Who Wants to Take a Memoir Class? Tantalizing Syllabi from Pro Teachers

My brother Henry enters school. I'm the big sister.

I’ve been a teacher since the age of three. That’s when I became a big sister. Ready or not, poor Henry got to pitch me softballs while I learned to bat. He was the first pupil in my classroom and the Watson to my Sherlock.

Next fall I will be teaching again, and I’m excited. My last two jobs were college president and foundation executive, both of which allowed me to teach in new and different ways.

Now I get to go back to the undergraduate classroom, figure out my technology policy (!), and share the learning I’ve been doing as a reader and writer in the last three years –and throughout my life. What a gift.

Since I am teaching in the honors program of my alma mater, having been recruited by one of my outstanding former students at Goshen College, and the director of the EMU Honors Program, Mark Sawin, I want to make the course challenging and unforgettable.

So, I turn to other teachers and to the collection of course syllabi already started on this blog.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share several new syllabi. I suggest that you take a look even if you aren’t a teacher or professor yourself. Each syllabus offers the potential student a window into the education, values, personality, and philosophy of the professor.

Every syllabus is a memoir!

Here’s one from Otterbein University professor Richard Gilbert, no stranger to followers of this blog and one of the best sources on memoir, especially on craft, to be found.

I’ll post one of these now, another within a week, and then at least one more. Richard and I would love to have your questions and comments below.

Syllabus Ver.: January 27, 2013

Self Discoveries: “Tales of Dangerous Youth”

Spring Semester 2013

Instructor:  Richard Gilbert

Office Hours: Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. in main room of Courtright Library.

NOTE: I will meet with you any day/time we can work out to discuss your work in person.

Email: rgilbert@otterbein.edu (This is the best way to reach me.

The memoir has become an exciting, emerging literary genre—and a bestselling one. In this class we will read memoirs united by a focus on the challenges of growing to adulthood. What compels writers to try to make public sense of their most intimate experiences? What motivates us to read about them? How does a writer use her present self to explore her past self? We will consider these questions, as well as how memoirists use scenes, summary, reflection, and dramatic structure to probe the self in its historical and personal depths.

You will read and analyze to sharpen your writing, reading, and thinking skills. You will gain a deeper understanding of the power of language and of the strategies that are used to move and to persuade us. You will read and write as a way of understanding who you are as an individual and as a member of a family and of larger groups. You will write to reach an audience with your ideas, your information, and your personal stories.

My Guarantee: If you do the required reading and writing in this class and participate fully in peer workshopping, you will become a better writer: more stylistically correct and engaging, as well as one who writes with greater ease and pleasure.

Required Course Texts

Chambers, Veronica. Mama’s Girl

Rapp, Emily. Poster Child

Strauss, Darin. Half a Life

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild

Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle

*Note: Andrea Lunsford’s The Everyday Writer is a text required by the Integrative Studies curriculum as a whole. We’ll use this reference as needed, especially for checking proper MLA style. You should acquire a copy if you have not.

Blackboard Online System

Our class has its own Blackboard site, which we’ll use for uploading and accessing important documents like the syllabus, some readings, and for your major essays. You’ll make regular postings to this site.  You need to get set up on Blackboard within the first two days of the semester, as we’ll start using it right away.

For technology support, contact Otterbein IT at 823-1060.

Note: Most Blackboard problems stem from using an old browser and having a full computer cache. Blackboard works best with the most current version of Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, so make sure you have updated yours. If you have a current browser and have problems try emptying your computer’s cache and then clearing cookies to remove internal conflicts. Also, make a bookmark directly to Blackboard instead of going through Ozone.

Integrative Studies Learning Goals for “Identity Projects” Thread Courses

•     To inspire intellectual curiosity about the world as it is and a deeper understanding of the global condition.

•     To assist students in cultivating intercultural knowledge and competencies.

•    To promote active and critical reflection on the human self in its full range of contexts.

•     To challenge students to critically examine their ethical responsibilities and choices in both local and global contexts.

•     To encourage purposeful public engagement and social responsibility. •    To make students aware of moral and spiritual issues, including knowledge of their own beliefs and respect for those of others.

Reading and Writing Goals

1.        To read and think closely, creatively, analytically, and innovatively.

2.       To articulate a clear, critical thesis in an introduction.

3.       To support a thesis with relevant and varied forms of evidence and sustained critical analysis.

4.       To substantially revise one’s own writing using instructor comments and peer reviews.

5.       To craft sentences and paragraphs which demonstrate correct and effective mechanics, grammar, usage, and style.

6.     To begin to develop creative and novel ways of framing an argument, and to engage multiple points of view, distinct audiences, and interdisciplinary perspectives.

Essays, Workshopping, Readings & Events

A word about workshopping: three of your four major essays will receive feedback from your peer group as well as from your instructor. This is a key feature of this course.

Four Major Essays = 48%:

Major Essay One: A Literacy Narrative

This personal essay explores the impact of learning—specifically reading or writing—on your early life. Examples: bedtime stories as an evening ritual; how Aunt Sally taught you to read; how you loved or hated your elementary school reading group; how Sunday school coloring books brought Bible stories to life; about how you read a book that changed your life in middle school; about how you loved or hated a high school English class or teacher (or, often, both). As with any memoir, it’s good to focus on a single event or experience that took place during a relatively brief period of time.

Requirements: Four pages minimum, with a separate cover letter to readers, followed by written and oral critiques of peers’ papers. This essay will be workshopped and rewritten. 8 points

Major Essay Two: A Critical Analysis

Pick the memoir that spoke most powerfully to you so far and explain how the author achieved her desired effects to draw you in using technique (e.g.: unfolding events, characters, voice, style, reflection, scene). How and where does the writer comment from the present on the emotional import of events, the “real” story? You can also use another memoir as a secondary source to show how another writer used the technique(s).

Requirements: Four pages, with a separate cover letter to readers, followed by written and oral critiques of peers’ papers. You will have a boldfaced thesis statement, use MLA in-text citations from the memoir(s), and include a Works Cited page. This essay will be workshopped and rewritten.  12 points

Major Essay Three: A Coming of Age Story

We write memoirs to explore our past and to convey to others a key experience and our feelings about it. Memoirs capture an important moment, usually one involving conflict or drama or a question to be resolved. About seventy percent of memoirs deal with painful subjects and the rest are comic or humorous. Examples of all types include a death or divorce in the family, a defeat or triumph in sports, a major injury or illness, the experience of first love or a breakup, a key friendship, a special pet, a hard decision, or some struggle that resulted in change—good or bad or both. This essay may benefit from peer feedback but will not be formally workshopped.

Note: You may find it very useful or inspirational to reflect on photos or memorabilia, and you may find it helpful to call or email parents or others who were present during the time of the events being portrayed.

Requirements: Six pages. 12 points

Major Essay Four: A Researched Critical Analysis Essay

Among the questions you might explore in one or more of the memoirs we have read in the second half of the course: what is the story’s larger idea(s) or theme(s)?; what is the author’s stance toward her or his material, both in terms of being separated from it in time and in terms of how she or he sees the larger human dilemma being portrayed?; what is the historical backdrop to the story?

Requirements: Five pages, followed by written and oral critiques of peers’ papers. You will have a cover letter to readers, a boldfaced thesis statement, use MLA in-text citations, and include a Works Cited page. In addition to our class books, you will need to find a minimum of three new outside sources on your topic; you may also consult websites but they don’t count toward the source minimum. Possible sources include book reviews of the memoir, the author’s biography, books or journals of literary analysis, and histories. This essay will be rewritten as your final project. 16 points.

A Note on Grading: I give essays two scores: one for Content and another for Style—spelling, grammar, punctuation.

Proposals & Essay Starts = 12 %:  For each major essay above, you will type a proposal of at least a page laying out your idea(s) and possible approaches (1 pt. per proposal), and later will bring to class to share and turn in your essay start, usually of two pages (2 pts. each start).

In-Class Writing = 12%: These are weekly in-class handwritten responses to readings or prompts. Note: You must do these in class; they cannot be made up if you miss the class in which the prompt was given

Event Responses = 12%: These essays are typed reactions, of two pages, to three events during the semester, as specified. These are your personal responses and thoughts, but are thesis-driven in that you will develop your main idea or argument (thesis), which you will boldface. Correct style will count for half the grade (4 pts. each). These will be turned in on the due dates on hard copy only.

ePortfolio Uploads & Presentations =  4%: You must upload at least two major essays from this course; these can be both of your analytical essays or a memoir essay and an analytical essay or two memoir essays. (In addition, you might choose to upload one or more Event Responses. I recommend that you consider including major essays that seem strongest to you and that showcase skills relevant to your major (a creative writing major might upload different essays than a biochemistry major).

Late in the semester, you will show the class your ePortfolio and discuss what you uploaded and why. This is a great way to improve the look and content of your ePortolio by learning from others’ portfolios. I do not grade you on the “look” of yours but urge you to consider it.

Classwork & Attendance = 12 %: Plan on attending every class and participating in class discussions and activities. You are expected to be present for and participate in class discussions, peer review workshops, and peer editing.

You have a maximum of two (2) absences without penalty. After two absences, for each subsequent absence—whether “excused” or “unexcused”— you will lose four points. And never miss a writing workshop, a key feature of this class: missing a workshop will result in a point penalty even if you have not yet missed two other classes.

Late arrivals or early departures are subject to a loss of attendance points.

A word to the wise: Bank those two allowed absences and try not to use them; they are an insurance policy for if you do get sick. Attending class is a big part of your job as a student, and when you miss class you miss a lot. Absences are correlated with falling behind, with assignment misunderstandings, and with late work. Losing points, therefore, isn’t so much a penalty as a recognition that there is a real cost in being absent and a benefit to being present.

Note: Due to the workshop model we’ll use, you will automatically get 3.5 extra days off. The reason is that during workshop week you will attend only the hour-long workshop with your peer group. The rest of that class time and the other day during workshop weeks are used for other groups.


Course Basics & Preparedness Policy


First, basic courtesies: Turn off cell phones. No text messaging in class. Don’t use laptop computers in class unless approved for that class’s work.

Texts: Bring required texts to class if instructed or on days they are being discussed.

Graded Work: To be eligible for full credit, assignments must be present at the beginning of the class session on which they are due. Assignments are fluid and change—you are responsible for class announcements and for checking assignments on Blackboard.

I don’t accept late or emailed work without advance discussion and written permission.

Printing Problems: You are expected to have hard copies of assignments at the beginning of the class session on which they are due. If you encounter a printing problem, email yourself the paper and print it in an Otterbein computer lab before class.

English Department Statement on Learning Differences

If you need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability, you should contact me to arrange an appointment as soon as possible. At the appointment we can discuss the course format, anticipate your needs and explore potential accommodations. I rely on the Disability Services Coordinator for assistance in verifying the need for accommodations and developing strategies. If you have not previously contacted the Disability Services Coordinator, Kera Manley (823-1618), I encourage you to do so.

Academic Dishonesty and Plagiarism Policy: If I learn that you have copied the work of a fellow student, gotten someone else to do your work, or copied material from Internet sources without credit you will get an F on that assignment. The infraction will be reported to Academic Affairs, which records violations to track repeat offenders.

Plagiarism is easy to spot. Please talk to me if you are unsure about your use of sources. When in doubt, simply credit your source fully and clearly! Taking the words and ideas of others without credit is plagiarism.

Style for All Writing Assignments—

Essays, Event Responses, In-Class Prompts, etc.

In the upper left corner, single spaced:

Jane Doe [your name]

INS1501/Gilbert [section]

Writer as Teacher [use assignment name]

March 27, 2013 [use due date]

The Memoirist as Teacher in The Blessing  [your title, centered]

Body copy, double spaced, begins below title. For citation use MLA style. Use Times or Times New Roman 12 pt. font for all typed papers. Use one-inch margins, left and right. Indent the first line of paragraphs 0.25 inches. On following pages, put the page number in upper right corner. Staple the pages of the paper together.

Tentative Schedule & Key Dates

This schedule may change slightly, but major due dates and workshop weeks should hold. Pay attention in class and consult Blackboard online for complete, updated assignments.

Week One

Tuesday, Jan. 29: Welcome & intros, syllabus. Read: through page 50, Walls.

Thursday, Jan 31: Discuss memoirs, structure, scene, summary, reflection. Read pp. 50-125, Walls.

Week Two

Tuesday, Feb. 5: Bring to class to share and turn in ideas for Essay One. Read 129-163, Walls.

Thursday, Feb. 7: Discuss and turn in Essay One start: one page. Read 164-241, Walls.

Week Three

Tuesday, Feb. 12: Essay One start, part 2, due. Read 245-271, Walls.

Thursday, Feb. 14: Upload Essay One to Blackboard by class time. Read 272-End, Walls

Week Four: Note: this is a Workshop Week

Tuesday, Feb. 19: Groups 1 & 2 Workshop peer papers. Everyone: Read through 80, Strauss.

Thursday, Feb. 21: Groups 3 & 4 Workshop peer papers. Everyone: Read through 80, Strauss

Week Five

Tuesday, Feb. 26: Upload Rewritten Essay One by class time. Read pp. 83-142, Strauss.

Thursday, Feb. 28: Discuss ideas for Essay 2. Finish Strauss.

[Note: March 1 is last day to drop a class without a grade.]

Week Six

Tuesday, March 5: Essay 2 Proposal Due.

Thursday, March 7: After the Fall opens (attend Th-S for Event Response 1)

Week Seven

Tuesday, March 12: Event Response 1 due. Essay Two start due.

Thursday, March 14: Essay Two Due. Read through Page 115 in Strayed, Wild.


[Note: March 28 is last day to drop a class with a W.]

Week Eight: This is a workshop week.

Tuesday, March 26: Workshop Groups 1 & 2. Everyone: Read through page 145, Strayed.

Thursday, March 28: Workshop Groups 3 & 4. Everyone: Read through page 233, Strayed. Attend student art exhibit for Event Response 2.

Week Nine

Tuesday, April 2: Essay 2 Rewrite Due. Finish Strayed.

Thursday, April 4: Essay 3 Proposal Due. Read through Page 110, Rapp’s Poster Child.

Week Ten

Tuesday, April 9: Essay Three First Pages due. Event Response 2 due. Read through page 167, Rapp.

Thursday, April 11: Essay Three Due. Finish, Rapp.

Week Eleven

Tuesday, April 16: Read through Page 50, Chambers’s Mama’s Girl.

Thursday, April 18: Essay Four Proposal Due. Read through Page 148, Chambers.

Week Twelve

Tuesday, April 23: Library Research Training. Finish Chambers.

Thursday, April 25: How to Succeed in Business opens.

Week Thirteen

Tuesday, April 30: Essay Four first pages due. ePortfolio presentations: Groups 1 & 2.

Thursday, May 2: Essay Four due. ePortfolio presentations: Groups 3 & 4. How to Succeed in Business closes Saturday.

Week Fourteen This is a workshop week

Tuesday, May 7: Groups 1 & 2 Workshop. Event Response 3 due

Thursday, May 9: Groups 3 & 4 Workshop. Event Response 3 due.

Final Project, Homework for everyone:

Rewrite Essay Four and upload it to Blackboard by Monday, May 13, at 2 p.m. There is no final exam in this class; the essay rewrite and upload is your final project.



Shirley Showalter


  1. Tina Barbour on March 20, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I want to go back to school! Thank you for sharing these syllabi–they’re helpful in giving me a list of new books to read and in seeing examples of writing that I might be able to try.

    It has been almost 20 years since I was an adjunct English teacher, and times have changed. I would have to upgrade my knowledge of technology in the classroom before teaching again.

    That’s exciting that you’ll be teaching again! That’s a wonderful opportunity for you and for your students!

    • shirleyhs on March 20, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      Tina, so glad the syllabus stimulated your thinking and remembrance.

      Yes, I have a lot to learn about using technology in the classroom. My current technology is a piece of chalk and a blackboard — the “real” kind, not the software.

      I’ll report in here on whether I try a “learning management system.”

      But I definitely like that “no texting in class rule”!

  2. Melanie on March 20, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I want to take this class, too, plus the one from you, Shirley. Richard is teaching great texts here, and I’d love to do the assignments. As I get reading to teach my Creative Nonfiction course in about 30 minutes, I’d love to hear some of the stuff Richard does on a daily basis, and stuff you plan to do. My plans for today feel a little uninspired, but since it’s right before spring break, perhaps none of my students will notice.

    • Richard Gilbert on March 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm


      I give them an in-class writing prompt once a week, too. These are personal questions, or those related to reading, or those that seek to combine the two. The students seem to enjoy these low-stakes exercises after a while, and they give me insights into their minds and emotions.

    • shirleyhs on March 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm

      Thanks, Melanie. I want to take your class, too. And I hope anyone who visits this post finds yours. Just in case, here it is:http://shirleyshowalter.com/2010/01/12/want-to-create-your-own-memoir-course-heres-a-syllabus-to-get-you-started/

      I know the feeling that afflicts the soul right before vacations. You’re right. The students get it too. Hang in there! I’m sure you will come back refreshed.

  3. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 20, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Aldo Leopold wrote this in the 1940s: “Who is the land? We are, but no less the meanest flower that blows. Land ecology discards at the outset the fallacious notion that the wild community is one thing, the human community another.

    What are the sciences? Only categories for thinking. Sciences can be taught separately, but they can’t be used separately, either for seeing land or doing anything with it.

    What is art? Only the drama of the land’s workings.”

    To me, a Liberal Education is incomplete without involving the land. Memoir work makes room for us to include the voices and health of the places where we live.

    • shirleyhs on March 20, 2013 at 3:21 pm

      This is a very timely plea, Dolores, since I am still putting my own syllabus together. I like to read memoir that makes place a character. And I agree with the urgent need to educate liberally about the need to protect the land.

      Have any favorite memoirs to suggest? Would you call Sand County Almanac a memoir?

      Btw, Richard’s own memoir is about his experience of being a sheep farmer. Maybe he wants to comment.

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 20, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      Here are books of three California women where the land speaks loudly:

      Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson

      The Landscaping Ideas of Jays by Judith Larner Lowry

      Farm City by Novella Carpenter

      And, while I’m at it, here are three more books with loud speaking land:

      The Earth Knows My Name by Patricia Klindienst

      Plenty by Alisa Smith & J.B. Mackinnon

      Deeply Rooted by Lisa M. Hamilton

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 20, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Yes! I’d call Sand County Almanac a memoir.

  4. Sharon Lippincott on March 20, 2013 at 3:28 pm


    Congratulations on your teaching opportunity. Will you be in the classroom in person, or teaching remotely? Exciting either way.

    These syllabi are pure gold. So exciting to see what and how others are teaching. My classes have all be limited to once a week for five or six weeks. How exciting to have an entire term.

    I do generally rely on technology, sometimes using PowerPoint — but do bone up on ways to make it more interesting than bullet lists and quotations! I also use a document camera (i.e. an Elmo) to project books and student stories. Last fall I used Skype to include visitors from afar. The most afar was Ian Mathie, who visited the CMU campus from his home northwest of London. That was a huge hit with students and worked well until the Skype connection bombed.

    One thing that does NOT work is sticking an iPad under a document camera. The electronics mess with each other. I was so relieved that I didn’t short out my iPad!

    I’m sure you’ll find others and I look forward to reading about them.

    • shirleyhs on March 20, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Sharon, I will be in a live classroom with up to 25 students in it one evening each week, Aug. 27-Dec. 10 with two vacation weeks off.

      You would be a great teacher in the art of using technology. I haven’t even used PowerPoint. I know there are good and bad ways to use it. I have a feeling that I’ll not need it in a more workshop-like or seminar setting.

      I hope to have the chance to talk with you in person soon and perhaps see all the gems you have accumulated after years of teaching memoir! Do you want to offer your syllabus here, or don’t you use one in your context?

  5. Richard Gilbert on March 20, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Shirley, if they have the Blackboard course content system I recommend it for loading assignments and if you want to have them upload reading discussion questions. PowerPoint implies lectures, which tend to make undergraduates glaze over, in my experience.

  6. Richard Gilbert on March 21, 2013 at 9:08 am

    The land thread is a big topic, Shirley. I usually show and highly recommend The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which works wonderfully in a class on memoir because it’s a video memoir, funny and serious at once about an unusual farmer’s attempt to survive and his gradual turn toward organics.

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 22, 2013 at 5:37 pm

      There is a new movie out about Aldo Leopold and the land ethic: “Green Fire.” For anyone who might have trouble with Aldo Leopold’s language (sometimes outdated) or his being from an older generation, this movie is great. I saw the movie last week. If you’ve read Leopold, you might recognize the green fire image connects with his life-changing experience of watching the fire die in the eyes of a wolf that he’d helped to kill (as a forest service supervisor).

    • ShirleyK on March 25, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      Well that worked. I just put it in my queue.

    • ShirleyK on March 25, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      Farmer John, I mean.

  7. shirleyhs on March 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Sounds wonderful, Richard. I will check it out. Do you actually show it in class?

    • Richard Gilbert on March 21, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Oh, yes. I show it in most memoir classes and all those I teach in humans and nature. Also Into the Wild, which deals not only with the human relationship with nature but showcases a gorgeous braided structure. The kids are amused by Farmer John and captivated by Into the Wild.

  8. shirleyhs on March 22, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks, Richard and Dolores! These are wonderful resources.

  9. Marian Longenecker Beaman on March 30, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Congratulations on your newest adventure, Shirley! I discovered your blog in an introduction to blog class and have subsequently begun my own blog http://www.plainandfancygirl.wordpress.com just recently. In fact, a reference to your blog appears on my “Mennonite Memoir: A Sampling” page.

    Actually, we have a similar background. I grew up in Lancaster county, graduated from Eastern Mennonite College, and spent most of my life in academia.

    Best wishes on the memoir class. While teaching, I helped design and then teach an online composition class in Blackboard. Obviously, you thrive on new challenges, and will succeed, but I hope the course is a blended one, so you have some face-to-face interaction.

  10. shirleyhs on March 30, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Marian, so glad to meet you. As a good Mennonite, I immediately look at your name and think we must be related. 🙂 There are Longeneckers in my father’s family.

    All best with your new blogging adventure. Love the photo. We have so much in common. I signed up for future blog posts and hope you will do the same. Let’s learn from each other.

    My dream is that some day hundreds of stories such as ours will be told. You may be interested in this list:https://read.rifflebooks.com/list/45159

  11. Marian Longenecker Beaman on April 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I’m signing up left and right: first your blog and now rifflebooks.

    My middle name is Metzler, so somewhere the family lines must have intertwined. With my scrapbooks, journals, and a few “Mennonite” props, I’m happy to join the live stream of story telling already in progress.

  12. Dora Dueck on April 3, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Who wants to take a memoir class? Me, in 2014 or 15. In the meanwhile, so glad for all the “teaching” you and Richard do online!

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