Thursday, May 24, 2012

I don’t recall


I have a confession to make. It’s something I share with my students, but only rarely with my colleagues: I have almost no recall.

What I mean by that is not that I have no memory – that would be an ironic problem for a historian, would it not?  No, it’s just the mechanism of recall that doesn’t seem to work well.  Imagine my brain like a big filing cabinet. Really big, like a wall full of drawers, and lots of files in each drawer. I read something, and into the file cabinet it goes. It’s there, and it’s not going anywhere.  The problem arises only when I want to get it back out again.  All the information is there, and once I find the drawer where I put it, out it comes, full and complete, and I even make tons of connections to other stuff that’s in that same drawer that I had forgotten I’d put in there, maybe years ago.  But the process of finding the right drawer in the first place?  That’s what seems to be missing.

This was particularly crippling in seminars in grad school.  I sat there, watching colleagues remember this and that other book that we’d discussed weeks ago, and all I could think was, “Was that the blue one”?  And also: “If I can’t remember the way these people do, does this mean that I’m not cut out for this?”  And of course: “How long until my professors figure it out?”

So, terrified, I began to compensate by becoming an obsessive note-taker.  I even rigged myself up a set of interlocking Filemaker Pro databases (the commercial software at the time was good for bibliographies, but you couldn’t use it to take detailed notes) for notes on every damn thing I read, complete with meticulously correct Chicago Style citations.  I’d come to seminar armed with my sheaf of notes. I’m not sure my participation was all that much better, but at least I wasn’t a total blank.

I’ve now switched from Filemaker Pro to Zotero, but I still do it.  ‘Cause otherwise, I’ll forget.

Anyway, that’s my… would you call it a “learning disability”? Or maybe a “processing disability”? I dislike pathologizing it, because I think that probably everyone has a little brain quirk like this. The question of why this came to me just now is the subject for the next post.

6 comments:

Comrade Physioprof said...

That's very interesting, and in no way would I pathologize it. I suspect that what you sometimes see as a cognitive limitation is really just the flip-side of a cognitive advantage.

I am sort of the opposite: I have an extremely effective mental filing system, and can easily access all the drawers and their connections using even the slightest little bit of a hint. But once I open the drawer, the contents are not always as exactly clear in every detail as I might hope.

Anonymous said...

On a slightly related topic - I've always considered myself one who has a bit of a photographic memory - but one that needs glasses - I do not know how many times in school I could tell you what part of a page an answer was on, and even the SHAPE of the word sometimes, but the answer would be blurry and everything else wouldn't be... It served me well on open book tests though - I could always find what I was looking for quickly to double check my answers...

Scholasticamama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scholasticamama said...

YES! I relate to this completely. I was sure that I was the only one in grad school who could not remember an author or title from week to week. I could, however, _always_ remember the color of the book!

And I'm no better now. Without my notecards and Zotero, I'm completely lost. And I'm just as bad with names. I could meet someone for a year in Faculty Senate, then be asked in our department about someone, and be completely clueless as to name and department. Students are worse - I wish I taught at a military school where they all wore nametags.

Can you also remember quotes by where they are on a page? So I'm forever looking for quotes on the bottom third of the right-hand side of the page, a third of the way through the green covered book. Let's not call it pathology-let's just say our brains are wired differently.

Sally Wilde said...

Just wait till you pass 60! Like Anon, I used to be able to remember what part of the page a quote was on (and the colour of the book it was in). But this week I wanted to pass on some info to a student (about Anglo-Saxon use of metaphors about weaving and other kinds of women's work)and I had forgotten that it was a thesis. Ho hum. Fortunately, having failed to find the info in my article files, I fell across the thesis by accident. Moral? Aging brains need VERY GOOD filing systems.

turtle907 said...

When I was working on my masters, I constantly worried that everyone would find out my secret...that I wasn't smart enough to be there!..my profession is teaching children with disablities and they have taught me a very valuable lesson: skills like memory, spelling and so on are not an indication of intelligence, only that we all have a different way of learning and contributing to this world.