A conflicted Marilyn Zucker stood in front of her “Autobiography” class at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. It was Yom Kippur and according to the Jewish tradition, the day was meant for her to be seeking repentance for her sins- not to be in class.
But she could not shake the idea that she had to be there for her students. She started to tell them a bit about her dilemma. When she stopped, they started to inquire more. She later called it the turning point in her class.
Zucker’s class on writing autobiographies last fall at the University of Lisbon in Portugal turned to open forum on the page as the students realized their own self-worth. Back in Stony Brook, she is a Provost Outstanding Lecturer in the Writing and Rhetoric Program. This was the writing program’s first academic venture overseas.
“The first thing that I took away was the incredible exuberance of these students,” Zucker said. “Their incredible willingness to do something they hadn’t done before that was also not in the scope of what is conventionally done at the university.”
In a culture where talking, or even writing about yourself, is almost considered snobby, Zucker’s students were mostly English majors at the university who were not entirely sure about using themselves as the main subject for their writing. There were some non-traditional students in their 30’s and 40’s. One girl attended the first class and convinced her mother to enroll in the class with her.
On the first day, all but about 12 students came in anticipating a class on American Literature. There was no class in American Literature that semester- at least none that Zucker was offering.
“I said to them ‘This is what the course is about,’” Zucker said. “I talked a little bit about identity. I talked about memory. I talked about the construction of memory from how we remember things, accuracy, inaccuracy- these kinds of things. And, um, said that’s what we were going to do.”
Some left. Others chose to stay and got started with their first lesson and liked that dose of the class. Their first in-class assignment was a 10-minute free-write.
“When I started I found the free writing really interesting and that was what really made me stay in the class,” Ana Morais, a student in the class, wrote in her final cover letter for the class. “There was just something about writing for 10 minutes without stopping that relaxed me and when I actually looked at what I wrote I liked it and wanted to write more.”
Soon after, the class was reading autobiographies of the likes of Bob Dylan. They started to write about their own lives. One time, they wrote stories inspired by American political songs and they brought in political songs in Portuguese. Another time, they wrote about different places in Portugal that are deserted in the winter and bustling in the summer.
“I believe that the point when I felt the most vulnerable was when I had to wrote my first essay on my father,” wrote student Mariana Vagos. “It was the jackpot. I got hit right on the wound.”
Amidst the new found sense of self that her students were acquiring, Zucker kept in mind that she wanted to promote its lessons while in Portugal- so she contacted the U.S. ambassador to Portugal’s wife. Soon her story had floated around to Sandy Gageiro, a Portuguese radio journalist. Gageiro came to the class with microphones and last June, her half-hour segment went to air, months after Zucker left the country.
At the end of the class, students were required to complete a 15-page “collage of self,” which contained their own revised stories and reflections on class readings. Zucker would see some of the pages but not others. Overall they reflected a more accessible collection of students- students who felt like they mattered.
“I was knocked out by the pieces that they wrote- knocked about by some of them,” Zucker said.