F R E S H M A N   S E M I N A R S

Smith forgets few angles in freshman seminar on memory

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- Joking about his well-trained memory, Professor Vance Smith held a hand to his forehead in mock concentration and recited the words two students had written on a film-covered pad and then erased.

But it was a trick; the blank slate Smith held actually contained a wealth of information -- the students had written on a children's toy known as a magic writing pad, which retains impressions of marks on its waxy bottom layer even after the top layer is erased. By reading these traces, Smith was able to "remember."

Vance Smith

Vance Smith, associate professor of English, performed a demonstration using a "magic writing pad" to illustrate Freud's theory about how memory works.

Smith performed the demonstration in the freshman seminar, "Forgetting," to illustrate Freud's theory about how memory works -- whereby experience etches itself deep into the subconscious when, on the surface, it appears to be forgotten.

It was midway through the seminar session in a packed room at Forbes College and 14 freshmen were busy exploring a range of material to illuminate how we remember and, alternately, how we forget. Students in the seminar look at memory from many angles -- academic, political, moral and ethical -- using ancient texts, historical analysis and contemporary novels, films and music. A visit to the Vietnam and Korea war memorials and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., also is planned.

Struck by what he regards as the complicity of memory in the writing of history, Smith, an associate professor of English whose discipline is medieval literature, explained that he "began to think about specific techniques or arts of forgetting, to wonder if there really is a difference between forgetting to pick up your dry cleaning or forgetting the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the 20th century."

It was this thinking that Smith wanted to explore with Princeton freshmen including Michael Alonso, who chose "Forgetting" because of his interest in the concept of collective memory. "I'm interested in learning how whole societies choose what to remember or to forget, and what methods they use to achieve this effect," said Alonso, who hopes to major in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Using Virgil's "Aeneid" as a springboard, the students chimed in to define "false dreams," "cathectic innervation" and "screen memory." The discussion jumped back over the centuries to consider the work of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero who, long before Freud, perceived writing as a kind of memory. This observation prompted comments about the 2001 film "Memento," in which a character suffering from amnesia writes all over his body as a way to remember.

Scott Wolman, a prospective English major who also is interested in theater, cited the opportunity to discuss films such as "Memento" as a reason for choosing the seminar. "I am fascinated by the various emotions that are linked to memory loss and how it can inspire both comedy and tragedy, often simultaneously," said Wolman. He credited the small size of the class for generating discussions that are "intimate and spontaneous."

Switching on his laptop, Smith projected onto the wall excerpts from the students' first papers, along with photographs of buildings on campus, to explore how what we build often expresses an intention to remember, or forget, or both.

The excerpts described how Wu and Wilcox halls as well as the School of Architecture building deliberately "break with the past" by departing from the collegiate gothic style. A student suggested that Whig Hall is a particularly good example of a building that both remembers and forgets -- its classical front remembers the past while its modern back decisively forgets that past. Smith noted that this contrast is even more cogent since Whig Hall, which burned in 1969, was not rebuilt in its original, classical form. A student remarked that the culture at Princeton at that time was shifting -- for example the trustees voted to make the University coeducational that year -- and that these changes were reflected in the new design.

Smith then linked to a Web site to look at diagrams of the brain, taking the students down a new avenue to discuss physiology and Alzheimer's disease. As thought-provoking and far-reaching as the seminar already had been, there was still a Nabokov short story to get to.