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.