Faculty Profile

Sharon O'Brien

Professor of English and American Studies; James Hope Caldwell Professor of American Cultures (1975)

Contact Information


Denny Hall Room 316


Sharon O'Brien teaches interdisciplinary courses in the American Studies and English Departments, looking at the multiplicity of American cultures through the lenses of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. The author of a biography of Willa Cather and of a family memoir, she is now teaching and writing memoir and personal essay. Teaching and research interests include the politics of memory; illness and narrative; and lifewriting.


  • B.A., Radcliffe College, 1967
  • M.A., Harvard University, 1969
  • Ph.D., 1975


  • Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, 1985-1986

2017-2018 Academic Year

Fall 2017

AMST 200 Health, Illness & Disabilities
What is it like to experience illness or disability in America? This course will focus on narratives of illness and disability in contemporary American culture, exploring the ways in which both have been stigmatized as well as the ways in which writers and activists have challenged and changed attitudes and laws. How has the American cult of “positive thinking” and self-mastery affected the lives of people experiencing illness or disability? What role do forms of creative expression—fiction, memoir, graphic novel, poetry, essay, film – play in resisting silence and stigma? How do the variables of race, class, gender, sexuality and age impact the experience of illness and disability? How can the phenomenon of “passing” be applied to people with disabilities? How is the experience of illness and disability narrated differently by patients and by medical professionals? By writers who publish and those who contribute to blogs and newsletters? By those who experience chronic conditions and those who face death? Our reading will include books such as Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals; Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Miriam Engelberg, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person; Atul Gawande, Being Mortal; Nancy Mairs, Waist-High in the World; Simi Linton, My Body Politic; Lennard Davis, Enabling Acts. Films will include Wit and Murderball.

Spring 2018

CRWR 219 Creative Writing: Memoir/Essay
In this course, we will learn how to transform life into art by taking what may seem “personal” materials – the experiences of a life, or lives – and shaping them aesthetically into narrative. “Everyone has a story that only they can tell,” writer Susan Monsky once said, and this is particularly relevant in a course that focuses on memoir and personal essay. Equally true is the fact that not everyone can tell her or his story well or effectively, in a way that will engage readers. The challenge of memoir is to draw on the raw material of life and transform it into art by finding the story that emerges and creating a narrative voice to tell that story. In this course we will both encourage the emergence of writers’ individual voices and work on the literary techniques (many of which are shared with fiction writers) that make memoir (and personal essay) a literary genre.We will be reading examples of memoir and personal essay; the heart of the course, however, is the workshop, where we will discuss each other’s writing and give suggestions for revision. Classes will include discussions of the reading, freewriting, and workshopping of student papers.