Donna’s post on poetry and the visual reminded me that I’ve wanted to make another mnemonic practice post.

As with the start of every semester, I struggle to remember my student’s names, or, really, to attach names to faces. I’m not good at it, but I try, and they know I try and it often becomes a game. (I have lucked out this semester and have a class of 13 students — our composition classes are usually 18-20 — and it’s a MWF class, so it’s been much easier this term.) As I’ve said many times before, I don’t have a good natural memory and I’ve never developed a good internal artificial memory system — to be honest, however, I’ve never really tried, believing my memory isn’t that good. As I’ve been working with the idea of imagery and memory, I’ve developed a largely unconscious assumption that I’m more visual than verbal. But sometime in the last couple of weeks while I’ve been thinking about my difficulty with names and faces, I realized that what I really have is narrative memory and locational memory.

I have no sense of direction, so I navigate by landmark, and I work out spatial relationships by the process of moving from one space to the other. When my wife looses something, she usually asks me if I’ve seen it. If I have seen it, I can usually remember where it was that I last saw it. And frequently, at least until Google, I look up hard-to-spell words not in dictionaries, which can be worthless for people like me (if I could spell the word, I wouldn’t need to look it up), but by remembering the general location of that word in a particular book and then skimming a specific section of that book until I found the word (specific section often means something like the middle of upper third of all right hand pages in chapter X).

My best feats of memory, however, are when working with narratives, textual narratives yes, but visual narratives especially (and I tend to remember textual narratives through a series of visual scenes in much the same way many oral poets and storytellers do). So, while there’s a strong visual element to my memory, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that I’m visual. Place and especially story seem to be my mnemonic mediums.

To date I’ve mostly relied upon natural locational and narrative memory, that is, I’ve not tried to capitalize on my locational and narrative memory mnemonically. Nor am I sure that the traditional locational (places and images) mnemonic of classical rhetoric would work for me. While memoria ad verba (memory for words) was never the point of the system (at least according to the Rhetorica ad Herennium), I’m not good at conscious visualization of words or images. For instance, I can not visualize words when I try to spell them. I was quite surprised when I learned that this is how most people do spell. Checking with various members of my family, neither my father nor my maternal grandfather (my paternal grandfather died before I was born so I can’t ask him), can visualize words either, and they have as much difficulty with spelling as I do.

Hmm…this is hard to explain. I guess it’s not accurate to say, as I do above, that I remember narratives through a series of visual scenes because I don’t visualize those scenes. At least one Scottish storyteller and, I think, Tibetian paper singers, have described the process as narrating a movie as they watch it unfold. Rather, what I do is recall the res (the “thing” of something — its sense or of that scene, or, to use a non-technical term, the “stuff” about it, both the events and the meaning) of visual scenes of both places and events. I imagine this is more like remembering a narrative through its sequence of “themes” (used here in the structural sense of oral-formulaic theory, that is component scenes): tied up with each theme is its res, the events, the meanings, and, for me, almost-glimpses of verbal and visual imagery. This may be why I like to use text-based MOOs as writing spaces so much.

I think it’s also why I’m so interested in using cognitive images — mental, verbal, or graphic images intentionally created for cognitive purposes — in teaching. I first starting working with cognitive images when teaching Beowulf. Wanting to impress upon my students the speech privileges inherent in Wealtheow’s public challenge to her husband’s declaration of Beowulf as like a son to him and the implications this has for understanding a queen’s status as represented in the poem, I asked my students to imagine either President Clinton or President Bush (this was in spring 2001, I think) speaking before a televised joint session of Congress. I then ask them to imagine that during the President’s speech either Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush stands up and tells the world that President’s policy statement is wrong and should be ignored.

I’ve done this a few times now and many students laugh at the idea, but the image works. Students can use a cognitive image of this scene, either Wealtheow and Hroðgar or one of the First Lady and the President, as a mnemonic or as one of a number of cognitive image mnemonics representing the status and role of women within the poem. I do the same with a series of images post-dragon fight which both celebrate Beowulf’s heroism and challenge to wisdom of his actions. For me, personally, the most potent images of the poem, and the ones I closed with in my MLA paper on Beowulf as traumatic social memory, are the final two contrasting images: that of Beowulf’s funeral with pyre lone woman singing a geōmorgydd, a dirge as much for the hard days slaughter, terror, and captivity ahead as for the death of Beowulf, which, more or less, are the same thing in their culture of blood-feud, and that of Beowulf’s barrow with the twelve riders singing his praises:

cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyning[a]

mannum mildust ond mon[ðw]ærust,

leodum liðost ond lofgeornost.

(said that he was of all earthly kings

the mildest of men and the most gracious,

the kindest to his people, and the most eager for fame.)

It wasn’t long before I realized that the MOO texts my composition students were making also functioned as cognitive images, and I’m now working not just with having students create cognitive images for texts they’re reading but to also create cognitive images within texts they write. We can create cognitive images not only for ourselves but for our readers. As I’ve said elsewhere, good examples not only illustrate our point, they help our readers remember why our point is important.