[Milton-L] memorizing: passages

jfleming at sfu.ca jfleming at sfu.ca
Mon Feb 23 14:21:13 EST 2004

Dear Alan and all,

I don't doubt that memorizing passages is a useful and pleasant activity. I do doubt that it is the kind of useful and pleasant activity that constitutes literary study. 

I take it that we, as teachers and critics, want primarily to foster an encounter with meaning. (By all means, let us ask what that means.) I do not see how copying the textual artifact -- whether scribally, vocally, or mnemonically -- does much to facilitate that encounter. I am not saying that copying does _nothing_. I certainly feel that I have come to understand "When I Consider," for example,  better since memorizing it; and I often copy long citations of verse into my work manually, rather than by database paste-in, because I think I gain familiarity with the verse by keyboarding it. But two points seem salient here. One: I do not think that my copying or memorizing the text constitutes studying it. I do not even think that it constitutes a prerequisite to studying. (After all, I have a book, or perhaps a database, to remember the poem for me.) Rather, I think that my copying is something that occurs in the course of an encounter with the text that has long since ident!
 ified meaning as its goal. In other words, copying follows from, and is prompted by, a developing understanding. It does not precede or produce the development of understanding. Two: whatever I gain from the copying or memorization of "When I Consider" is surely far less significant, and far less identifiable, and far less worthy of class time (of which there is never enough) than what I gain from trying to determine what and how the poem means. The latter activity leads to, and is supported by, an investigation of (i.a.) Reformation theology, scriptural intertext, and sonnet form. The former activity leads -- where? to the poem itself? But given that the poem is where we started, this seems to me like jumping in place. 

Now, as I suggested earlier, this is just the sort of thing that natural scientists think goes on in English class: reciting beautiful poetry, as cultural ornament rather than as occasion for knowledge. Alan points out that the same could be said for the preconceptions of the culture at large -- but that is because, I think, the culture has an overwhelmingly scientific epistemology. In any case, Greg Machecek objects that scientific standards are irrelevant to literary study. I agree. But my point is precisely that _the pedagogy of belles-lettres, in which memorization/locution surely belongs, conforms completely to scientific standards._ It conforms to the scientifistic idea of the arts as non-science, and therefore as divorced from any serious claim to knowledge. To do memorization because "that's what we do" is not to assert the position of literary study among the discipines. It is, rather, to accept the place of no-place, defined by intellectual easiness and epistemolog!
 ical emptiness. 

Or am I completely wrong?


Dr. James Dougal Fleming,
Assistant Professor of English,
Simon Fraser University,
(604) 291-4713

Laissez parler les faits.

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