Peeker Teaching Faulkner Article


Seeing Memory:
Using Digital Yoknapatawpha to Teach Cognitive Literary Studies

By Aili Pettersson Peeker
University of California, Santa Barbara

In the summer of 2019, I taught a course called "Story and the Brain" at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Designed to examine the power of storytelling with reference to brain science, this was a course focusing on 20th and 21st century U.S. literature along scientific and philosophical theories about the human mind. We read authors like Lynda Barry, Tracy K. Smith, and David Foster Wallace and explored topics such as empathy, emotion, memory, and imagination and its relationship to narrative form. In short, the goal was to provide students with an understanding of how storytelling shapes our minds and how our minds shape the stories we tell, something that William Faulkner's characters illustrate time and again in the way they constantly recount stories of their pasts and, in doing so, never stop changing these pasts. While almost any of Faulkner's longer works could be used to teach central topics of mind studies, in this class I decided to teach The Sound and the Fury and to focus primarily on how Faulkner's writing can help us notice naturalized processes of remembering. In this essay, I will outline how I used Digital Yoknapatawpha to visualize how Faulkner's characters remember a past that famously never really is past in order to discuss philosophical and scientific ideas about human memory and the experience of time.

Faulkner and neuroscience might at first seem like a doubly intimidating pair creating barriers for a broad range of students; humanities majors might initially shy away from scientific modes of knowledge and students from the STEM fields without much experience of reading formally experimental literature might find Faulkner's fourth novel near incomprehensible at first. This is where Digital Yoknapatawpha (DY) comes in. While the website can be useful on many levels and in many classroom situations and while I used it to clarify everything from fundamental "who's who" questions (as a response to a student who suddenly asked "Why are there so many Quentins in this book?" in mild despair during a discussion section before the class had finished the novel) to bigger questions about race, class, and gender and the long history influencing the Compson family, I'll focus on the topic of memory here.

The Sound and the Fury was introduced to the students in this course during a week thematically focused on "Remembering Minds" and we thus focused on memory from page one. As this class met Monday through Thursday every week, the vast majority of students had not finished the novel during the lessons described here, a practical fact that posed some problems for using the website to its full extent. Wary of the possibility of students using the tool instead of reading the novel as well as the risk of spoiling the first-time reading experience by revealing too much, I was careful—perhaps a bit too careful—in showing them what DY could do during the early classes. To introduce them to the website and all its possibilities, I began by showing the fundamentals of how temporality works in The Sound and the Fury by walking the class through the two timelines showing the events as they unfold in the novel and in chronological time, respectively. To begin with, I clicked on the first chronological event of the novel (the life of Jesus as referenced in Reverend Shegog's Easter sermon) in the Chronological Order timeline and pointed out how far to the left this event takes place on the chronological timeline and how far to the right we see it on the Page Order timeline (see figure below). Visualizing how late in the novel we read about this first event opened up for an illuminating discussion exploring how Faulkner experiments with form and temporality in the novel.

(Figure 1: This view of DY shows how far into the past the first chronological event of The Sound and the Fury takes place and how late in the novel (not until page 295) we read about it.)

Continuing to visualize how Faulkner is experimenting with temporality throughout the four sections, we played through the events chronologically to look at how the page numbers would jump back and forth on the Page Order timeline. The point of this in-class showcase was to show how Faulkner is using innovative forms of storytelling to portray the varying ways in which humans can experience time and, in doing so, to discuss how the novel is breaking away from more conventional and linear modes of storytelling. This visualization allowed us to have a discussion of how much of Faulkner's fiction takes place before the first day of the story and why this is important. I found this way of visualizing Faulkner's formal play to be a particularly useful way of making students understand the importance of the famous "The past is never dead. It is not even past" quote. Literally making them see how present the past is in The Sound and the Fury, this use of DY initiated discussions about the presence of the past not only in Faulkner's world but in the world they live and operate in as well, allowing the students to reflect on how their own familial and cultural histories influence who they are and how they perceive the world around them.

Moving into a more detailed discussion of memory, we then used DY to understand how Faulkner writes memory differently in the four sections by comparing how memory is portrayed in Benjy and Quentin's sections. Before using DY and discussing the novel here, we had devoted several classes to the history of memory studies, the difference between declarative and non-declarative memory, and the science behind false memories, all in order to drive home the point that memories are never stable traces of a fixed past within our brains, but rather flexible—and fragile—constructs that have the potential to change every time we retell a memory. After this, we used Benjy's section as a case study to investigate how Benjy remembers and how the past continues to bleed into his present. Focusing on how sensory experiences—such as being snagged on a nail while crawling under a fence or hearing someone shout "caddie"—brought back involuntary memories for Benjy, the class was able to visualize the quite complicated process of involuntarily remembering events from one's past and opened up for a discussion about how we sometimes have little or no control over this mental process and of how traumatic memories can be triggered by external stimuli. Moreover, slowing down the reading by going through selected, short parts of Benjy's tale helped clarify the timeline of the events and assisted students in both understanding and appreciating the experimental form of the novel through a discussion of such formal elements as the functions of italics in Benjy's section.

Moving on to Quentin and his experience of time, I used DY to show both how differently Quentin experiences the world compared to Benjy but also to point out the similarities in how the two brothers are moved through time and space by mental or sensory stimuli that trigger highly emotionally charged recollections of their pasts. I did this by selecting only Quentin's section on DY and then performing a collective close reading and DY demonstration. Clicking through the first couple of events in the Page Order timeline, we looked at each event on the website first and then close read the corresponding paragraph together. During this exercise, I asked students to volunteer to read the paragraph in question out loud, and we then dissected this paragraph. I used this method to illustrate that what seems like arbitrary jumps between the present and the past actually follows a pattern (at least in this part of the section—later on it admittedly gets more complicated). In this pattern, Quentin notices something in his present—the sound of a watch or the shadow of a sash—that reminds him of a past (and, in this case, his father) that he will ruminate upon before returning to his present circumstances at Harvard. Each of the first four paragraph thus follows the same pattern where a sensory stimulus transports Quentin back in time before he is brought back into the present—into time again—at the beginning of each new paragraph. This dilated close reading was then used to initiate a broader discussion of how memory is portrayed to function in the novel. It also served to show the students one of many ways in which the website can assist their close readings and help them discern patterns that then can be analyzed.

In a wider perspective, DY was used throughout our class time devoted to The Sound and the Fury to show that there is painstaking method to what might initially seem like chaos in Faulkner's narrative. It was an invaluable tool for this, and it also proved invaluable for visualizing cognitive processes—such as remembering—that usually go on in our minds without us noticing them. This enabled us to bring together cognitive science and literature to understand that there always is more to our selves than our conscious mind recognizes and that the knowledge we have about our selves through the narrating part of us is but a fraction of who we are. As Faulkner's formal experimentation shows and as DY illuminates, this is as true for Quentin as it is for Benjy, and by visualizing these processes we can become more aware of naturalized blind spots of cognition in our own lives as well. As it turns out, then, DY's visualizing tools enabled us to quite literally see the connections between the initially intimidating couple of experimental literature and science.

I would like to thank Stephen Railton for his generous help in introducing me to the pedagogical value of Digital Yoknapatawpha, and Candace Waid for her ceaseless support and inspiration in enabling my thinking about Faulkner.

    Citing this source:
Aili Pettersson Peeker, "Seeing Memory: Using Digital Yoknapatawpha to Teach Cognitive Literary Studies." Rpt. from Teaching Faulkner 37 (Fall 2019); Center for Faulkner Studies ( Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, (Date added to project: 2020)