups:  Bring two copies of your draft, one to read to your writing group and one to turn in to me. HOMEWORK:  Revise your draft, taking into account the feedback from your writing group and the revision strategies you were given in class today.  Continue reading Inventing the Truth and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl pp. 173-end; we will begin discussing the essays Monday, September 27.


Monday, 9/20  Conclude discussion of Jacobs. Writing Groups: Be ready to read a revised version of your memoir.  HOMEWORK:  Revise again, taking into account feedback from your writing group and my comments.  Make a clean copy of your finished draft to turn in on Wednesday.  Structure a journal entry reflecting on your experience with this assignment.  Continue reading Inventing the Truth.

[attend Lani Silver Lecture Tuesday, September 21, 2004  7:00 p.m. MH Auditorium]

Wednesday, 9/22  Establishing a “timeline” for the lives of the people you will interview and deciding on appropriate interview questions.  Due: Assignment # 2 (Be sure to turn in all drafts of your memoir, the responses of your writing group, my comments, and the pre-writing you have done.)  HOMEWORK:  Complete Inventing the Truth.


Monday, 9/27   Grammar/Mechanics Review; begin discussion of Inventing the Truth; Journal Entry # 1 due

Wednesday, 9/29  Inventing the Truth discussion; Approaches to writing about people. HOMEWORK: Read Gum-Dipped: A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town


Monday, 10/04 Discussion of Gum-Dipped; Attitudes toward aging; how to conduct an oral interview. HOMEWORK:  Write a 1 ½ – 2 pg. exploration of the origins of your attitudes toward aging.  (This assignment could take the form of a memoir.)

Wednesday, 10/06  Conclude discussion of Gum-Dipped; Practice conducting oral interviews; Due: Assignment # 3


Monday, 10/11  Oral Interview # 1 (Class will meet at St. Luke Lutheran Community, 220 Applegrove St. NE.  HOMEWORK:  Before you leave the interview, schedule a 2nd meeting with your client by October 20.  Turn the date and time in to me before you leave St. Luke’s.  Structure a journal entry reflecting on problems you encountered in your first interview and possible solutions.  Begin reading If I Live to Be 100 by Neenah Ellis.

Wednesday, 10/13  Ellis, pp. 3-45.  HOMEWORK:  With your writing partner, complete and make two copies of a draft of a brief (5-6 pp.) “life history” of the person you interviewed last week.  (Use today’s handout for suggestions.)


Monday, 10/18 Ellis, pp. 49-100; Writing Groups:  Bring two copies of your draft, one to read to your writing group and one to turn in to me; Journal Entry # 2 due.  HOMEWORK:  Revise your draft.

Wednesday, 10/20  Writing Groups; Bring your 2nd draft to class.  Be prepared to read it to your group. DON’T FORGET TO GO TO YOUR INTERVIEW THIS WEEK AND TO SCHEDULE ANOTHER INTERVIEW SOMETIME BEFORE NOV. 1.  At this week’s interview, show the draft of the “life history” to your “client” and make any necessary deletions, corrections, additions.  Tape the first “stories” you will turn into memoirs.  Use the handout you have been given to write a journal entry reflecting on any problems you encountered with this assignment and how you solved them.


Monday, 10/25  Ellis, pp. 103-43;  Due:  Final Draft of the “life history,”  the schedule for your next interview, and Journal Entry # 3.  HOMEWORK:  Using your notes and the taped interview with your client at St. Luke’s, draft memoir # 1 (be sure to discuss what story you will tell with your partner) and make two copies.

Wednesday, 10/27  Writing Groups:  Bring two copies of the draft of your memoir, one to read to your writing group and one to turn in to me.  HOMEWORK:  Revise your draft.  DON’T FORGET TO GO TO YOUR INTERVIEW to check for the accuracy of your memoir and to gather material for your next memoir.  If you have not already done so, schedule another interview sometime before Nov. 15.


Monday, 11/01  Ellis, pp. 147 to end; Bring your 2nd draft to class and be prepared to read it to your group.  HOMEWORK:  Final Draft of Memoir # 1; Read two literacy narratives (handouts)

Wednesday, 11/03  Literacy Narrative discussion; Writing Groups:  Bring two copies of your first draft to class, one to read to your group and one to turn in to me.  HOMEWORK:  Revise your draft.


Monday, 11/08  Due:  Memoir # 1.  HOMEWORK:  Write a journal entry reflecting on ways your memoirs thus far do or do not follow the conventions of memoir writing.  Write a draft of Memoir # 2.  Make two copies.

Wednesday, 11/10 Writing Groups:  Bring two copies of your first draft to class, one to read to your group and one to turn in to me.  HOMEWORK:  Revise your draft; Read Farewell to Manzanar.


Monday, 11/15  Due:  Journal # 4; Writing Groups: Bring your revised draft to read to the group.  DON’T FORGET TO GO TO YOUR INTERVIEW THIS WEEK to check for the accuracy of your memoir and to gather material for your next memoir. Schedule another interview for sometime before Nov. 24.

Wednesday, 11/17 Farewell to Manzanar discussion; Due: Memoir # 2. HOMEWORK:  Draft Memoir # 3, and make two copies


Monday, 11/22  Writing Groups:  Bring your revised draft of Memoir # 3 to read to the group. DON’T FORGET TO GO TO YOUR INTERVIEW.  Check the accuracy of your memoir.  HOMEWORK:  Complete the final draft of your memoir.

Wednesday, 11/24  Due:  Memoir # 3 HOMEWORK:  Write a journal entry reflecting on the changes you made from your first drafts to your final drafts.  Read Colored People


Monday, 11/29  Due:  Journal Entry # 5; Work on revision of Life History

Wednesday, 12/01  Colored People discussion; Writing Groups:  Bring your revised draft to read to the group.  HOMEWORK:  Complete your final draft.  Write a journal entry reflecting on ways future classes could make interviews with seniors more productive.  Select your favorite memoir to share with the class.


Monday, 12/06  Favorite memoirs; Due:  Journal Entry # 6 and Revised Life History.  HOMEWORK:  Prepare copy-ready drafts of the life history and memoirs you will present to your partner at St. Luke’s.

Wednesday, 12/08 Reflection.  Due:  Copy-ready material for binding.  HOMEWORK:  Take-home final.

Exam:  6:00 p.m., Monday, December 13, 2004  Presentation of Memoirs to residents at St. Luke Lutheran Community

         Due:  Final Exam

Have you ever been part of an intergenerational story-gathering/writing/sharing project? Tell your story or ask your question here:

Shirley Showalter


  1. Tina Barbour on April 10, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    This sounds like a challenging and probably life-changing class. What an honor it is to listen to someone else’s story and then render it as memoir.

    My father wrote down his life story in one and a half notebooks at my request. I have those notebooks and treasure them. Before he died, I took the first section and wrote it out in story form, but still in his words/voice. I haven’t done anything with the rest of them, but I want to. I need to.

  2. shirleyhs on April 10, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Thanks for starting off the conversation, Tina. I hope you continue to work with your father’s stories. It will reward you, I know.

    Just found a research study that excites me about the value of stories in families. Maybe you will find it so also.

  3. Marian Longenecker Beaman on April 11, 2013 at 10:23 am

    I love the preface to the latest syllabus, including the inter-generational photo. Some observations: your mother has certainly gone from plain to fancy too; I see your bright eyes in your grandchildren.

    Thanks for being so attentive to my new posts. You are definitely an inspiration to me.

  4. shirleyhs on April 11, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Ah yes, Marian. Here’s an older post you may enjoy. A lot of my story centers on the precarious edge my mother walked between plain and fancy and what impact that had on my life.

    If you search this blog for “mother,” you will find lots of other entries.

    Thanks for your interest. I hope my readers interested in Mennonite women’s lives will find your delightful musings.

  5. Richard Gilbert on April 12, 2013 at 8:33 am

    This is an interesting approach, and I’m sure the students would benefit as writers and as people from it. The service learning aspect makes it very special. We have a strong tradition of that here at Otterbein, and this gives me some ideas. The book choices are stimulating, too.

    Your preamble, Shirley, about whether students have enough material for memoir reminds me of what Lee Martin said to my class the other night: “Memoir is a middle-aged person’s genre.” But he qualified that to say that some young people have had a big enough experience to have rendered them middle-aged in wisdom.

    I have found students full of stories—deaths, divorces, injuries, sports triumphs, pets—though most don’t yet have access to all their material, don’t see it as their future selves will. Partly for this reason, I have had to de-emphasize the three-act aspect; an essay may be a piece of the start of the second act of a life and of a future, unwritten life story. I show them that longer works, like books and movies, break clearly into acts, usually three, but that essays (and without saying it, certainly theirs) have beginnings, middles, and ends.

  6. shirleyhs on April 12, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Yes! One of the most exciting things I did on the last revision of my manuscript was to re-read Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon in the black leather KJV Bible I have been using in my morning meditations (your enthusiasms for this version encouraged me). Almost all the epigraphs to chapters come from the wisdom literature and from the passages I underlined myself at ages 13-18.

    What wisdom I had in my youth was aided not only by many generations of Mennonite ancestors but by an even longer wisdom tradition, shaping me as I pushed on toward the glittering world and giving me the strength to be skeptical about its value compared to the gold lying at my feet, the value I already had access to.

  7. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on April 12, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I really love the intergenerational approach in Ms Dutcher’s curriculum, and I’m thankful there are still ways envisioned to allow generations to mingle. And, what a deep way!

    That I mingled with many generations in my childhood and can still see and hear the voices of great uncles and aunts as well as grandparents and parents is one thing for which I often give thanks.

    I’m also noticing how, when I read your thoughts, I’m remembering working at Plain and Fancy Restaurant while attending Goshen College. I too need to attend to this theme of plain and fancy!

  8. shirleyhs on April 12, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Hi, Dolores,

    Yes, it is a blessing to have had many members of the older generation within one’s circle as a young person. Sometimes it was a literal circle, as in family reunions outdoors when the elders would gather on folding chairs while the youngsters played.

    Plain and Fancy. I ate many meals there. Probably after you left Goshen? I arrived in 1976. Just heard that Jo Troyer died. You probably know her?

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on April 12, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      I also arrived in 1976, and I worked at the restaurant that fall and the next spring. Then I moved on to the factory and to a gas station. Thanks for news of Jo Troyer’s crossing the threshold.

  9. Violet Dutcher on April 13, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Thanks, Shirley, for posting the syllabus. Sometime later, I taught a similar course where we formed partnerships with the sisters at Sancta Clara Monastery who form the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration sisterhood. The students and the sisters formed immediate bonds. The sisters cared for the students. Both Catholic and other students found that they had stereotypes about sisters, and these quickly broke down. The sisters’ stories knocked our socks off. The students’ journals were thick with rich and empowering reflections. I learned as much, if not more, than they did. The story form contains it all, and the stories of others inform my own. My story contains a kernel of others and is contained in theirs.

  10. shirleyhs on April 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I love the names — Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration — of so many Catholic orders. And you have put your finger on an important aspect of memoir writing: breaking down stereotypes that separate and building up connections with our stores. I can only imagine the depth of such experience and its lingering effect on both students and subjects.

    I don’t think I will require students to do a lot of this kind of work in the first 3-hour course syllabus I am constructing since 1995, but I would love to find a way to encourage oral history work, perhaps with one essay. Still mulling!

Leave a Comment