An Autobiographical Note

A brief follow-up to Justin Rex’s post about student autobiographies:

Burgundy AutobiographyI tried this exercise about two weeks ago in a first-year seminar. It did not go as well as I had hoped in terms of getting students’ mental light bulbs to blink on and generating conversation, probably because I simply ran out of time. The seminar meets in fifty minute sessions. I usually begin class with a discussion of that day’s reading and writing assignment, and that often segues into a team-based activity. When I got to the autobiographies, there were perhaps twenty minutes left.

Something else I didn’t do well: ask students in the room to read verbatim what they wrote for each version of their autobiography instead of letting them give one or two sentence synopses. With the former method, I could have asked the students what they noticed about each other’s stories instead of me identifying key aspects and writing them on the board. I should have let students take more initiative in directing the conversation.

I wasn’t completely surprised that this exercise did not produce fantastic results right out of the box. New techniques fail, sometimes spectacularly, the first few times I try them. But here is the interesting thing: the underlying subject of the exercise — that individual behavior is often constrained by social conditioning and institutions — has come up accidentally in subsequent assignments. So, like Justin, I’ve been able to refer back to the autobiographies.

In sum, I think this exercise is quite useful, but I need at least thirty minutes of class time and to facilitate discussion better to employ it successfully.

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