Faculty Profile

Sharon O'Brien

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

Contact Information

obrien@dickinson.edu

Denny Hall Room 316
717.245.1497
http://users.dickinson.edu/~obrien/

Bio

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.

Education

  • 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.

Spring 2017

ENGL 219 Creative Writing: Memoir/Essay
Cross-listed with CRWR 219-01.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.

CRWR 219 Creative Writing: Memoir/Essay
Cross-listed with ENGL 219-01.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.

AMST 301 Am Lives, Changing Contexts
Cross-listed with ENGL 370-01. It can be difficult to travel outside of our historically specific assumptions about race, gender, social class, sexuality, and illness and see that American ideas about these seemingly "natural" and innate identities are in fact socially shaped and so subject to change and transformation. In this course, we will be social and cultural travelers. By juxtaposing literature, film, popular culture, and social commentary from different historical periods, ranging from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, we will explore how individual lives are shaped by their social and cultural contexts as well as how dominant categories of identity - because they are social rather than "natural" -- can be challenged, disrupted, and changed. In our travels, we will read both fiction and memoir, seeing how American writers represent others and represent themselves. Our reading list may include texts by writers such as Willa Cather, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Henry Louis Gates (Colored People), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Audre Lorde (Cancer Journals). Our reading will also include works of history, cultural theory, essays, and poetry.

ENGL 370 Am Lives, Changing Contexts
Cross-listed with AMST 301-02. It can be difficult to travel outside of our historically specific assumptions about race, gender, social class, sexuality, and illness and see that American ideas about these seemingly "natural" and innate identities are in fact socially shaped and so subject to change and transformation. In this course, we will be social and cultural travelers. By juxtaposing literature, film, popular culture, and social commentary from different historical periods, ranging from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, we will explore how individual lives are shaped by their social and cultural contexts as well as how dominant categories of identity - because they are social rather than "natural" -- can be challenged, disrupted, and changed. In our travels, we will read both fiction and memoir, seeing how American writers represent others and represent themselves. Our reading list may include texts by writers such as Willa Cather, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Henry Louis Gates (Colored People), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Audre Lorde (Cancer Journals). Our reading will also include works of history, cultural theory, essays, and poetry.