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Unit information: Lives and Letters (Level H Special Subject) in 2018/19

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Unit name Lives and Letters (Level H Special Subject)
Unit code HIST30075
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Grace Huxford
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit examines how people have perceived and described themselves over the twentieth century (the era Eric Hobsbawm described as the ‘age of extremes’). Did people’s views of themselves change in the course of the twentieth century? And in what ways have people described themselves? In this unit, students will explore how historians can use life-writing material to explore the history of the twentieth century and the history of selfhood. Students will explore cutting-edge historical debates about how useful life-writing material can be to historians. Texts will include autobiographies, letters, diaries, biographies, films and novels. We shall also study the substantial life-writing material of twentieth-century British author George Orwell as a specific reference point for studying political selfhood, letter/diary-writing and biography-writing throughout the period covered by this unit.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to:

  1. Critically analyse a range of modern life-writing material
  2. Understand how historians can analyse such material, as well as the particular methodological and theoretical challenges and opportunities in using such material.
  3. Identify key turning points in the modern history of selfhood.
  4. Develop critical reactions to first-person narratives and to express these in writing at an advanced level, appropriate to level H/6.

Teaching details

1 x 2 hour seminar per week

Assessment Details

One 3,500 word essay (50%) and one two-hour examination (50%). Both assessments assess ILOs 1-4.

Reading and References

  • Bernard Crick, George Orwell: a Life (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980).
  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (rev. ed., London: Secker and Warburg, 1951).
  • Anthony Elliot, Concepts of the Self (Oxford: Polity, 2001).
  • Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce and Barbara Laslett, Telling Stories. The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008).
  • Alistair Thomson and Rob Perks (eds), The Oral History Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).
  • Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography. A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).