Teaching English composition with early modern-style “commonplace books”

This fall, I have been trying out a number of strategies to integrate writing exercises, literary readings, and Special Collections visits in my undergraduate pedagogy. These experiments – that’s the word I prefer to use – allow the classroom to become a kind of laboratory for humanistic inquiry and expression. In the course I’m currently teaching, an English composition seminar entitled “Forms of Belonging,” I use a variety of writing technologies and pedagogical media to help my students think carefully about the texts they read and the ideas they communicate verbally and in written forms. One assignment I’ve been using for this course is a seventeenth century-style “commonplace book.” Here, I’m adopting a pedagogical technique used already by many of my colleagues in early modern studies, including Colleen Kennedy, Adam G. Hooks, and many others; this account simply represents what has worked for me.

In this course, the commonplace book has encouraged my students to write regularly in an informal and process-oriented (rather than product-oriented) way. On the first day of class, I introduced my students to the idea of a commonplace book, spending about 5 to 10 minutes talking about what they were, who used them, and why. As a specialist in early modern literature, this was an opportunity to bring some field-specific knowledge into the composition classroom, but I kept it very light and brief so as to foreground the actual purpose of the exercise: regular writing practice. For commonplacers, I said, originality wasn’t a requirement – in fact, “gathering and framing” textual material from various sources (advertisements, texts we read in class we read, texts we don’t read in class, songs overheard on the radio, etc.) would be an ideal way to fulfill the assignment.

commonplace-book-1An affordable, spiral-bound “commonplace book” for my Eng 105 course  (with iPhone for size comparison).

I then passed out cheap, plastic-covered, pocket-size notebooks I bought at a local drugstore earlier that week, urging students to write their names in them and to personalize them textually as the term proceeded. I’ve collected these books every two weeks, not to scrutinize their contents but to survey my students’ writerly practice in an impressionistic way. If the three essay assignments in this course offer chances for me to evaluate my students’ work formally, the commonplace book (which stands as a portion of the participation grade) provides a more experimental platform to try out writing and to do it regularly. In my students’ books, I’ve found poetry, journal entries, notes on literature and class discussion, math problems, diagrams, and a variety of other kinds of scribbles and doodles. (For the sake of my students’ privacy, I will not show any examples, but leave you to imagine the range of creative and critical expression here.)

If this pedagogical strategy integrates the regular and experimental physical activity of writing with the readings in the course (and beyond), it also connects with the Special Collections units I’ve organized. For the first of these, which provided a material-textual dimension to our class discussions of Isabella Whitney’s “The Manner of Her Will” and Michel de Montaigne’s “On the Cannibals,” my students got a chance to see a real early modern commonplace book up close. On the first inscribed page, they observed how this book’s compiler was doing something similar to what they were in their blank books:

NU-MS-67-1Northwestern MS 67, fol. 2r. Kind courtesy of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

This book, Northwestern MS 67, has handwriting in both italic and secretary scripts; arranged alphabetically, it includes passages from authors including Lucretius, Shakespeare, and Sidney. My students were particularly struck by the unfinished quality of this vellum-bound volume — over half its leaves are completely blank, really exposing this kind of text as a work-in-progress. Altogether, looking at this book enabled my students to think across time and across textual media, linking their own commonplacing experiments and composition exercises to the material text in front of them. It made for one of the best class meetings we had. Not all colleges or universities have commonplace books like MS 67, but digital resources can acquaint students with English miscellanies such as Folger E.a.1. This is certainly an exercise I’ll want to continue for a variety of courses, and I’ll be eager to learn new ideas about recruiting the commonplace book for teaching purposes (including from you, dear reader).


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