Yesterday my grad class met in the library, and looked at facsimiles of three Canterbury Tales manuscripts and Caxton’s edition. I’d made up a worksheet for them to fill out, things to look for in each book, and sometimes hints about where to find them. They worked in groups, 3 students on each book at one time, and every 15 minutes moved on to another one. I wandered around the table, taking questions, dropping hints, listening to discussion. They were enthusiastic, interested, intent.

And then we met as a big group to discuss findings, and discussion suddenly flagged. I wasn’t sure if it was just the late hour, or what. After class I asked one student, someone I’ve taught before, what she thought. She thought a lot of the problem was that they’re not used to looking at manuscripts and it’s hard to remember what you saw in each one; it’s clear when the page is in front of you, but not later on.

That made perfect sense to me. I should have remembered what that stage is like. Now I have a better idea of how to guide students in taking notes on manuscripts that will help them re-visualize what they saw.

I don’t think of myself as having a good visual memory. It’s certainly not photographic. Sometimes I retain information via placement (top of the left-hand page), but that seems to be spatial perception rather than visual re-creation; and I don’t always file information that way; and sometimes I think I have but I’m wrong. One of my brothers is red-green colorblind, and the other sees those colors but has trouble processing information involving them. Though I’m certainly not colorblind, I don’t have accurate color memory. In my graduate paleography course, I always focused on the wrong details, the ones that don’t tell you much, that appear in half-a-dozen different scripts or are a standard feature of a given script rather than the tell-tale identifier of a particular scribe.

But apparently, over time, through sheer persistence, I have trained myself to have a better memory for manuscript pages than I thought. There are a handful of manuscripts (or facsimiles thereof) whose general “look” I can summon up fairly accurately, and a few more whose pages I recognize when I see reproductions. I’m happy to be able to see how I’ve improved, because I’ve been struggling with this graduate-school-era sense of my abilities for a long time. And I’m really happy to feel I have some idea of how to teach this skill, that it is a skill that can be learned and not simply a talent that one either has or doesn’t.

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5 thoughts on “Visualizing

  1. This is really interesting. When I've taught paleography in the past, I've worried about whether I could really teach students how to see. I'm sure this is something art historians have theorized, but I'm not familiar with that pedagogical literature. I could explain how I looked – long-distance, and then close up, and then long distance again – and give rules of thumb for what to look for to disambiguate scripts. I tried to emphasize the need to see the script in the context of the whole mise-en-page. But I was always flummoxed by the one or two students who, on the exam, would identify e.g. Visigothic as Luxeuil, or some other (to me) completely un-confusable pair. I have to assume they were simply not seeing the forest for the trees – grasping at the one or two spot letters and not seeing the scripts whole at all. But of course the students who had the most trouble with this were the least able to explain what they were seeing, or not seeing.

  2. Carin, thanks for commenting. In general I see trees rather than forest; and when I do get a glimpse of forest, I tend to lose the trees entirely. I doubt most students will be as persistent as I have been. Seriously, it has taken me twenty years to teach myself to see. I guess the lesson is that if you get a person who loves something (manuscripts, for instance) but isn't very good at the skills involved, don't give up or tell the person to go do something else; sheer persistence can go a very long way.Well, I guess I do other things, at least enough of them to have bought myself the time to learn. I think it helps, as a teacher, to have had difficulty with skills/concepts. I find it hard to break down the things that come easily to me, but much easier to teach the things I have struggled with, because I have a better sense of what the problems are.

  3. Excellent advice, and a very good point about it being easier to teach something if you've had to struggle to figure out how to learn it yourself.

  4. I'm just starting to learn this stuff, so it is very reassuring to hear that experts like yourself have struggled with it in the past but learned to master it. As a grad student, I'm finding working with manuscripts just a little overwhelming at the moment. I'm used to feeling pretty competent at reading/interpreting texts, but this is like learning to read all over again. It can really mess with one's confidence at first.

  5. Coming from a completely different discipline where visual memory is also very important, I think that the key is repeated exposure to a variety of material, practice, and a consistent approach to "looking". In my day job I do a lot of endoscopic surgery, which requires the skill of orientating oneself to operate in 3 dimensions using a limited 2-D image for reference. At first it is very difficult to recognise what you are looking at when you are used to viewing the body area through an open incision, but with sheer repetition you eventually develop a 'visual map' and can orientate yourself more and more quickly. You develop the ability to recognise immediately where you are, to find a particular spot again from subtle cues after looking away, and to be able to describe details to someone else rather than just having an overall impression in your own mind. I find that this skill carries over into other areas such as my hobbies of painting and manuscript illumination, so I think it would probably be relevant to paleography.

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