editor's note

Illustration by Gordon Schmidt

In the living room of Whitehurst Hall on a Wednesday afternoon in the fall, a very interesting presentation on a very strange subject — the veneration of a 130-year-old taxidermied horse — turned even stranger and more interesting with a simple turn of phrase: “the death of an arm.”

Now there’s a story title if ever I’ve heard one, I found myself thinking from my cozy upholstered chair in the back.

The speaker, rhetoric and communication studies professor Nicole Maurantonio, used the phrase in passing to explain the date on a headstone that marks the putative burial site of Civil War Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s amputated arm. The stuffed horse, now on display in a basement gallery 100 miles west of campus, was Jackson’s too.

One of the points that Maurantonio made with these objects is that public memory is about forgetting as much as it is about remembering. She illustrated her point by describing how little is remembered about the people that Jackson enslaved and whose existence was barely documented, in contrast with Jackson’s horse and arm.

Such thoughts on public memory are the content of an upcoming book by the professor, and she had come to offer a preview as part of a new effort called The Faculty Hub to connect faculty with one another. She was a guinea pig of sorts, offering herself up as the first speaker in the newly christened “Hub Talk” series. (She more recently talked about it on the podcast Backstory for the episode “Stuffed: Taxidermy in the History of America.”)

In the Q&A, Linda Boland, the professor who heads the Hub, asked about the definition of forgetting. She said that in her discipline, biology, the term means something specific, that a memory has been preserved and then lost. It was clear to her that Maurantonio had something different in mind. Indeed, she did, more like a failure to value something as worth remembering in the first place.

Now here's a quintessentially liberal arts conversation, I found myself thinking. Each definition frames the questions you ask very differently. Each offers up its own lessons.

As the talk concluded, I thought about the value to our students of being surrounded by such educators, people curious enough to get together to hold an idea in their hands, turn it over, and examine it from different perspectives to see what it may yield — and felt grateful that I could be among them, too.