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

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.