Analyzing the Autobiography

Associate Professor Caroline Pari lets her students know from the first day of class that autobiography is the only course in the English department where they’ll read autobiographies and write their own autobiography.

Pari—herself a CUNY graduate—has taught English classes at BMCC since 1996. This semester, students in her Autobiography class examine the styles, elements and themes found in this genre.

Pari’s main focus is educating her students about Literacy Narratives, which she says, “have become a more visible and viable part of our academic world.”

According to Pari, the Literacy Narrative focuses on educational experiences, such as moving to a new school or learning a new language. Students read works by both men and women of different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, such as abolitionist and reformer Frederick Douglass and chicana novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros.

Relating to Stories
Pari wants her students to explore—and write down—their feelings about the stories they read in class. “Students understand the impact or influences of gender, race, ethnicity, and assimilation,” she says.

In one of her previous BMCC Autobiography classes, students read a short story by M. Bella Mirabella, where the author searches for her cultural roots in Italy. “They loved the story, and were so inspired they wanted to explore their own roots.” says Pari.

Pari’s ‘Divided Worlds’
While on fellowship leave during the 2007-2008 academic year, Pari designed an anthology of literacy narratives for publication, in textbook form. Called, Divided Worlds, her book serves as a guide for writing literacy narratives. “I called [the textbook] ‘Divided Worlds’ because the self is divided into the public and private,” says Pari.

A draft version of this textbook is used by students in her Autobiography class. Another required reading is the book Voices of the Self by Keith Gilyard. A former CUNY professor, Gilyard’s story is about his longing for acceptance in a predominantly white neighborhood and his internal search for identity. One of Pari’s personal favorite writers, Gilyard is an example of someone living life in a “Divided World.”

Not Always ‘Happy Endings’
According to Pari, in a Literacy Narrative, there is always some type of conflict or struggle, be it internal, external or both. “It’s not always happy endings; it’s not always conflict-free,” she says.

Pari further challenges her students by having them explore unique topics. “I teach like a sociologist,” she says. “I bring up social issues. I do things that students wouldn’t expect in a writing class—and students do connect with the material.”