Want to Create Your Own Memoir Course? Here's a Syllabus to Get You Started

Melanie Springer Mock wrote a very insightful comment on my review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I learned that she teaches memoir writing at George Fox University, which led me to request a copy of her syllabus. She was kind enough to share it. So I include it in its entirety below. A good syllabus is a work of art in itself–clear about expectations, enthusiastic about course content, warm yet firm in relation to students, and reflective of deep learning without being pedantic. Here’s a link to Melanie’s webpage and below is the syllabus itself. It looks beautiful in Microsoft Word and, unfortunatley, it lost a little of its formatting when it moved to this location, but you can still read, enjoy, and then comment below!

Writing 250



Instructor: Melanie Springer Mock

Office: Minthorn 308

Hours:  Tuesday 1:00 p.m.-3 p.m.

Thursday 9 a.m.—noon

And by appointment

Phone: ext. 2605 (o)/538-6863 (h)

 Introduction: “Good writing is about telling the truth,” Anne Lamott argues in her book on writing, Bird by Bird.  It follows, then, that good life writing is also about telling the truth, which seems easy enough: how hard can it be to write truthful stories that truthfully convey our own experiences, or the experiences of those we love and admire?  Very hard, according to Lamott, who says this of her writing students: “after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.”  In Writing 250, we will put Lamott’s proposition to the test, exploring what it means to write well about the self and others and what it means to tell the truth about our life’s experiences through writing; we will discuss the difficulty of defining a true self in writing and in thought; ideally, we will learn more about the art of writing and of living by sharing our stories with each other.

 Objectives:  First and foremost, students in Writing 250 will be asked to produce a collection of autobiographical and biographical texts in a variety of discourse modes.  To aid in this production, we will be doing a great deal of written reflection both inside and outside of class; some of the writing students do will be shared with classmates informally during discussions and in more formal writing workshops. Additionally, students will be asked to read, reflect on, and discuss a number of autobiographical texts from well-known and published authors and from obscure writers. 

 This reading should assist students in the creation of their own texts while also addressing some of the class’s central concerns: What compels us to write about our own life’s experiences? What motivates us to read about the experiences of others? How can we truthfully represent our life experiences through the written word? How does our understanding of our present selves now influence how we write about our past selves?  What metaphors do we use to describe our selves and our experiences?  In what ways is life-writing a spiritual journey—or is it?  Hopefully, we will be able to think about, if not completely answer, these questions as the semester progresses.


            Lamott, Anne.  Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.  New York: Pantheon, 1999. 

                              You will also be required to read three memoirs and one biography of your choosing. 

 Expectations:  I am hoping this will be a class unlike any other you have taken, one in which you are free to explore your own creative process and your own life stories.  To this end, the course will not be structured as other college courses. For some people, the unstructured nature of the course can become problematic: they may not take the course as seriously; they may not push themselves to learn because, after all, there are no tests for which to study. I realize this is not a rigidly structured course, but I still take the topic seriously, and I hope you will too.  If the lack of a lecture-and-test pedagogy makes you uncomfortable, you may need to find another class.

 This class works best when everyone is actively engaged with the course material, and when students come to class ready to write, to discuss, and to question each other about what they have read and about what they are writing.  To help maximize your value in this course, then, I expect you to 1) attend class regularly and participate in discussions by asking and answering questions and by sharing ideas; 2) participate in writing workshops designed to enhance your understanding of your own written work; 3) complete all assigned reading before coming to class; 4) seek individual help when you do not understand the material; and 5) complete all writing assignments with utmost integrity and honesty.

In return, you should expect that I will 1) attend class regularly and participate in discussion by asking and answering questions and by sharing ideas; 2) construct classroom activities that really will enhance your understanding of the course material; 3) create assignments that will challenge you but also interest you; 4) return your work to you in a timely manner; 5) make sure you have a clear understanding of the criteria I will use to evaluate you and your work; and 6) see you as a person who has a life beyond my classroom.

 Class Policies

 NO computers, cell phones, I-pods, or other electronic devices in class, unless we are composing via computer at my direction. Should you choose to text or email or whatever during class, I will be tempted to take your electronic device and smash it in to a zillion pieces. I won’t, because I’m a nice person, but I will silently stew about your decision to attend to a virtual, rather than a real, world. I realize computers can be helpful educational tools, but too much abuse of this technology in recent years has made this policy necessary.

  • Assignments are due by 5:00 p.m. on the days listed below.  Late work will be accepted but with a penalty of one full grade for each week it is late.  If you are not able to meet a deadline because of sickness or a family emergency, I might make an exception.  You will still be accountable for turning in work on time if you are absent because of school activities. 
  • Although I try to return essays in an expedient manner, if your work is late, it will go to the bottom of my grading pile, and will be evaluated accordingly. Additionally, late work tends to get lost in a shuffle of other papers. You must assume all risks for submitting late work.
  • All major assignments must be completed in order to pass the class.
  • Assignments completed outside of class must be typewritten.  Errors in formatting, grammar, mechanics, and spelling will obviously result in a lower grade.
  • I do not accept emailed assignments: these tend to get lost easily, and I often forget to grade them.   
  • This is not a correspondence course.  Although there is no attendance policy, your presence is expected, appreciated, and required if you are to complete the assignments successfully. Do not assume you can pass the class by sticking stuff in my mailbox now and again. I reserve the right to lower your grade by one step for every four absences you have. 
  • Academic dishonesty (plagiarism, cheating on tests) will result in an F for the assignment and for the course.
  • You may not submit an assignment for this class if you have submitted it to another professor—or if you plan to this semester.  Double-dipping in this manner is its own form of academic dishonesty: you are submitting what the teacher assumes to be original work when it really is not original.  And, by turning an assignment in to more than one course, you are foregoing the opportunity to challenge yourself and to learn something new.

 Writing Center Information

 The Academic Resource Center (The ARC) provides all students with free writing consultation and other academic services.  A primary component of The ARC is the University’s Writing Center, a place where students can receive guidance and feedback on their written projects.  The ARC is staffed by consultants who are recognized by GFU professors as outstanding students. 

 This semester, you will be required to take two of your essays-in-progress to The ARC for writing consultations; alternatively, you may participate in a semester-long writing group facilitated by The ARC.  You may pick which essays you take to The ARC.  Be forewarned that, should you wait until the last minute, you may not get an appointment. Consultants will note when you have visited The ARC; the visits will account for some portion of your final grade.  Of course, you are not limited to these two visits.

 Call 2327, e-mail the_arc@georgefox.edu, or go to http://www.georgefox.edu/arc/ for more information about the Writing Center and other services of the Academic Resource Center.  Click on “Scheduling an Appointment” for details about arranging an appointment with a peer consultant.

 Assignments: Below you will find descriptions for the course’s assignments, along with percentage totals and grading criteria for each assignment; due dates appear in the syllabus.

 Assignment #1: Keeping a Journal.  Journaling is no doubt the most democratic literary form: any literate person can keep a written record of his or her life.  Because keeping a journal is perhaps the most fundamental form of life writing, you will be required to write religiously in a journal this semester; hopefully, you will find the discipline of journaling so enjoyable, and will continue past the semester.  A fruitful journal will include more than a summarization of weather and what you had for lunch, although you may write about that as well.  Consider using your journal to record daily events, conversations, and feelings; to examine your beliefs and thoughts, as well as your reaction to certain daily experiences; to experiment with different writing styles and ideas; and to draft pieces you are working on.

 For this course assignment, you will need to write at least five pages per week; the pages should be of reasonable notebook size (if you write in huge print, or use a very small notebook, I will adjust the page requirement to meet your particular needs).  To encourage self-disclosure and honesty (as much as is possible or useful), I will not be collecting journals, but will only scan through and count pages on a regular and unannounced basis.  For this reason, be sure to bring your journal with you to class.  If you want, your journal can include the writing we do in class, since this writing also will be a record of your thoughts, of events, of your experimentation with writing styles. 10 percent

 Assignment #2:  Autobiographical Essays.  Rather than require that you write your autobiography (a major undertaking for anyone, no matter how long or short the life), you will be asked to write three autobiographical essays, on topics of your choosing, culled from your journal and from in and out of class writing assignments.  In these essays, you will not be asked to write your entire life, but rather one small moment in your life: a turning point, a memorable event, a moment that exemplifies your life in its totality.  Each essay should be four to five pages long (minimum—you may write as much as you wish), and should include vivid details that draw the reader into your experience; should provide a sense of what the experience meant to you (although you should not write “this is what I learned” conclusions); should clearly express your self, your surroundings, and the experience; should have few if any grammatical and mechanical errors.  You may find, as you write, that your essays become part of a larger story, chapters in your life autobiography.  25 percent 

Assignment #3: Biographical Essay #1.  This biographical essay will require a blend of the autobiographical skills you have mastered, and of the biographical skills you will learn to master.  For this four to six page essay, you will write a biography of someone in your life, but as that person relates to you.  In many ways, this will be a biography of a relationship, rather than merely of a person.  For example, you may choose to write about the relationship you have with your grandpa, and how that relationship has changed and grown over time.  The essay may well end up being more about you than the subject about whom you are writing; or, it may well end up being more about the subject than about you.  12 percent                    

 Assignment #4: Biographical Essay #2.  In this five to seven page essay, you will step beyond your own experiences to chronicle the life experiences of another subject, again of your choosing; I strongly urge you to choose someone you know or could know, rather than a figure about whom you can only find information in books.  Your task is to make your subject’s life compelling and meaningful, an exemplar of sorts for your readers.  This is possible with any subject, although more difficult for some: far easier to write about the local hero who saved lives during the Civil War than about Grandma Grace, who watched soap operas and ate cookies all day.  But even Grandma Grace can be an appropriate subject, provided you have an angle to capture the essence of her life. 

 This assignment will no doubt require some research.  You may wish to shadow your subject for a day to capture his actions, figures of speech, the ebb and flow of his daily life; you most likely will interview your subject and those who know her; you may ask to look at pictures, letters, journals, or other items that document your subject’s life. 

Your essay should not be a compendium of facts (born on such and such, died on such and such, yada yada).  Instead, you will want to find a theme, an extended metaphor perhaps, through which you can figure your subject’s life.  Focus on that one aspect of this life, make it central in your essay.  You will be evaluated on your ability to do this, to provide cohesion to the seemingly disparate parts of your subject’s life; you will also be evaluated on the clarity of your thought and expression, as well as on the lack of grammatical and mechanical errors in your text.  13 percent

Assignment #5: Reflection Papers.  Many weeks, you will be required to hand in a minimum one page (250 words) typed paper which asks you to 1) reflect on some aspect of that week’s reading or 2) employ some technique of autobiographical/biographical writing.  These reflection papers will be evaluated on your effort to complete the project; the clarity of your writing; your thoroughness and thoughtfulness in your reflection; and the lack of grammatical and mechanical errors. Each will be assessed on a scale from ten (exceptional) to one (failing), and these scores will be averaged at semester’s end.  A score of ten will only be awarded to those reflection papers that are without any errors. 15 percent

 Assignment #6: Reading Groups.  You will be asked to read three book-length memoirs and one biography this semester, beyond the reading we do in class. Once the semester is underway, then, you will choose, in small groups, texts you wish to read and discuss as a group. Nearly every Monday (though sometimes on other days, too), I will meet with one group rather than with the entire class to discuss the book you have read. During that group discussion, you will need to be prepared to answer a number of questions about the text under consideration. Questions will be forthcoming, as will a rubric that should guide your preparation for the group discussions. To aid in our discussion, you will be required to write a two-page response—approx. 500 words—to the text you have read. For this assignment, you will be evaluated on your preparedness, your ability to intelligently discuss the text under consideration, and your participation in discussing the texts you have read.  15 percent

Assignment #7: Portfolio.  At the semester’s end, you will be asked to construct a portfolio of your semester’s best work for this class.  Your portfolio should include revisions of three pieces you wrote this semester; revisions should be more than cosmetic, and should represent your attempt to perfect your work.  The portfolio will also include a two to three page introduction which analyzes the writing you did this semester, addressing significant themes that emerged in your writing; metaphors of your self you uncovered or created this semester; items you learned about your self as you wrote this semester; places you feel you improved, or did not improve, in your writing ability; what you now feel or believe about a writer’s ability to truthfully convey his or her experiences through words.  More information about the portfolio, and about this introduction, will be made available nearer the semester’s end.  10 percent   


Grading:  A = 90 – 100 percent; B = 80 – 89 percent; C = 70 – 79 percent; D = 60 – 69 percent.  Generally, “+” and “-” grades will be given to students who score in the top or bottom one-third of their grade range.  If this grade scale is to be altered for any reason, you will be given ample warning and a clear explanation for why and how the scale must be changed

Disability Statement

 If you have specific physical, psychiatric, or learning disabilities and require accommodations, please contact the Disability Services office early in the semester so that your learning needs may be appropriately met.  You will need to provide current documentation of your disability to Disability Services.  For more information, contact Rick Muthiah, coordinator of Disability Services (ext. 2314 or rmuthiah@georgefox.edu), or go to www.georgefox.edu/offices/disab_services.

 Semester Schedule (subject to change)

 Week One

 Mon.    1.11                 Introduction

 Wed.    1.13                 Definitions of life-writing

 Fri.       1.15                Reflection: Write about your earliest memory: describe what you

                                    remember, and why you think this memory is significant to you. What

                                    might this memory tell you about what you value? About your childhood

                                    or your family? About the characteristic of “memory” itself?

 Week Two

 Mon.    1.18                 Martin Luther King’s Day: No Classes,

 Wed.    1.20                 Lamott, “Overture: Lily Pads,” 3-55

 Fri.       1.22                 Reflection: Write a reflection about the idea of “family.”  How have the

                                    circumstances of your particular family (however you define that family)

                                    helped to shape who you believe yourself to be today?

 Week Three

 Mon.    1.25                 Lamott, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” 59-67

Wed.    1.27                 Lamott, Kids, Some Sick, 147-168

 Fri.       1.29                 Reflection: Think about the transformations Lamott undergoes thus far

                                    in Traveling Mercies: in the airplane, in her relationship with Olivia and

                                    with Akela, in the fear she felt about her son’s health. Write about a

                                    similar transformation you experienced in your own life, using Lamott’s

                                    essays as a model for your own shorter reflection.

 Week Four

 Mon.    2.1                   Reading Group A.1

 Wed.    2.3                   Crafting Life Narratives

 Fri.       2.5                   Reflection: Consider one of the sub-genres of memoir currently popular.

                                    In your one-page reflection, try to explain its popularity. Why are dog

memoirs popular now? Or addiction and recovery memoirs? Or women-travleing-alone memoirs? What do these particular genres speak to in our society?

 Week Five

 Feb.     2.8                   Reading Group B.1

 Wed.    2.10                 Lamott, “Hunger,” 190-198    

 Fri.       2.12                 Due: Autobiographical Essay One

 Week Six

 Mon.    2.15                 Reading Group C.1

Wed.    2.17                 Lamott, “Traveling Mercies,” 106-114

                                                  “Ashes,” 91-98

Fri.       2.19                 Write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, Lent, or Easter, considering how

one or more of these points in the church calendar have functioned in your life.

 Week Seven

 Mon.    2.22                 Reading Group D.1

Wed.    2.24                 Lamott, Body and Soul, 171-206 (sans “Hunger”)

 Fri.       2.26                 Due: Autobiographical Essay Two

Week Eight

 Mon.    3.1                   Reading Group A.2

 Wed.    3.3                   Lamott, “Forgiveness,” 128-137

 Fri.       3.5                   Reflection: Write a story about forgiveness, a la Anne Lamott.

 Week Nine

 Mon.    3.8                   Reading Group B.2

 Wed.    3.10                 Due: Autobiographical Essay Three

Fri.       3.12                 Reflection: Spend time reading someone’s blog: either the blog of

someone you know, or a blog on a topic about which you feel some passion. What metaphors of self does the blogger use? What kind of persona does the blogger create? How does this writer present his or her self for others to read?  Or, if you’d rather, trace one person’s status reports on Facebook. What metaphors of self appear in those status reports? How does the person present him or herself in Facebook?

 Week Ten

 Mon.    3.15                 Reading Group C.2                 

 Wed.    3.17                 Lamott, Fambly, 209-243

.Fri.       3.19                 Reading Group D.2

                                     Reflection: Choose an event in your life for which you have strong

                                    emotions (either positive or negative).  Now write about that experience

                                    from the perspective of someone else who was either a participant in the

                                    experience or an observer.

 No Class—Spring Break

 Week Eleven

 Mon.    3.29                 “Schtick Lit.” as memoir

                                     (Reading Group A.3)

 Wed.    3.31                 Reflection: What irritates you?  Write a reflection on the most constant

 irritations in your life.  Try to write using dialogue, sensory details, character development—all those elements that make life writing so interesting.  Through tone, suggest to your readers the attitude you take towards these irritations: do they seriously bring you down, or are the minor distractions in your day?

Fri.       4.2                   Good Friday—No Classes

 Week Twelve

 Mon.    4.5                   Reading Group B.3

Wed.    4.7                   Due: Biographical Essay One

 Fri.       4.9                   Reflection: Write a reflection on springtime, however you wish. You

                                    may want to recall a favorite springtime memory, or describe a favorite

                                    springtime activity, for example. Use this as an opportunity to practice

                                    descriptive, concise, reflective prose

  Week Thirteen

 Mon.    4.12                 Reading Group C.3

Wed.    4.14                 Due: Biographical Essay Two

 Fri.       4.16                 Revision—Bring to class the pieces you plan to revise for your portfolio.

 Week Fourteen

 Mon.    4.19                 Reading Group C.4

 Wed.    4.21                 Reading Groups (Biography Discussion)

 Fri.       4.23                 Revision—Bring to class the pieces you plan to revise for your portfolio.

 Week Fifteen

Portfolio due during our final period. We will have a required presentation/sharing session at that time.


About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in My Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Want to Create Your Own Memoir Course? Here's a Syllabus to Get You Started

  1. Antonia Krueger says:

    Life narratives can be valuable for many purposes. I appreciate your posting this syllabus as a model for future writing instructors to draw upon.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    I agree, Antonia. So glad you found this helpful. I would love to collect more of these, so come back again to check in!

  3. Karin says:

    I am catching up on some of your posts, Shirley. I have to admit that I felt some sadness as I read this post and syllabus–there was a similar syllabus that we never had the chance to work through at Goshen. I think that had I taken that class with you, my life might have taken a somewhat different path.Melanie sounds like an equally thoughtful prof, and I would have loved to have been in this class. You mentioned in your intro that a syllabus can be a work of art. As I read it I got a picture of Melanie because even in a syllabus, a document which many assume to be a cold list of facts, she gives many clues to her own values and life–part of what makes it art. I picture her in a somewhat messy office, clearing away papers to uncover the laptop which she sighs as she opens because she has to take care of some business in the “virtual world.” She’d much rather be writing in her latest moleskin notebook or listening to a student’s story about his grandmother who has a stash of 976 rolls of toilet paper in the attic.

  4. shirleyhs says:

    You have a vivid imagination, Karin! I hope that Melanie reads and enjoys this picture. You can take the course by following the syllabus. Would love to hear what happens if you do.And thank you for bringing up the memory of the course like this I almost taught at Goshen years ago. I think the fact that I was too depressed to teach in that six-week period has shaped much of my own life. I may, in fact, be drawn to this subject and this blog because of that loss in the past. Let's keep reading and writing together. Eventually, we will get course credit. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Two Memoir Course Syllabi from Poet and Professor Jeff Gundy | 100 Memoirs

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