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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 29, 2007 | Vol. 37 No. 9
JHU Course Catalog
Visions of the Self: Autobiography as History

History Professor Richard Kagan says that autobiographies are windows into the era in which they were written, and he tinkers with the texts each time he teaches the class. His students say he has a great knack for making the hard work fun.
Photo by Jay VanRensselaer / HIPS

By Amy Lunday

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's nine academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: A writing-intensive, discussion-driven seminar offered by the Department of History in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Nineteen students meet in the library of the Smokler Center for Jewish Life, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building. 3 credits.

Meeting time: Mondays and Wednesdays, 2 to 3:30 p.m., fall 2007.

The instructor: Professor Richard Kagan joined the Department of History faculty in 1972. In 1999, he added a joint appointment in what is now the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures. Kagan's specialty is the history of early modern Europe, with emphasis on Habsburg Spain and its overseas empire, which has led him to various international appointments over the years, including visiting professorships at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid; Ecole de Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris; Universidad Complutense de Madrid; and Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris. Kagan's books include Students and Society in Early Modern Spain (1974), Lawsuits and Litigants in Castile, 1500-1700 (1981), Lucrecia's Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-Century Spain (1990) and Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493-1793 (2000). His current research focuses on the written chronicles and history of early modern Spain and colonial Spanish America. Kagan's departmental bio notes that he has "long-standing interests in art history, cultural history, history of cartography, urban history, etc.," and that he is a firm believer in integrating literature into the study of history, a tenet that is the backbone of Visions of the Self.

Syllabus and course work: While Kagan cautions his students to hold off on penning their own autobiographies until they are at least 40, he's eager for them to delve into the confessions, memoirs and survival stories of others. The idea behind Visions of the Self: Autobiography as History is to examine a variety of texts — male and female, Western and non-Western, from the Middle Ages to the present — using them as windows into the society in which they were written. As Kagan recently suggested in class, autobiographies are a great way to get the inside scoop on what life was really like in another era because "the people who are writing about themselves are the ones who are moving around out there in the world."

The autobiographies covered run the gamut from the confessional and involuntary (as in forced confessions) to tales of regret and the search for the inner self. Because classroom discussion is integral to the course, attendance and participation are key to earning top marks. Also required are written reports on five of the autobiographies read, a take-home midterm and either a take-home final or a 10- to 15-page paper on an autobiography not covered in the class.

Richard Kagan says: "I first started teaching [this course] in the late 1980s. It is not required for any department, and it invariably fills up [the student limit is set at 20 to 25] every time I have offered it, about one year in three. Though the reading is extensive, the subject — autobiographies from the Middle Ages to the present — is engaging, as students are asked not only to explore such questions as different modes of autobiographical writing, changing definitions of the self across time, how different authors, male and female, represent the self, and then just how these texts offer insights into the practices of everyday life during different periods. The texts students are reading this semester include a female visionary from the Middle Ages, Margery Kempe; a Renaissance artist, Benvenuto Cellini; "involuntary" autobiographies that the Spanish Inquisition dragged out of individuals it put up for trial; and the life of a Jewish female merchant in 17th-century Germany, Gluckel of Hameln. Among the more modern autobiographies we are reading include those by Rousseau; Franklin; Frederick Douglass; Mary Antin, a Russian immigrant to the United States in the early 20th century; and an anonymous German woman who was in Berlin at the close of WWII when Russian troops entered the city. I tinker with the readings every time I teach the course, which is organized in seminar format, but the students from many different disciplines never cease to appear."

Students say: "I, personally, greatly enjoy the lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays. Professor Kagan is wonderfully witty, cheerful and funny, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is nothing short of infectious. It's simply a joy to come to the bright, airy second-floor library of the Smokler Center to discuss some fascinating autobiographies with good classmates under a good teacher's wing.

"So far, most of the biographies we've read have been medieval or Renaissance. One thing I've learned was how truly important religious faith was during Europe's Middle Ages and Renaissance. I always had a conception of it from my European history classes, of course, but it was fascinating to see how religion informed not only the politics of the day but also the personal and daily lives of people. Benvenuto Cellini, for instance, besides being quite a philanderer, seemed to genuinely seek forgiveness from God for his missteps and ask the Almighty for aid in hard times. That's a very different view of religion than the one I got from my other European history classes.

"All in all, if Visions of the Self is any indication of how Professor Kagan usually teaches, I would recommend his classes with no reservations whatsoever. He's a delightful man who can make course material that's already interesting even more engaging. The workload is quite reasonable and is neither excessive nor lacking. A great course all around." — Pierre Islam, 20, junior, history major, Buffalo, N.Y.

"When studying history, I love to see the everyday people in it, not just to learn about the political situation of the time. This course is a window into how people perceived themselves from the medieval period to the modern period. I really like the seminar format of the class, how the students teach each other and the Prof is a monitor to clarify things when needed. I also love the autobiographies that Professor Kagan has selected; they are truly unique. I have learned, so far, about how the 'self' was developed and viewed by people throughout history because how we think of ourselves today is not how people perceived themselves in the past.

"Professor Kagan is amazing and such a great professor. He knows so much and relates to students in a way that is entertaining, to say the least. He is also a very personable professor who listens to what you have to say. I absolutely love this class. The reading is a lot, but it doesn't stop me from reaping the full benefits of this course. In this class, we learn to teach ourselves lessons from history, which is a valuable tool to apply in real life, not just in academia. This class is great." — Frank Long, 19, sophomore, international studies major, Perry Hall, Md.


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