Memory Commons Confronts Southern History

Savanna Vest ‘22

Staff Writer

The Memory Commons class, an initiative of the new Interlinked Memory Studies Courses at Davidson, took a fully funded study trip to Montgomery, Alabama, to examine “sites of memory” within the United States. The Memory Commons is a new academic format this spring semester that features a set of social science and humanities-based classes. Each course has one individual class meeting per week to discuss course-specific content, as well as a gathering of the multiple courses to discuss the ways in which their disciplines individually relate to and collectively intersect with the theme of memory.

The selected memory courses for this semester are “Growing Up Jim Crow” with Dr. Hilton Kelly (Educational Studies and Africana Studies), “Collective Memory” with Dr. Kristi Multhaup (Psychology), “Introduction to Writing Fiction” with Dr. Alan Michael Parker (English), “The Holocaust and Representation” with Dr. Scott Denham (German Studies), and “Memory and Identity in the People’s Republic of China” with Dr. Dáša Mortensen (History).

This Memory Commons, comprised of over 70 students across the five classes, is an exploration in academic studies for Davidson, where the average class size is 15 and 75% of classes have 20 students or less.

“One thing that makes it unique is the structure,” Multhaup said. “While we hope that students engage across disciplinary silos as liberal arts college students, this set of interlinked courses provides institutional support for cross-disciplinary discussions.”

The biggest challenge students and faculty identified involved the ability to engage with such a large class size. Since it is an experimental course, the faculty have been exploring different teaching styles with each Memory Commons meeting in order to find ways to best engage the students.

“Creating a sense of community within a classroom environment takes time, and it is very challenging to do so with a large group of students,” Mortensen said. “We hope that by the end of the semester, we will have nurtured a classroom environment that celebrates risk-taking, creativity, intellectual rigor, active listening, vulnerability, and empathy. We hope that every member of this course will be fully engaged and will actively contribute to discussions about memory—in and outside of class.”

Students noted that while the class size can be difficult to navigate, the group interaction between students of different classes can provide opportunities for insightful reflection, so long as students take these opportunities.

One such opportunity was the trip to Alabama, including a three-hour visit to The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, located at the former site of 19th century slave holding pens. Students and faculty also visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The site opened in 2018 after, according to the organization’s website, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) “began investigating thousands of racial terror lynchings in the American South, many of which had never been documented.”  The EJI is a Montgomery non-profit organization that advocates for the rights and just treatment of prisoners, and both sites of the trip are initiatives of the EJI.

Mortensen explained, “Our goal in bringing our Memory Commons class to Montgomery was to introduce students, faculty, and staff to these important sites of memory, to educate us about historical and ongoing issues of racial and socio-economic injustice, and to spark difficult, thorny, and important conversations about race, poverty, violence, trauma, silencing, and remembering.”

Throughout the trip, the Memory Commons group had discussions led by Kiara Boone ‘11 and Mickey Hubbard ‘08, who both work with EJI.

The faculty who planned the study trip intentionally chose the locations to demonstrate sites of memory, the potential implications of forgetting history, and the importance of understanding history in relation to the present.

“The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice are excellent examples of how collective silencing and forgetting has taken place in the United States, and how the Equal Justice Initiative has strived to lay the foundation for re-remembering and re-narrating the past and present,” Mortensen said.

While the trip featured sites engaging with US history, students discussed the importance of students’ participation when reflecting on the trip.

“I would’ve appreciated this trip a lot more if everyone took this opportunity to be transparent with each other, to really understand that we all play a role in this history,” said Maurice J. Norman ‘20. “It’s a shared history between white folk and black folk, so how can we talk about it? . . . There’s so much that could’ve been engaged with that just was not.”

Chloe deBeus ‘21, a student in “Growing Up Jim Crow,” commented: “The biggest takeaway was the importance of acknowledgement. Many people at the Equal Justice Initiative emphasized that we need to acknowledge the past and present violence of this country, and that’s what the sites represent. Additionally, peers mentioned acknowledging feelings and emotions when experiencing the sites. The trip had mixed reviews, but I learned a lot from the sites and my peers.”

Norman spoke to the importance of engaging in conversations about historical and modern issues relating to race in the United States.

“It’s really an individual effort that takes place in a collective group, but when every individual is comfortable with silence, it will be silent,” Norman said. “Being uncomfortable in a conversation is where the growth happens, so I never understand the justification that ‘I feel too uncomfortable to enter this conversation,’ because white silence is just as bad as white violence.”

Students of the Memory Commons said that critical and meaningful discussion comes from personal student initiative to engage by actively contributing and listening to one another in conversation.

“There are so many things happening, and it all begins with conversation, recognition, and acknowledgement. . . . It’s creating a space where people feel welcome to speak, but it’s also people stepping up to speak,” Norman said.

Comments are closed.