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

2016-2017 Academic Year

Fall 2016

FYSM 100 First-Year Seminar
The First-Year Seminar (FYS) introduces students to Dickinson as a "community of inquiry" by developing habits of mind essential to liberal learning. Through the study of a compelling issue or broad topic chosen by their faculty member, students will: - Critically analyze information and ideas - Examine issues from multiple perspectives - Discuss, debate and defend ideas, including one's own views, with clarity and reason - Develop discernment, facility and ethical responsibility in using information, and - Create clear academic writing The small group seminar format of this course promotes discussion and interaction among students and their professor. In addition, the professor serves as students' initial academic advisor. This course does not duplicate in content any other course in the curriculum and may not be used to fulfill any other graduation requirement.

AMST 200 Health, Illness and Narrative
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.