Bartleby the student

I’ve talked before about how I require students to memorize poems. In a class focusing on a single period (the Victorian Age, Modernist British Poetry, etc.), and in my old survey classes, I have students memorize & recite “40 consecutive lines” of some poem from the anthology. This semester, I re-tooled the survey assignment, asking students to recite 14 lines 3 different times during the semester: a romantic poem, a Victorian one, and one from the 20thC. Then, on the exam, I asked students to reflect on the experience of memorizing them–whether one was easier than the others, differing prosodies, etc.

I did this for a lot of reasons: to make students worry less about the assignment, but also to play up its centrality to the course and to have students think a little more about the way poetic language works.

Not all students recited 3 poems over the course of the semester, and, on the exam, most of these wrote pretty honestly (“I forgot”; “I’m an accounting major”; “this course is just for a requirement, so no thanks.”) about it rather than try to BS their way out.

One student, though–a particularly excellent one, who’s been in a class with me before–wrote on his exam: “I don’t believe in forced memorization, and so I refuse to do it.”

Now, one the one hand, I think the student’s wrong on the merits here. (That is, this assignment isn’t just rote memorization–it’s clearly linked to a learning outcome for the course, and I ask students to reflect on the experience during the exam. Plus, I do not believe you can become fluent in poetry unless some of it is branded in your neurons.) On the other hand, you have to admire the student’s willingness to say, in effect, I think the assignment sucks, and so refuse to do it, consequences be damned!

It’s also interesting to me how deeply the education-school bias against memorization has seeped in: Invariably, students report that this is the first time since grade school they’ve been asked to memorize–and sometimes, they say it’s the first time ever.

Update: Scott McLeod has a post up about memorization in the 21st century, following up on a couple of posts (1,* 2) by David Warlick.   McLeod’s point–that in a world awash with information, insisting that  students memorize facts can verge on silliness–is a reasonable one, and is close to my student’s objection.  However, memorizing poems is quite a different matter: It’s precisely the difference between “information” and “literature.”

*Warlick’s first post is about the horrifying prospect of SparkNotes by SMS.

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