Teaching Memory Studies — MLA 2017

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    Martha Dana Rust
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    @marthadana

    <p>The special session “Teaching Memory Studies” (session 154, Thursday, January 5, 7:00-8:15 PM, Franklin 12 Philadelphia Marriott) will contribute to the growing conversation around incorporating the discipline of memory studies into the study of literature while also pushing the boundaries of memory studies pedagogy in literature courses beyond its close affiliation with memoir and literary criticism to attend to the cultural processes by which memories are shared. In the past several decades “cultural memory” has developed as a term to describe the ways societies remember their past using a variety of media (Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney). In this context, virtually any object of literary and cultural studies is a work of remembering, even as it at once evokes and takes root in readers’ and viewers own memories, a process that takes place on the collective as well as personal level. Together our papers demonstrate that by bringing the interdisciplinary tools of memory studies into the classroom, we are able to create an “official” disciplinarily structured space for exploring the contents and operations of memory both in an object of study and at the interface of object and viewer/readers, thus opening an awareness of memory as a life practice that is fluid, creative, and shared.</p><p> In her paper “Teaching Early Modern Memory,” Rebeca Helfer advocates integrating memory studies into courses on Renaissance writing in order to convey a core insight about the period: that it acquires its fame as one of rebirth precisely because of its deep involvement with remembering the past. Helfer describes two courses entitled “Early Modern Memory,” one designed for undergraduates, the other for graduate students. Primary texts for both courses fall into two categories: foundational Greek and Roman works on memory, many of which Renaissance culture had only recently remembered; and Renaissance works that portray early modern culture in the twin processes of remembering its past and meditating on memory itself: from Dante’s Vita Nuova, and Petrarch’s Rime sparse to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Cavendish’s Blazing World. Helfer reports that students are excited to find that their reading of the classical and medieval texts about memory open a view not only of Renaissance writers’ engagement in complex, multifaceted processes of remembering but also of the ways the earlier memory texts function for Renaissance writers in a kind of meta-memorial way, demonstrating the how and why of cultural recollection and renovation. In Helfer’s view, the history of memory offers a vital and accessible route for students of all ages and stages to engage with the literature and culture of early modernity while also providing insight into the workings of cultural memory in any period.</p><p>In her essay “Am I really allowed to write in the first person?!: Why Students’ Memories Count in the Classroom,” Alissa Bourbonnais discusses original writing assignments designed to take students’ own memories and experiences as legitimate, valuable objects of inquiry alongside course texts. Assignments come from two 200-level literature courses, Playing Genre: Music and Memory in American Fiction and Writing Lives: Women Warriors, Memoir, and Autofiction.  Since the literary texts in these courses focus on various representations of historical subject matter, students must consider what it means to pursue truth, fact, and history in a document of subjective narrative. The range of genres the works represent—from prose fiction to creative nonfiction, to poetry, to spoken word, to comics—also asks students to examine the way each literary form favors its own kind of memory writing. The question that motivated Bourbonnais in devising the assignments she discusses was “How might students own attempts to write memory enhance their learning in these courses?” One of her responses to this question was a multi-step midterm project, which asks students to present a close reading of a single passage from a course text, such as E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime or Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; adapt some of the author’s techniques into their own piece of creative writing inspired by a particular song or memory object of their choosing; and then write a reflection articulating the stylistic and thematic connections between their own work and the course text. Bourbonnais argues that this project calls forth and calls upon students’ agency as creators, making way for insights into how artistic expression shapes cultural memory. Perhaps most importantly, students get to see that as a class, they have produced a whole new set of narrative texts, which generate, in turn, discussion about the relationship between individual and cultural memory within their own community.</p><p> Margo Shea’s paper, “Collecting and Curating Memoirs and the Practice of Public History,” explores the process of teaching memory studies through an engaged, experiential class project which brought the Six-Word Memoir initiative to life for students in an Introduction to Public History course at a largely commuter campus at a regional public university. In Spring 2015, her students mobilized the Salem State University campus in Salem, MA to write six-word memoirs–a genre in which a life story or defining moment is captured in six words–for a campus-wide Six-Word Memory Project.. (Find the project website here: http://salemstatesixwordmemoir.blogspot.com/.) From marketing the project to collecting, monitoring, and curating the responses, Shea’s students learned about memoir, community, curatorial prerogatives and the significance of both individual and collective memory. Most importantly, they learned firsthand about the ways in which memory and identity are mutually constitutive and became very aware of their own responsibility for curating, literally “caring for” other people’s memories. At the same time, they thought critically about memory itself, using historical, psychological and literary lenses. In addition to reflection on the project and students’ engagements with it, Shea makes suggestions about how we might use interdisciplinary and engaged methods to teach memory studies effectively.</p><p>Session organizers: Suzanne England and Martha Rust</p>

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