2018 BIO Conference Panel – Biography: The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Approach

Moderator Billy Tooma, panelists Rebecca Williams and Tony Calandrillo, and several audience members all agreed [that] biographies can be useful tools to teach a variety of subjects at the college level, from literature to physics. Tooma began the session by quoting Walter Isaacson, from his recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci, stating that making connections across disciplines, as da Vinci did, “is a key to innovation, insight, and genius.”

The panel was part of an “exchange program,” initiated by Tooma and former BIO president Will Swift, between BIO and the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA). Tooma serves as the latter’s deputy executive director. In November 2017, four BIO board members took part in a panel at the CCHA’s annual conference.

Williams, a professor of English at Essex Community College, said she often uses biographical material in her literatures classes, especially ones focusing on African American and women’s literature. She noted that black authors of the past sometimes wrote biographies of other black writers. With women authors, reading biographies of their lives can help students understand the circumstances they confronted as they pursued their writing. Biographies in general, Williams said, give students a broader understanding of the culture that influenced fiction writers. Looking beyond her own field, Williams suggested that biographies, including ones written for the Young Adult market, can be a way to stimulate students’ interests in the STEM fields. For example, she said, “civil engineers should read The Power Broker.”

Calandrillo, a doctoral candidate at Drew University, drew on personal experience to illuminate his idea that biography can humanize the social sciences. International relations was his first academic subject, but he felt most scholars in the field stressed quantification over people when doing their research. In his dissertation, Calandrillo set out to explore a facet of U.S. international relations through the story of Albert Spaulding, the sporting goods manufacturer who helped bring baseball to the world. Spaulding had his economic interests in mind, but the barnstorming tour he sponsored also served as a facet of “soft power” diplomacy during the late nineteenth century. Echoing Williams, Calandrillo said that in the classroom, biography can explain not only the subjects at hand but the processes behind them. Biographies also show students the real people behind important events, highlighting both their strengths and flaws.

The panelists, joined by audience member Nigel Hamilton, a historian of biography, looked at some of the factors that keep biography out of many classrooms. Calandrillo said he believed the PhD system was partly responsible for the largely negative view of biography in academia. Hamilton wondered if professors feel that by using biography as a text they are promoting a particular figure. He said the teachers need to see that biography is not hagiography, and biographical slice-of-life books can have a place in the classroom.

The panelists agreed that biographies can be “correctives” to the standard textbooks used in many college classrooms. Tooma noted that Plutarch’s Lives was once a “textbook” for teaching history. He also said that a biography’s emphasis on narrative can capture students’ interests in a way most textbooks don’t. Calandrillo said biographies “can fill in the rest of the story” when a textbook has gaps. Biographical documentaries can play the same role: Tooma said they can “enhance, humanize, and correct” written sources. Williams said episodes of PBS’s American Masters are particularly useful in the classroom.