Student Autobiographies

Today we have a guest post from Justin Rex, Senior Lecturer, Irvin D. Reid Honors College, Wayne State University:

One fundamental question that underlies many political debates is the extent to which individuals are in control of their status in life. To what extent are individuals a product of their own choices and to what extent are they influenced or controlled by larger forces like political parties, corporations, class, race, or gender? One’s answer to this question goes a long way toward explaining one’s position on welfare, immigration, healthcare access, and many other issues.

Justin Bieber BioStudents are often unaware of their own answer to this question. Frequently, their attitude is a reflexive, uncritical one and they struggle to view the world from a perspective different than the one already deeply ingrained. The problem is then how we as educators can get students to more explicitly acknowledge their own perspectives and to learn to see from alternative ones so they can make a more informed decision about their core values and political preferences.

One solution I created for my Introduction to American Government class is to have students write two versions of their autobiography. These can be short, 1-2 paragraph assignments completed at home or in class early in the semester. The first autobiography is written from the perspective of individualism. This version is the Horatio Alger story of their life, focusing on the good choices and hard work that led them to where they are today. Next, they write a structural autobiography. What factors outside their control helped them get where they are, such as their family, school, and socioeconomic status? Once students have completed their autobiographies, I ask them to share brief versions in class. As more students share, we begin to list commonalities. This list serves as a good introduction for these contrasting ways of seeing the social world. A good way to get students to think about their own values is to ask them which autobiography best explains their life.

This assignment is not a solution in isolation. To be useful, I refer back to it often. For example, when we discuss political ideologies, I ask students to draw connections between various ideologies and their autobiographical perspective. Through discussion, we are able to make the connection between classical liberalism and their individualist autobiographies the connection between socialist ideologies and their structural autobiographies. My students also complete a semester-long service learning project on a public problem of their choice. As students reflect on the causes of a problem like poverty, it is useful to have them consider the extent to which individuals, social structures, or some combination thereof are the cause. Their answers helps shape the solutions they ultimately recommend. Also, the assignment helps them think critically about individual and group efficacy for changing the social structures that contribute to the problem.

Justin can be contacted about the above assignment at justin.rex[at]wayne.edu.

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