[Milton-L] yet another too long post on memorization

lschwartz lschwart at richmond.edu
Wed Feb 25 15:42:52 EST 2004


James,

Yikes back at you!  I meant to take you to task--though not, I trust you
understand, in an unfriendly way--for suggesting that some of us think
memorization could replace other forms of study.  I thought your sentence
said that.  If I'm wrong about that, good!  I'd much rather agree with you
about it than not.  There are some other more serious matters of
disagreement here, however, and I hope you'll be patient with me as I try to
make my own positions a little clearer.  I also want to grant your arguments
the serious replies I think they deserve, and I hope you'll take (and have
taken!) my sometimes sharp language in the spirit of vigorous debate.  I've
taken your language that way, and I'm simply responding in kind.  I'm not
attacking you, just some of your arguments, and I'm grateful for the fact
that they've forced me to think hard about a few things these past few days.

As I said, memorization, for me, is just another technique for getting
students to attend carefully to the details of a poem.  And I do think it
enhances their experience of a poem to have to sit down and read it enough
and recite it enough to be able to recite it from memory.  In my experience,
students don't read poems as many times as they should even when they're
writing papers about them.  They don't attend, many of them, to the details
of sound and meaning (let alone reference and the rest of it) and therefore
have no way of understanding these matters.  And I don't think that it's
enough for them to hear me recite in a way that's a result of MY having
attended carefully.  That's a model for them and it's pleasurable (on a good
day I'm pretty good at it), but I want all of them to have experience of
what it's like to attend as carefully to the whole complex of sounds
meanings and etc.  Memorization is a means to that end; it makes them pay
attention to more of what there is to pay attention to.

I require memorisation of one or two short poems (depending on the class),
and require that the students recite their poems to me my office.  They have
to recite the poem well and completely. then they have to respond to
questions about both the poem and their recitation.  In other words, it's an
oral exam that measures the extent to which their recitation is informed by
understanding (also the ways in which having to recite--when it's done well,
it involves making conscious interpretive choices--has, in turn, informed or
affected their understanding).

As far as the coercive aspects of this are concerned:  first of all, is
there really such thing as a wholly non-coercive assignment?  Do most
students WANT to write papers, do homework, and take exams?  Some do because
they anticipate the pleasures and knowledge that good ones yield and make
available, some discover unexpected pleasures or discover knowledge they are
glad to now have, others just do what their told to do and are glad when
it's over.  As far as memorization is specifically concerned, many students
certainly dislike having to *recite* the poem--it makes some of them very
nervous--but very few of my students have ever reported that they have
disliked the process of memorization itself or, more importantly, disliked
*having done it*.  Most of them walk out of the recitation knowing the poem
much more fully than they did coming in and with a fuller, more conscious,
sense of the pleasures it affords.  This is a result of my using the exam as
a teaching opportunity as well as a test, but it is also the result of the
attention they have had to pay and the urgency created by the need to
memorize.  I'm forcing them to experience a discipline and to see just what
it gets them.  Most like what they get.

Of course some students don't embrace the experience or succeed at it, but
that's also the case with any assigned exercise.   In my experience, most
good assignments in literary study yield pleasure to those who, as you say,
find pleasure in understanding.  This one, like most of the primary reading
they do in my classroom, also yields other sorts of pleasure.  Those who
don't value these various pleasures miss out both on the pleasures
themselves and on various forms of knowledge that might be of some use to
them.  That's their loss and I don't trouble myself about it much.

On the larger issue of the place of pleasure in literary study itself, I
have a more serious disagreement with you.  You wrote:

"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 understanding."

Pleasure certainly does attend understanding, but that is not the only
pleasure that literary texts give.  It is therefore not the only pleasure
appropriate in a literature classroom or the only pleasure we should try and
study.  Why is it so strange a thing to argue that we need to understand
these pleasures?  If that gives us even more of the pleasures *you* are
refering to here, all the better.  I'm all for pleasure in whatever licit
forms I can find it.  As the old Rabbinic saying goes, "a man who forgoes a
lawful pleasure is either a madman or a fool."

I mean this in all seriousness.  Though I don't seriously mean to call you
either a madmad or a fool, I do think you are making a mistake in failing to
grant pleasure a legitimate place in literary study.  I believe that our
discipline has at times been afraid or unsure of just what to do about the
fact that literary texts give pleasure, that they are supposed to give
pleasure, that some forms of pleasure are actually in conflict with
understanding, and that others are *perhaps* themselves forms of
understanding, forms of knowledge (I realize that this last is, justly, a
matter of controversy, but I don't think the others are).  The tension
between bodily and imaginative pleasures, on the one hand (pleasures that
are either irrational or shade into the irrational), and the more rational
pleasures of understanding, on the other, is one of the facts of literary
experience, and we ought to have a way of talking about it.  And I really
don't think that we can talk about it without some experience of it, hence
it's legitimate place in the classroom.

I know that you know that the issue is far from new (I don't recall what
Gadamer had to say about it, if anything, but I know you know your Plato!).
These are serious matters, they are not yet resolved, and they will not be
resolved by claims that they are simply extraneous to the serious study of
the nature of literature.

If we don't attend to the pleasure that it's possible to take in the texts
we study we're not attending to their whole nature and purpose and, yes,
meaning.  Again, pleasure is not the whole story, but it's an important part
of the story, and need not be shunned--certainly not because we're worried
about what the scientists think.

Once more, just to say it as clearly as possible:  Memorization has proven a
very useful pedagogical tool for me because I have been able to use it to
bring matters of pleasure, form, and meaning to my student's understanding.
These things are not in my experience (or my reasoned opinion) wholly
separable, and recitation from memory is one way in which I have been able
to get students to experience them as inseparable so that they can then
exercise their reason in accounting for the experience, not to mention why
so many people over so many years have thought it an experience worth having
or making available to others.

L.
========================
Louis Schwartz
Associate Professor of English
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA 23173
(804) 289-8315
lschwart at richmond.edu


----- Original Message ----- 
From: <jfleming at sfu.ca>
To: <milton-l at koko.richmond.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 3:36 PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] memorizing passages


> 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!
>  erstanding.
>
> Finally, with props to Gardner, I would like to thank myself for a serious
of wonderful posts. Best,
>
> J
>
> 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.
> >
> > _______________________________________________
> > Milton-L mailing list
> > Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
> > http://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
>
> Dr. James Dougal Fleming,
> Assistant Professor of English,
> Simon Fraser University,
> (604) 291-4713
>
> Laissez parler les faits.
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