Go Stand in the Corner and Consider Yourself

Many years ago I remember hearing that it was important to take your exam in the same place where you learned the material.  In other words, if you sat in a certain spot in a classroom for an entire semester, you ought not to switch spots for the final. 

I have no idea whether this is true or if anyone has ever done any research on this.  It might be just an academic urban legend (like guessing B on multiple choice quizzes when you are stumped, or the pervasive yet unfounded belief that waiting times for late professors are keyed to rank).

True or not, the idea that memory is connected to place makes a certain amount of sense.  I can often recall what part of the page I was reading (top, bottom, left, right) when I ran across an idea in a book. So maybe we really do remember better when we return the place where we first learned it.

Then again, maybe this is nonsense.  Heck, think of something--anything--you must have learned in grade school: long division, who wrote Charlotte's Web, how to spell phenomenon.  How much of what you know can actually be traced to a specific place or moment?  My hunch is not much.  I cannot recall which of my teachers taught me anything.

Indeed, nearly all of what I know is hypermnesiac.  I know it; I just don't know where or how I came to know it.  Most people have found themselves saying thinks like "I think I read it in a magazine or, no, maybe it was on TV.  Then again it could have been on the radio..."  That's hypermnesia.  So perhaps the idea that we should test where we sit is not really true. 

I don't know, but lately I've been playing with the idea of using the spatial geography of a classroom as a way to represent what students are thinking and to get them to remember how they once thought.  I wrote about this the other day (Greyhounds in the slips).  I like to have students stake out a position on some question on the first day of class and to do so by getting up, walking across the room to a wall or a corner and actually standing in a designated spot. 

I did this yesterday in the Core II Seminar.  I began the class with two quotes: one by Freud (man is wolf to man) and one by Hume, who argued that the remarkable thing about humanity is our capacity to empathize even with those we dislike.  I asked students to stand by the quote that best captures the essence of human nature.  Are we creatures with a special gift for predatory violence, exploitation and cruelty (as Freud suggests) or is it more remarkable that we can empathize and imagine the lives of others in such a way that it obliges a moral response on our part? 

Students chose sides and I had them explain to one another why they were where they were.  In the coming weeks, the seminar is going to study various genocides, look at human evil and the psychology of dehumanization and tribal thinking.  At various points I will ask students to move again.  Past experience suggests that many of them will change places in the room more than once as we get deeper into the subject.  Not a few will ask if they can stand between two locations. 

What I hope they remember is not where they were, but that they did move intellectually as well as physically.  The unit paper will ask then to recount their journey back and forth or around the room. 
  • Why did you begin here? 
  • What idea caused you to cross over there? 
  • Where are you now?  Why?
I'm not sure if all of this walking about the room makes their thinking any better, but it's a cool, concrete way to see that some thinking is actually taking place. 


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