I used to start every semester off with a brief unit on personal narratives. We would read short pieces and excerpts of longer narratives, discussing important themes and moves the writers made in telling their stories, and the unit would ultimately culminate in students writing their own personal narratives. I abandoned this a few years ago, when semester after semester I received flat, lifeless writing that failed to capture anything other than student compliance. I wanted to learn about my students—who they were, what had shaped them, where they wanted to go in life—but I wasn’t getting much depth or substance. It seemed that nothing I did changed the outcome, so I sat personal narratives aside and moved on to other things.
Reading the March issue of the English Journal, I came across the idea of sociological imagination in Shekema Silveri’s “The Courage to See Clearly.” Silveri sites sociologist C. Wright Mills in explaining the concept of sociological imagination as what “enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.” Essentially, sociological imagination affords us the ability to understand how we are shaped by the world and how we, in turn, shape the world. Silveri’s article discusses utilizing literature and writing to expand sociological imagination; her ideas intrigued me, and I wanted to educate myself further on sociological imagination, so I took to the internet and stumbled upon the sociological autobiography.
The purpose of a sociological autobiography is to tell your life story (or a portion of it) while also investigating your “politics of location.” In other words, you critically consider what agents of socialization have influenced you and how: how has being male, female, middle class, economically disadvantaged, aboriginal, white, black, a “visible” minority, able-bodied, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, gay, transgendered, anglophone, francophone, Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist, Southern, Appalachian, fat, thin, geeky, popular, etc. affected your life? How have your life experiences influenced the way you think about these issues?
In a nutshell, the sociological autobiography is a personal narrative with a very specific and important agenda in exploring how the world around us shapes our identities, but also how our experiences shape our perspectives on these identities, as well as how various identities affect our experiences in the world. I love this so completely because this kind of thinking and writing and reading opens us up in so many ways. Not only are we considering all the different identities we associate ourselves with (and the ones others associate with us) and how these influence the ways in which we navigate (and are restricted from navigating) the world, but we are also exposed to others’ differences and become more aware of social issues associated with various identities. This, paired with literature by authors like Rudolfo Anaya, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Julia Alvarez, Angie Thomas, etc., as well as a handful of deliberately chosen nonfiction texts, would result in culturally relevant and deeply meaningful writing and conversations.
I know I’m not offering a fully formed assignment or activity your can take into your classroom straightaway, but I am offering you something new to look into—a meaningful alternative to an otherwise empty assignment. This idea is still so new to me, I’m not entirely sure how I will use this in my classroom, but I do plan on developing a unit around the sociological autobiography for the Fall. Perhaps you have ideas about the perfect texts to pair or supporting activities to go along with the writing—if so, I would love for you to share with us!