The Commonplace Book

The idea of a commonplace book has a long history. For many years going back to the eighteenth century, it was customary for writers and students to keep a notebook in which they copied out passages from their readings which caught their attention in one way or another: passages which were well-written, passages which were humorous or thought-provoking, passages which managed to capture an essential point which they wanted to remember or have on record.

For the purposes of this course, I am going to broaden the definition of commonplace book that we will be using. This book will be a place where you can

• copy out passages from your readings which interest you or which strike you as being noteworthy
• record other pieces of incoming data from the world at large: bits of conversation, turns of phrase that surprise you, song lyrics that surprise you
• make note of questions that occur to you during the course of the day
• write your own brief ideas or reflections as they occur to you

You may also wish to include in your commonplace book visual data; pictures, charts, ads, drawings.

Before you begin keeping the commonplace book, you will be asked to do an exercise in which you will identify several essential questions which will help to provide some shape and continuity to the entries in the commonplace book. I am not suggesting that you put only things that relate to your essential questions into the commonplace book. But I am going to ask that at least between each class you put something in your commonplace book which relates to one of your essential questions.

I believe, both as a matter of common sense and from my own personal experience, that the discipline of maintaining a commonplace book has the potential to change the quality of attention that you pay to what is going on around you. If you are reading with the idea that there is something you want to save from your readings, you read differently. If you are listening to a conversation with the idea that you might be wanting to record some part of it later on, you listen differently. I also am making the assumption that if you extend your thinking about your essential questions over time, by maintaining the commonplace book throughout the quarter, you will eventually have materials to draw upon which will broaden and deepen you thinking, and which will also be useful both for your final semester project.

The commonplace book will be collected twice - once on February 15 and once on March 15, and will be evaluated by means of a rubric which we will devise together. Plan to bring your commonplace book to class each day, because there will be times when you will be asked to write in them as part of a class exercise, and there will also be times when you will be asked to share them.

To give you some sense of what commonplace book entries might look like, here is an archive of various self-chosen student entries from previous years.