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THE NATURE AND USES OF MEMORY

Organizing Fellow: Nicolas Russell (French Studies)

This Kahn short-term project will focus on the different ways we define and discuss memory. Memory is an important subject of study in a wide range of intellectual domains; however, different intellectual disciplines ask different questions about memory, and at times, it is not at all clear that they are even talking about the same thing. The goal of the project is to have an interdisciplinary discussion in which the participants can compare the questions, concepts, and methods they use in thinking about memory to those used by others in other disciplines. My own work has focused on the concepts of personal and collective memory in early modern France (1500-1800) and has itself been interdisciplinary to a certain extent: theories and research from other fields – such as cognitive science, sociology, historiography, media studies, and philosophy – have helped me to answer some of my own research questions. However, impromptu discussions about memory with colleagues in various fields have given me a different interdisciplinarity experience. On a number of occasions, such conversations have pushed me to rethink some of my own assumptions and questions. It is this kind of interdisciplinary exchange that I am interested in fostering, for myself and for others, through this Kahn project.

To lay the ground work for this project we will ask participants to think about a set of questions, from their own point of view. What is memory and what roles do we ascribe to memory in the intellect and in society? How do we use memory as a metaphor and what metaphors do we use to understand memory? To what extent and in what sense can we say that memory extends beyond the mind – in computers, archives, social groups, genes? The questions are very broad and are meant as a heuristic tool rather than a task list to complete. Perhaps they will strike some participants as the “wrong questions,” which in itself might prove very interesting.

Before meeting, the participants will also read a series of texts on memory, divided into two groups and collected in a course pack. The first group of texts will introduce specific technical terms (e.g. distinctions between ROM and RAM or between procedural, semantic, and episodic memory). The second group of texts will present a set of thought-provoking problems or approaches to the concept of memory in different intellectual domains. Selected Fellows will be asked to suggest readings which (1) introduce technical terms they may want to use during group discussions, (2) present a thought-provoking problem, or (3) give an overview or introduction to their field’s (or sub-field’s) approach to memory. Some of these will be included in the course pack, while others will be added to a supplemental bibliography to be distributed to the group.

The project will take place over two to three days in January and February 2008. The first meeting will take place shortly before the start of the spring semester, and will consist of a discussion among the participants which will bring together the general questions at the origin of this project, the “course pack” readings, and the participants’ presentations of their own work.

The second part of this project would involve an invited speaker, who will give a public lecture to the Smith community early in the spring semester. The Fellows will then meet with the visiting scholar to discuss the history and evolution of the concept of memory.

Applications from faculty across the three divisions are encouraged and would bring great value to the project.

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