Collective Biographies

Beth Palmer, School of Literature and Languages

My final year research-led module takes Life Writing as its subject and offers students the opportunity to work with a number of different sub-genres including diaries, memoirs, literary biographies, mythologies, social media posts, and collective biographies. Collective biographies are a format in which the life stories of individuals are brought together into a larger biographical project. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is perhaps the most famous example but there are many other smaller projects that group subjects together and highlight relationships and cross-currents between subjects as well as featuring individual lives.

In order to support students in the run up to their assessment submission (which could be a critical or a creative piece responding to any of the texts studied) I sorted students into groups to create their own collective biographies of each other. The students then organised the process by which they interviewed one another and wrote up each of these interviews into a short bio of their peer. They were responsible for collating and assembling the biographies and presenting their work to the rest of the group.

This activity gave students the chance to try out techniques and strategies that they might use in their assessed piece. It provided a safe, non-assessed space in which to reflect on how to select, prioritise, and contextualise aspects of a life. Several students went onto interview family members or friends in order to write new biographies whilst others used the experience to reflect more conceptually on how writing the lives of others always involved a consideration of their own positionality as biographers. Importantly it also gave each of the groups a task around which to bond. This cohesion meant that students were well-placed to support each other emotionally as well as academically as they progressed towards the assessment deadline.  

Thanks to funding from the FASS Learning and Teaching project fund we were able to print the collective biographies into high-quality brochures for the students to keep which reinforced the value of their writing outside of the formal assessment system. While this project comes from a specialist module on Life Writing I think the creation of collective biographies could work across disciplines as a means of supporting and valuing our students as individuals living complex lives alongside their academic studies.