Author Archives: Laurie McNeill

Blog #5 CAPCON 2016 (and the year that was)

Hello everyone
For your final blog post, due Saturday, April 2 @ midnight (OK, 11:59 pm), you will  respond to CAPCON 2016. Include discussion of at least one specific panel, presentation, or showcase item, including the presenter(s)’ name and the title of the work. You may also wish to connect what you saw at CAPCON to a reflection on your year in CAP. Comments are due by class on Tuesday, and we’ll talk about the blogs then.

While I have you here, I’ve been meaning to share with you a documentary photography series, Heroin Users Help Us See Photos of Addiction Differently, that I read about in the Vancouver Sun and thought of in relation to our discussions of Through a Blue Lens and Missing Sarah. It’s posted on, a website that features documentary photography about all kinds of subjects, and thus connects to our interests in archives, representation, agency, and life narratives.



Blog #4 Memory, memorials, archives

This week you’ll post on Friday, March 18. You can return to discussions of Missing Sarah or Forsaken, as well as the other texts we’ve touched on, for instance or Walking with Our Sisters. You can also blog about Persepolis, or start trying out ideas for your research papers.

A few “archives in the news” items have come across my desk that I thought would be of interest to you: this NYT story about Bob Dylan’s “secret archive” continues our interest in musicians; this one about the digitization of almost 4000 pages of artist Paul Klee’s notebooks may be of interest to those who worked on Shadbolt’s notebooks; this article, about the digitized archives of 19th coroner’s reports from the American south, explores how they contain “hundreds” life narratives the coroner collected about his subjects: like Forsaken, then, we see life narratives in a legalistic / institutional context, where they serve purposes that may be quite different from those of a memoir, for example. To me, I’m wondering: why did the coroner decide this was important work to do, at all? There’s something here about inscribing lives so that that they will be remembered, and therefore will matter, I think. Finally, Amanda Wan and Beatrice Lew, 2 of my English 492 students (in my course on archives) did a wonderful presentation on the archives and the TRC, and discussed this video, which features a barn at the site of a residential school, and how the IRS students scratched their names into the barn’s walls and ceilings: another act of insistent self-inscription, and they read the barn as an archival site. (I’ve linked their names to each of their blogs, where they have also posted several links about TRCs in South Africa and Canada.)

Blog #3 Grief, loss, and the soundtracks of our lives

This week, you could be blogging about Missing Sarah, taking up the issues of ethics and representation, perhaps, as raised by the CBC documentary; you can also learn more about Maggie de Vries at her author site. You could connect Missing Sarah to the discussions of Jiwani & Young, and look at more recent media coverage; Wayne Leng’s website is an excellent place to begin media research, and it’s also interesting as a kind of counter-representation in itself. Paratextual analysis of the text, including its title change, could be revealing; how is the text read by others, what audience did its publisher imagine, how is it “meant” to be read?

If you’d like a break from all the grief and loss, another direction would be to think about other kinds of life narratives, such as those by musicians. I’m thinking of this because I’m reading Keith Richard’s Life, a very well-received memoir by one of the Rolling Stones. Interestingly, Richards can tell a tale of massive drug-use (etc.) but this is accepted as fun, part of the rock ‘n’ roll life, in comparison to the representations of the subjects of Through a Blue Lens, for example, or Sarah de Vries. We could also think the connection between music and life narrative. In a personal anecdote, I make “mixtapes” each year for friends and family; the ones for my kids are a mix of songs I know they like and songs I think they need to know about as part of their musical “education” (some principles: no showtunes, no country, no Bieber). While certainly these choices reflect my tastes (and life) as well as shaping a (musical) identity for them, I wouldn’t call them instances of auto/biography. But there certainly is a connection in this story from the UK, about a dying woman (OK, so not totally escaping grief and loss) who works with her brother to produce her own “Desert Island Discs,” a BBC radio program in which interviewees talk about their lives and play music that evokes their past experiences and identities (you can listen to Keith Richards’ here). This combination of a person reflecting on their life and making a soundtrack to it is a really interesting way to think about the aural and the textual, perhaps, or how these two forms come together (what tracks would be on your “Desert Island Discs”?). Finally, to throw a bone to all you Beliebers, here is Canadian acting icon Gordon Pinsent’s hilarious reading of Bieber’s 2010 memoir First Step 2 Forever: My Story (“Oh the humanity!”).

Blog #2 Showcase! and more

Posts are due this week on Wed, Feb 10 at 7:00 PM (giving you all those evening hours for reading and commenting by 9:30 am the next day!).

This week I’d like you to use some of your blog to discuss the materials you (as a class) produced and demonstrated in the Archives Project Showcase. What I’m looking for is not simply what you liked, but a discussion of what made a particular project or project particularly effective for you. ETA: You don’t need to discuss your own project, but can reflect on others’. Ideally, you’ll link this discussion seamlessly into whatever topic you want to take up this week: your own archives work, archives in general, and Diamond Grill are still up for discussion, and we’ve ventured into new terrain with our work on Jiwani & Young. You could take up the blog posts I’d assigned for Thursday’s class but then did not ask you to read because of the Geography midterm (“When the Media Treats White Suspects” & “I am Not Your Wife…” ). You might be interested in this analysis of media coverage following the Charleston shootings, showing “how the media covers white terrorism,” with similar findings to the other readings. If you’re working ahead, you could also go ahead and post your analysis of Through a Blue Lens, the documentary you’ll need to watch for Thursday’s class, or take up the work of looking at media treatment of celebrity overdoses (on our schedule for Thursday but not required as homework). I’ll be asking you to connect it to Jiwani & Young for our class discussion and of course in whatever you post about, I’ll be looking for you to extend your analysis by engaging with scholars and other voices.

Blog #1: Family / Archives

Our 2016 blogging begins! As you write, keep in mind the goals for this term’s blog: posts that are research contributions. These posts are your ways to practice your academic writing muscles in preparation for your research papers, so use them to help you meet your writing goals for the semester. So, posts are not just personal, not just observational, but are exploring ideas and issues through analyzing specific texts. I expect links. I like to see scholars’ and others’ voices orchestrated with your own. The posts introduce their ideas and wrap up (rather than just ending). Note that you have more room to do this work: 500-700 words.

This week you’ll write, as usual, on texts of your choice that connect in some way that you make explicit to our course. So you could certainly write about the archives we studied in class (PARI, the 2 TRCs in relation to archives, Mass Observation). You could write about other archives you’ve found, or about materials you looked at in Rare Books on Thursday. Those of you who went to the Museum of Anthropology’s c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city exhibit could talk about that visit in relation to the ideas and issues of our course. As always, be sure you’re extending the conversation beyond what we already talked about together.

You also might take up topics about or inspired by Diamond Grill: e.g., biotexts or food memoirs or High Muck-a-Muck or the contemporary Canadian long poem or poems by on prison walls by Chinese immigrants, etc. You could look ahead to our discussion of The Race Card Project. Another direction inspired by our discussions of the complicated genealogy of the book would be to think more about Diamond Grill as a family memoir, a topic we’ll take up in other texts we’ll study this term. Wah (Jr) is not, of course, writing in a vacuum. As he acknowledges, he’s writing about his family. In an essay on The Conversation (a website in which scholars write for a general public, just like you will in your archives projects), sociologist Ashley Barnwell considers the ethics of the family memoir, looking at several instances of life narratives in which family members who were represented by these texts rejected, resented, or publicly protested the versions of the family that the author produced. Not only is Barnwell’s analysis relevant to our discussions, it’s also a cross-disciplinary encounter in action: how a sociologist reads life narratives (vs our readings as literary and cultural studies scholars). You could introduce and respond to her ideas by thinking about these issues in relation to Wah’s text or other life narratives.

Googling “family memoir” just now, looking for something to link to, I got tonnes of hits for sites on how to write a family (such as this one but there were many more). A great subject for a blog post or research paper would be to gather examples of books or websites about how to write life narratives, and analyze them (what do these guides suggest about how life narratives are understood? Etc.).

Posts are due Mon noon, comments Tuesday at 9:30 (don’t forget to post your comments on this post, rather than on the individual blogs), and be ready in class to discuss connections between the blogs and points they raised that you’d like to take up.

Blog 5 & Much Ado About Writing

In this week’s blog, you can choose to write about anything you like that relates in some way to life narratives and/or the issues we’ve been discussing in ASTU 100A. So, you could certainly build on our analyses of Facebook (using your own auto/ethnographic work, or other observations), or extend that conversation by looking at another social network. ETA: This article has good stuff on the flap over the French flag profile pic practice (what a tongue twister), how Zuckerberg got that going, and also cites some scholarly work on Facebook and public mourning. Thinking of current events, you might consider memorial responses to the Paris (or Beirut or Kenya or Baghdad) bombings, looking at how life stories are told as part of a process of public mourning. This video is one interesting example, but you can find certain victims profiled in news stories, too. Twitter brings us a very Web 2.0 example of what I’ve called “death writing” (vs “life writing”), with the #enmemoire hashtag (and account), offering up snapshots of the victims in under 140 characters. I see that scholar Judith Butler’s concept of the “grievable life” (which we briefly encountered in Whitlock’s work) has been circulating again as part of debates about media coverage of the different bombings and the larger question of whose lives (and deaths) matter (a letter from Paris, by Butler, is one of those sites). Remember that you are aiming for an evidence-based, analytical post, with links.

When you’re not writing your blog post, you are of course writing papers, lots of papers. Below I talk about the writing process and offers some links and tips to help you.

  1.  Writing is hard: let’s face it, you won’t want to do it. But the research (e.g., How to Write a Lot) is conclusive: you will write more, and have better ideas (and more of them), if you make yourself write every day. Schedule the time, set a timer, log off social media, and just start. It’s okay to write “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott calls them. If you’re really stuck, you can try freewriting: for a certain amount of time, just write whatever is in your mind in relation to a project. Don’t look up citations, don’t stop. If you’re stuck, you write, “I’m stuck” until you aren’t. (Try writing “I’m stuck because _____.”) Writing can help you figure out what you want to say.
  1. Try working in different ways: switch from your laptop to your notebook (or vice versa). Move rooms. Stand up. Use a whiteboard or a pack of sticky notes and your wall to do some mind-mapping or brainstorming. I’ve discovered that I can’t outline sitting down, so now I do it on a big piece of paper that I leave up and can keep working on. (My family is very forgiving: “Oh, Mom has a paper due.”) Pro tip: Make sure you have markers that won’t damage the wall underneath!IMG_20151016_140331430
  1. If you aren’t doing outlines, start: they don’t have to look like a tidy list (see mine, above). They just help you gather ideas, examples, scholars’ voices into one place, and then sort them into categories. You can then start to see what belongs together, and then what those things together suggest. You’ll also see what’s missing. Outlines also help you identify main concepts and the connections between ideas – helping you develop an argument that works and develops across paragraphs. Note that outlines are dynamic: you keep working on them throughout the paper process, even while you are writing, so that you can capture new ideas and insights, and keep tinkering with the structure as it develops.

Outlines can take different forms.

  • You can do a list of points (e.g., in Word document). Word actually has an outline tool that helps you create hierarchies of ideas, and can be useful.
  • You can do visual outlines, such as concept maps.
  • Try cue cards, Powerpoint slides, sticky notes
  • You can do outlines at different times: many of my colleagues are big fans of reverse outlines, which are like gists notes that you produce on your own drafts: they help you revise and develop your ideas.

I hope these tips help you find some new ways to work, or support your existing habits. Remember what Smith and Watson say about writing: ultimately, you’ve got to LFF! So get to it.


Blog Post #4

It’s that time again, ASTU: our next blog post is due Monday, November 9 at noon (remember, if the original Friday due date suited you better, go ahead and post before Monday. Just no later). Please read and comment by 9:30 Tuesday as usual. In this post, I give some suggestions about finding a topic and I also talk about some material that is in my own “ASTU stuff” file.

Again this week, you will choose your own topic related to our discussions of life narratives. Be sure to make explicit how your content connects to our course conversations, and don’t forget to think about the needs of your readers, who will be us, but also the wider UBC community. Remember that I’m expecting analytical rather than merely descriptive posts. One way to add complexity to your discussions is to bring in the work of  scholars or other experts, engaging with their ideas as you develop your own insights.

If you’re looking for ideas for your topic, you could look ahead to the blogs we are reading alongside Cockeyed (see links on Connect). You could talk about aspects of Cockeyed we haven’t addressed as a class. You might draw on your lit review, or look ahead to the original work you want to do on your primary source (the life narrative you’ll study as your research site). Or you may have seen life narratives in action in other places and want to talk about them. It’s a great research practice, in any course, to start a “clippings file” (digital or print) to capture stuff you see in other contexts but that you find interesting and relevant to that particular course’s content. You never know when that “clippings file” might yield an original research project, blog post, or “hook” for another piece of writing.

As a researcher and teacher of auto/biography studies, I’m always on the alert for material that connects to my own scholarship (on digital life narratives) and to my courses. In mid-September, I found this interview in the Vancouver Sun with Jason DaSilva, a filmmaker whose documentary When I Walk was showing at the Vancouver Film Festival.  The documentary chronicles DaSilva’s experiences with MS, and explores what it means for him to navigate the world as a person with a disability (see the Sundance trailer with extra footage here). The feature-length film is only the latest (and longest) of DaSilva’s self-representations; he’s been a video blogger for years (see one here, but also note his many posts for organizations such as the MS Society, including this one).

There’s a lot to work with in DaSilva’s films: we could continue to think about representations of disability, using Couser or other scholars to help us develop our analyses (is DaSilva resisting or conforming to normative social narratives about disability? Are these “counter-narratives”? How?). We could use them to think about documentary as a form of auto/biography, with its own sets of generic conventions, that we haven’t yet considered. (How do do the conventions of the documentary shape the auto/biographical act? What are the effects of the film medium, including camera angle, voice-over, music, etc.)? We could think about these films in relation to YouTube and the DIY — video blogs that allow “anyone” to post about “anything.” I’m also interested in the reception of DaSilva’s blogs and When I Walk: I note how often the word “inspiration” is used, and I imagine that pattern is worth considering (especially given one of the blog posts we’re reading next week, “We’re Not Here for Your Inspiration“).

Unlike you, I don’t have to choose one path and present an analysis here. But you might find DaSilva’s work, um, inspirational. And do be sure to start your own “neat stuff” file: it always pays off!

Happy blogging,


Blog post #3

For this week’s blog, you will choose your own subject related to our discussions of life narratives. Given the upcoming Canadian federal election, one topic you could explore would be political uses of life narratives. For example, look at a candidate’s web page and the bio note he or she includes. How does that candidate (or more broadly that political party) tell a life story that sets up the person as a political leader?

We also discussed in class last Thursday that you are welcome to talk about HONY, refugee narratives, or your I am Malala case-study work. You could also return to Whitlock and/or Schaffer and Smith, and take their ideas to new case-studies.

Having read 2 of your blog posts, I want to remind you of a few items (below), and then I have an example from a/b scholar Leigh Gilmore doing some paratextual analysis to share with you (further below):

  • Remember to accommodate an audience beyond our classroom. Posts that begin “in class yesterday” or “I walked in the Bookstore” won’t provide sufficient context for a public reader.
  • Think carefully about what point of analysis you are developing in your post: what do you think is important about what you are sharing? This means pushing yourself past describing what you’re observing, so that you can tell your readers what you are observing AND what you think matters about it.
  • Using the HONY work we did as an example, start pushing yourself to develop research questions (this goes hand-in-hand with the “why does this matter’ work).
  • Wrap up your post rather than just ending because you’ve hit the word limit!
  • Remember we can embed links: if you don’t remember how to do that, I can show you again.

OK, now back to our paratextual analysis: I just read an article by Leigh Gilmore, “Covering Pain: Pain Memoirs and Sequential Reading as an Ethical Practice,” in which Gilmore does similar work to our last blog post in her analysis of book jackets. Reading Gilmore’s article, I was also reminded of our recent discussion of the different sub-titles for I am Malala. I want to share a short excerpt with you from that article, because in it you see how a literary scholar does the interpretive work of analyzing a title. She not only points out what she finds significant (the comma), but she also explains and justifies her interpretation: we understand why the comma matters, relating to larger arguments in the article about pain memoirs.

 In her 1993 memoir of diagnosed mental illness and adolescent emotional pain Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen places a comma between an identity, girl, and an action, past tense: interrupted. Without the audible pause of a comma, girl and interrupted would run together to represent the diagnosis of the gendered adolescent identity of Susanna Kaysen. She is the “Girl, Interrupted” of the title and this name consolidates her identity as autobiographical subject. “Girl, Interrupted” is also a citation of the Vermeer painting “Girl Interrupted at her Music and therefore introduces a visual corollary to the memoir, prompting us to think about the elation of word and image from the moment we encounter the cover of the book. The inaudible pause of the comma becomes an image on the cover of the memoir. The comma visualizes interruption. By attaching interrupted to girl, the comma depicts visually what it attempts to name: Kaysen’s modification from girl to patient during her commitment and two-year treatment for borderline personality disorder at Maclean Hospital outside Boston. Although we cannot hear the pause between girl and interrupted, the comma as visual mark resists the diagnosis the words pronounce. It asks for a pause. It asks to be read as the interplay of word and image. How we look, what we see, and how we respond has been identified in comics scholarship as an ethical nexus, and so it is with memoirs about pain. (110)

In particular, note how Gilmore points out the details she wants us to observe (the comma, in particular) then tells us what she thinks it means, and WHY: she justifies her analysis. I hope this example will be useful to us in developing our own work not just with paratexts but with our research sites more generally.

Blog Post #2 Life Narrative Field Work!

This week we’ll use our blogs to think about life narratives and the global marketplace for personal stories, or rather, for some personal stories. We’ll take up Gillian Whitlock’s challenge (below) and look at how publishers and bookstores promote life narratives – typically classified as “autobiography” or “memoir,” but they use other terms too (and pay attention to what those terms are).

In Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, Gillian Whitlock urges scholars to attend to the material conditions of life narratives, how they are produced and consumed as commodities. Whitlock notes, “Bookshops—real and virtual—are a reminder that critics of the contemporary must hold things together: books on the shelf, production and consumption, addressee and addressor” (15). She issues this particular challenge:

Walk into a bookstore in the affluent West, look at the shelves and assess the packages of life narrative in block displays for special promotion, in seasonal and topical arrangements, or just in the alphabetical order of “nonfiction.” Attend to the glossy materiality of “look” and feel. Peel away the layers of peritext: the covers, introductions, acknowledgements, dedications, blurbs. Add this to your ongoing immersion in epitexts: reviews and criticism across various mass media, movements of the celebrity circuit; the book prizes and the calendar of literary festivals. The questions to ask here are simple: Who is getting to speak autobiographically, how, and why? To what effect? What becomes a best-seller, and what is remaindered or republished? How do these solicit our attention? What kinds of engagement come into play? How do these appeal to readers, and what kind of consumers are we asked to become? Log onto and cruise around a cybermarket, one that includes all kinds of qualitative and quantitative information about how life narratives are being consumed and cataloged now. (14)

For your blog post, go to a virtual and a real bookstore, following Whitlock’s instructions. Then pick 1 life narrative and look at its particular marketing: what does the jacket look like? Who is quoted on the cover (the “blurbs”)? How is described? You might also look at reviews or ratings of the text (e.g., online reviews). Then, in your post, write about what you’ve seen and read about, and suggest what you find significant about what you are observing. (In other words, don’t stop at description: what matters about what you describe?) You might find it helpful, in thinking about significance, to work with one or more of Whitlock’s questions in the passage above. Work within the 300-500 word range. Be sure to use reporting expressions, links, and citation. Note: this work could be taken up again in your term research paper…

Our class blog

We’ll be blogging 5 times over the semester. Posts are always due on a Friday at noon, but you can certainly post before that time. (Correct due dates: Sept 18, Oct 2, Oct 16, Nov 6, Nov 20). You will post your comments on the week’s blogs on this page (as a comment to my post for the week, see “Leave Comment” below)) and add links to the blogs you discuss. Plan to read 5-6 blogs each time, and make a comment at least 3 of the times we post.

I’ve posted the prompt for this week’s blog below, and look forward to reading what you write. But I also need you to go on to the “Our Blog List” page and enter the link to your blog, so we can find your posts!

Post #1

In 300-500 words, writing for our scholarly community (as the assignment describes in the “genre” description), write a post in which you a)  introduce yourself (what do you want the blogosphere to know about you?) and b) articulate 1-2 questions or issues you’d like to pursue in the context of our course on life narratives. What makes those questions compelling for you? What is an example (a news story, YT video, meme, print memoir, whatever) that embodies the thing that you find so interesting? Provide a link to that example. If you need technical help, you can email Arts ISIT help desk ( or check the UBC Blogs wiki. You might also ask each other for help (have you set up your “secret” Global Citizens Facebook page? Very handy for this sort of thing. 😉 

Posts are due Fri noon or before. Have fun!