Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2014-2015 (archived)

Module ENGL42630: Life Narratives

Department: English Studies

ENGL42630: Life Narratives

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2014/15 Module Cap


  • •Students must hold a good BA degree in English or a related subject to be eligible for entry onto the MA in English Literary Studies.


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • This module aims to:
  • provide students with tools for understanding and interpreting life narratives, including biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and related modes.
  • compare and contrast these modes of life narrative with fictional accounts, and in the process highlight the relevance of several methods of narrative analysis for the study of life stories.
  • examine how life narrative practices have evolved over time, and also how they are shaped by the constraints and affordances of different storytelling media, including print texts, graphic narratives, oral history, videorecorded testimony, and others.
  • combine close textual analysis with an understanding of the broader cultural contexts in which life narratives are produced and interpreted, so that students can develop further the analytical, interpretive, critical and persuasive skills acquired at undergraduate level.
  • address questions of research ethics that arise in connection with the elicitation and study of some life narratives, while giving students opportunities for practice-based learning.


  • To provide a sense of the variety of narrative practices used to tell the story of one's own or another's life, this module will examine a range of genres within the broader category of life narratives, including saints' lives and spiritual auto/biographies of the middle ages, 19th-century slave narratives, Holocaust narratives, graphic memoirs (e.g., David Small's Stitches) and others. The module will also encompass illness blogs, videorecorded interviews, and oral histories obtained via StoryCorps and other databases. To provide students with analytic tools for examining the structure and impact of such life narratives, the module will explore several approaches to narrative analysis, including those developed in narratology, social psychology, sociolinguistics, and autobiography studies.
  • After laying groundwork for the study of life narratives across media, genres, and periods, the module will shift to an in-depth engagement with two categories of texts that present distinctive challenges and opportunities for research in this area. The first category includes hybrid works that, like Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and J.M. Coetzee's Summertime, reflexively interrogate the conventions of biography and autobiography, in part by straddling the divide between fictional and nonfictional discourse. The second category includes works that focus on the lives of nonhuman animals, suggesting how the study of life narratives can be brought into dialogue with emergent fields such as multispecies ethnography, zoegraphy, critical animal studies, and others.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • An extensive and detailed knowledge of the life narratives used as case studies;
  • A familiarity with tools from narrative analysis and an understanding of their relevance for the study of biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and other modes of life narrative;
  • An understanding of how different storytelling media constrain as well as enable practices of life narration;
  • An understanding of the conceptual and interpretive challenges raised by experimental, self-reflexive life narratives and also narratives about nonhuman lives.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • Advanced critical skills in the close reading and analysis of narratives in general, life narratives in particular;
  • An ability to identify structural and interpretive differences between fictional and nonfictional narratives;
  • An ability to offer advanced analysis of formal, rhetorical, and cultural dimensions of life narratives;
  • An ability to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the evolution of life narratives over time;
  • An ability to engage in sophisticated ways with storytelling practices conducted in a variety of media;
  • An ability to articulate an advanced knowledge and understanding of key concepts and methods of narrative analysis;
  • An advanced command of a broad range of critical vocabulary, particularly the nomenclatures developed by scholars of narrative.
Key Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • an advanced ability to analyse critically;
  • an advanced ability to acquire complex information of diverse kinds in structured and systematic ways;
  • an advanced ability to interpret complex information of diverse kinds through the distinctive skills derived from the subject;
  • expertise in conventions of scholarly presentation and bibliographical skills;
  • an independence of thought and judgement, and ability to assess acutely the critical ideas of others;
  • sophisticated skills in critical reasoning;
  • an advanced ability to handle information and argument critically;
  • a competence in information-technology skills such as word-processing and electronic data access;
  • professional organisation and time-management skills.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Students are encouraged to develop advanced conceptual abilities and analytical skills as well as the ability to communicate an advanced knowledge and conceptual understanding within seminars; the capacity for advanced independent study is demonstrated through the completion of two assessed pieces of work.
  • Typically, directed learning may include assigning student(s) an issue, theme or topic that can be independently or collectively explored within a framework and/or with additional materials provided by the tutor. This may function as preparatory work for presenting their ideas or findings (sometimes electronically) to their peers and tutor in the context of a seminar.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 Fortnightly 2 hours 18
Independent student research supervised by the Module Convenor 10
Preparation and reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative essay 3,000 words 50%
Summative essay 3,000 words 50%

Formative Assessment:

One essay of not more than 2,000 words.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University