Commonplace Book

This is one of my favorite assignments for both composition and literature classes.  Electronic Commonplace Books combine the traditional “short-response” approach to texts with a greater awareness of audience and academic conversation, and they have the added benefit allowing students to track how they’ve developed a knowledge base over the course of a semester.  They are particularly useful in classes on Renaissance Literature because they bring awareness to the writing practices used by many of the authors we study. This particular version of the Electronic Commonplace Book project was a team project for a class on Paradise Lost.

Assignment Description and Guidelines

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the most important tools of a reader or writer was a commonplace book. Commonplace books were something like diaries or journals, but instead of recording the events of the day or one’s emotions or feelings, they served as places to record quotations or summaries of information that one might use in future writings, along with brief reflections on those quotations and information. Famous people who have kept commonplace books included Francis Bacon (the inventor of the scientific method), John Milton (focus of our course), Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf.

According to Robert Darnton, commonplace books “involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality” (NYRB 47.20, Dec. 21, 2000). Oddly enough, this pattern of taking in bits and pieces of information parallels the patterns of reading practiced by many in the age of the Internet. As a result, the idea of a commonplace book is making a comeback in the form of blogs and RSS feed programs like Google Reader that allow you to share and make notes on entries.

For this class, we will be taking on a writing experiment in the form of electronic commonplace books. I will be asking you to use this project to try and help you make sense of Paradise Lost and the content we cover in class. However, because this is experimental, I am making this a group project, for several reasons. First, in my experience, there are few traits that will serve you as well in the workplace as the ability to work effectively in teams. Second, this sort of experimental writing will benefit from having a community of people to discuss and debate how things should develop. To this end, the class will be divided into five groups of four students. Each group will be responsible for the creation of an electronic commonplace book that will be located on a blog. The goals of this project are to help you learn to work and write collaboratively, to expand your sense of the purpose and use of research, and to allow you to experiment to with new technologies that have the potential to rapidly change the face of academia.

Each commonplace book should, by the end of the semester, contain at least four major types of entries, each including your own commentary, responses, or questioning:

  1. Important quotations from class readings.
  2. Historical information on 16th and 17th Century issues related to Milton.
  3. Summaries or quotations from scholarly or critical sources about Milton, Paradise Lost, Hell, Heaven, Creation, Apocalypse stories/texts, or texts on the philosophical themes discussed in Paradise Lost.
  4. Alternative representations of hell, creation, or apocalypse; or popular culture appropriations of Milton or Paradise Lost (from any period). This can include artwork, photos, YouTube videos, or anything else that you can provide in electronic form. This artwork or videos can be either material YOU create (bonus points if you do!), or the work of others so long as it is properly attributed.

Other categories you might include:

  1. Statements from class discussions—listen to what your fellow students have to say! If someone say something provocative, interesting, or even wrong, write it down, and use it.
  2. Quotations or ideas that are relevant to or connect with the ideas we encounter in Milton.

These commonplace books will be shared with the class, who will be the ones primarily (though not exclusively) evaluating this assignment. One person in each group will be responsible for evaluating one of the other groups’ commonplace book. The final evaluation should take the form of a written, typed commentary to be turned in at the final exam. As a class we will develop a rubric for this evaluation that each person will follow; however, the final grade will be in my hands alone, and I will take into account the evaluations of the group as a whole as well as the contributions of individual members. If one member of the group has not lived up to the requirements, the others will not be penalized, and the individual will see his or her grade dramatically reduced. However, individuals will benefit the most from full participation and cooperation with other group members. Encourage each other to better and more complete work, and you will all see the benefits.

A Note on Timeliness: Once an individual or group has posted content to their commonplace book, other groups may not use the same source or quotation without adding to the conversation by a) summarizing, quoting, and/ or citing the group that posted the source originally, and b) substantially adding to the commentary through qualification, rebuttal, expansion, or further analysis. Thus, you should stay on top of the commonplace book project by both reading the commonplace books of the other groups as well as posting regularly on your own.

A Note on Bonus Points: I will be handing out bonus points to individuals and groups on especially creative, well-written, or well-researched posts. The individual and/or team that accumulates the highest number of bonus points by the end of the semester will win bragging rights as well a small amount of extra credit for their commonplace book grade.

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