J298 – Telling Life Stories

J298: Telling Life Stories: Biography and Social Justice

Spring 2021

Marilyn Chase

In these days of reckoning, one of the most compelling genres we as journalists can pursue is biography, writing the life story of someone who helped change the world. We’ll deconstruct the art of biography, researching and writing about a life. In this new feature elective, we’ll focus on people whose existence helped bend the arc of history toward justice.

We’ll dip into memorable examples of the genre for reading and discussion. (Stay tuned for news on our reading list as I’m still perusing the rich possibilities for inspiration and discussion.)

This is your invitation to spend the spring researching, reporting, writing and polishing a magazine-length biographical article. (Not a book– a different class; nor a first-person or family memoir – a vital but different genre). We’ll go into the varieties of research you can do, from primary source documents you can dig out of an archive, through current publications, and interviews with your subject’s family and contemporaries. The classic process is “Research. Write. Repeat” – as described by Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures,” the saga of Black female mathematicians at NASA.

A word of introduction for folks who don’t know me, I’m a longtime newspaper reporter with over two decades at the Wall Street Journal, a UC Berkeley instructor with 12 years at the J-School, and an author with fresh experience in this genre of biography. My book, Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, tells the story of a groundbreaking sculptor who was born poor on a truck farm, and imprisoned behind barbed wire at 16 in WWII in a Japanese American internment camp. Denied a teaching degree due to her race, she made her way to art school where she caught fire over endless possibilities of wire sculpture as “drawing in space.” Fighting marginalization as a woman of color, she claimed her position in the pantheon of modern sculpture and became a fierce advocate for art in schools. I’m excited to share the process.

Like me, you’ll find a subject you find so compelling that our 16 weeks together pass in a flash.

See you in January!



Time:  Th 10:00 - 1:00


Class Number:  32736

Section:  019

Units:  3

Length:  15 weeks

Course Material Fee:  None

Enroll Limit:  12

Restrictions & Prerequisites