[Milton-L] memorizing passages

jfleming at sfu.ca jfleming at sfu.ca
Tue Feb 24 12:36:26 EST 2004

Yikes, Louis. I don't agree that I have reduced anybody's argument. I simply was trying to draw a distinction. It seems to me an unobjectionable position that not everything we can do with a text is something we should do by way of teaching that text. At the risk of repeating myself, I have claimed that memorization does not become a teaching technique just because it is a technique. 

In any case, you start by criticizing me for suggesting that anybody thinks that memorization constitutes study -- then go on to develop an extended argument that memorization constitutes study. This is rather confusing. Now, 
I have no quarrel with your claim that memorization is one of a suite of appropriate techniques for the appreciation of a poem's form. I am sceptical, though, about the relation you assert between memorization, form, and semantics. No doubt reading a passage aloud in class, for example, greatly helps with understanding. But reading aloud is not the same as compelling students to memorize; and I simply do not see that the step from reading to memorizing achieves very much. 

I am intrigued by your ideas about the study of pleasure. I do, however, seriously argue that forcing students to memorize poems is not a technique on which we can securely rely to increase their pleasure. I don't think my position is as lonely as you suggest, since earlier contributors to this discussion have argued for a cod-liver-oil theory of memorization -- precisely that students _don't_ like it, but that it is good for them. (Professor Rumrich [to whom much respect] went so far as to suggest that students might dislike it enough to leave the course.) But even if you are right that forced memorization is pleasurable, it does not make much difference to me, because I do not agree with your emphasis on pleasure as a business of our discipline. I think that the business of our discipline is understanding. Pleasure attends it, but that is because understanding is pleasurable. If we want to please ourselves, and our students, I think we ought to trust pleasure to follow und!

Finally, with props to Gardner, I would like to thank myself for a serious of wonderful posts. Best,


On Tue, 24 Feb 2004 11:42:31 -0500 milton-l at koko.richmond.edu wrote:
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: <jfleming at sfu.ca>
> To: <milton-l at koko.richmond.edu>
> Sent: Monday, February 23, 2004 5:21 PM
> Subject: [Milton-L] memorizing: passages
> > 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.
> >
> James,
> I'm not sure that anyone has argued that memorization "constitutes"
> literary study. In any case, your own first sentence ought to make you back
> off from the subsequent reduction of other people's arguments to their
> absurd extreme. Memorization *is* a useful and pleasant activity, and it is
> useful for, among other things, literary study. It is not the whole thing,
> not synonymous with study, but a powerful technique in the aid of study.  In
> fact, I'm pretty sure that certain features of a poem are almost
> unavailable for study--certainly for easy study, and certainly for
> beginning students--without memorization or at least without repeated
> practice at recitation. Things like the subtle and very complex
> relationship between matters of tone, inflection, variant prounciations,
> idiomatic phrasing etc. and more abstract matters of meter and syntax (in
> other words, all the things that go into the manifestation of poetic
> rhythm, which doesn't--we should all realize--simply exist in the poem
> sitting on the page, it has to be enacted, performed, either in the
> imagination or in the mouth or in both). That such relationships (and their
> range of possible manifestations) are *essential* parts of a poem should go
> without saying. They are part of what determines the range of semantic
> effects you can derive from or argue about in a poem, no?
> This leads me to the other thing you allow:  pleasure.	It should also go
> without saying that the serious study of aesthetic objects must include the
> serious study of pleasure, its functions, its relationship to semantics,
> etc.  It is often not so easy to separate pleasure and semantics, and he
> difficulty is often, as we all know, a matter if explicit thematic concern
> to a lot of poems.  While you can make a good deal of headway into the
> semantics of a poem by studying etymology, morphology, and the relevant
> referential fields (history, biography, theology, what-have-you), you can't
> think seriously about pleasure until you've felt it.  Memorization is not
> the only way to the pleasure of a text, but I don't think anyone would
> seriously argue that it doesn't enhance it significantly and make it easier
> to contemplate both its effects and how they are produced.  I'm an
> experienced enough reader of poetry to read a text in the classroom cold in
> a way that both gives me and the attentive students a fair amount of
> pleasure.  After study, I do it better because I have a better grasp on
> semantics and etc.; after memorization I also do it better because I have a
> greater grasp of what the structure and sematics allow in terms of
> performance and can choose consciously from among those various
> possibilities and the readings they express.  I can also begin to argue, if
> I think it's important, about why the poem allows these readings.  What it
> means, in other words, that it does.  Most of my students can't make much of
> a poem cold, can't even do all that much with these aspects of it after
> study, but they can after memorization that is informed by their studies.
> Some can imagine a performance of the poem in their minds at an early stage
> of acquaintence, but they can't perform it themselves, let alone argue
> about which performances conform best with what they've discovered or
> suspect about the semantics, not to mention which ones reveal other
> possibilities in the semantic field. Memorization is the only techique I
> know of that can very quickly make students aware of all of the possible
> ways of, for example, inflecting and stressing a line in context, enabling
> them then to argue about why the poet may have constructed the line in such
> a way as to allow these readings and not others. It is also a huge help in
> getting stud ents to internalize differences in style so that they can
> better identify and work with the idioms and styles particular various
> historical periods and authors. Having a fair amount of verse by heart
> makes it far more likely that you will pick up either deliberate or
> accidental echoes of one poet's language in another's. And, as we also all
> know, such echoings are central to the practice of a lot ot poets (some
> more consciously than others) and a key way in which poems situate
> themselves in relationship to other poems and discourses, a part in other
> words of what they mean.
> >[material omitted]
> >
> >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?
> >
> You are completely wrong.  I'll repeat myself in stronger terms, in the
> study of aesthetic objects like poems or novels, it is intellectually
> irresponsible to ignore the aesthetic dimensions of texts.  If memorization
> is a way to access the pleasure of the text and make it available to study,
> then it is a useful pedagogical tool.  No one has said, or should say--I may
> have missed something in the deluge of posts--that we do it simply because
> "that's what we do."  It is one of the things that we can--and I would
> argue, should--do because it makes it easier, not to mention more
> pleasurable, to study poems.  No one imagines that a capacity to give
> pleasure of various kinds and toward various ends is an important aspect
> of, say, lead atoms and so I don't expect chemistry or physics professors
> to use class time to discuss the pleasure they derive from the interaction
> of such atoms with the atoms of other elements and so forth. I do, however,
> expect that they try and convey to their students--the beginning ones
> especially--the pleasure *they* take in the process of investigation.  I
> also assume that whatever knowledge they derive from that process might
> have implications for human pleasure--the creation of a compound that might
> be used, for example, by human beings for pleasurable purposes of one kind
> or another (or that might be used safely or not, etc.). I'm therefore not
> even sure that the creation of such compound or a pleasurable object made
> of it in a lab, along with some talk about how the pleasure you get from it
> might be improved or not by the careful application of proper techniques,
> is at all inappropriate to a science classroom. In any case, that's up to
> the scientists not to me. I assume that they will grant me the same
> courtesy and let me decide what is appropriate or not or useful or not in
> the study of a poem.
> And just to say something about the idea you attribute to scientists (that
> they think anything not scientific in their terms is "divorced from any
> serious claim to knowledge");  I'm not at all sure that most scientists
> think this way, and it's a good thing, too, because it's a stupid idea, and
> not worth much discussion.  Our discipline something both simple and
> complicated:  We study literary texts.	They are the objects of our study,
> and we confer on our students and readers knowledge of these objects, their
> relationship to other objects of study (texts and other
> things--philosophical discourses, advertisements, donkeys, gunpowder,
> whatever...).  We are concerned with their history, their meaning, their
> shape, how they are distributed and exchanged, valued and used.  Also what
> determines all these things (and some others) and how they determine each
> other, etc..  If memorization and recitation exercises help us to do some of
> these things, then that's our own business, not theirs.
> L.
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Dr. James Dougal Fleming,
Assistant Professor of English,
Simon Fraser University,
(604) 291-4713

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