Memory, Literacy, and Invention: Reimagining the Canon of Memory for the Writing Classroom

Article excerpt

A few years ago, a colleague of mine, Alison, and I learned we shared a belief in the potential for students to use memory to compose personal essays and to view themselves as meaning makers. We met a few times to talk informally about teaching writing and the canon of memory, and I observed class meetings where Alison tried to bring attention to memory in the context of a personal essay assignment. An example of what I identify as a problem of definition took place when I observed Alison's students discuss the following prompt in response to Patricia Hampl's essay "Memory and Imagination:" "For Patricia Hampl, 'writing memoir is not a form of transcription.' What does the author mean by that?" This classroom activity was intended to expand the ways students used memory to compose a personal essay. Listening in on the discussion, I heard students say "memoir is not word for word" and that the writer "adds what one wants to get what they want to have happen." A student in a Detroit baseball cap added that she learned in psychology class that "there is no such thing as memory triggers" and a young man in a red shirt pointed out that "eyewitness memory is fallible. It is not just like a recording." Comments like these developed a conversation about memoir writing as more than a matter of recording stored memories on paper. However, when composing their own essays, these students returned to more limited notions of memory. Alison's students struggled with memory, invention, and genre because they tried to recapture exact memories and report them in chronological order.

Despite the students' insights about the role of imagination and invention in response to Hampl's essay on memoir, it became clear that they continued to equate memory with memorization and transcription when it came to their own writing in their composition class. They needed more sustained discussion of the differences among memory, memorization, and memoir than we could offer at that time. To redefine memory as a strategic, contextualized process of interpretation requires a new version of classical rhetoric's fourth canon, memoria. A contemporary canon of memory that I call rememoried knowing attends to the relationships among history, literacy, and invention to reconceive memory as a way to make knowledge.


Edward P. J. Corbett's deliberate neglect of rhetorical memory in his well-known text Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student exemplifies the typical response to rhetorical memory as uninteresting, particularly for a literate society:

of all the five parts of rhetoric, memoria was the one that received the least attention in the rhetoric books. The reason for the neglect of this aspect of rhetoric is probably that not much can be said, in a theoretical way, about the process of memory; and after rhetoric came to be concerned mainly with written discourse, there was no further need to deal with memorizing. (38)

Despite recent recovery work such as Frederick Reynolds's collection Rhetorical Memory and Delivery, Corbett's idea that "not much can be said" about the canon of memory still needs to be challenged. The assumption that using memory means memorizing remains common and reflects a narrow perspective on the canon's history and outmoded beliefs about literacy and invention.

The description of the artificial art of memory in Rhetorica ad Herennium, the oldest surviving rhetoric manual, is one often used to define the art of memory.1 According to this text, the art of memory involves placing different images in standard backgrounds. An orator chooses images based on points of an argument or facts of a case that need to be remembered and relies on a stock set of architectural spaces, like a house or intercolumnar space, to serve as backgrounds. Speakers "imprint," or mentally place, images in the backgrounds to "easily succeed in calling back to mind what we wish" (Rhetorica ad Herennium 3. …