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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Some First Thoughts

Ciao, world!

Because this is my first post on this blog, I’ll establish some helpful facts about who I am, what I do, and what you can learn about from this website. From then, I’ll write an introduction of sorts.

Who I am. My name is Andrew. I live in Chicago and I am a doctoral student in the Department of English at Northwestern University. Before coming here to work with Northwestern’s Renaissance specialists, I lived and studied in Boston (where I earned my B.A.) and North Carolina (my home state, where I also earned my M.A.).

What I do. I often think about language and literature, but I really like to read and study old books. More specifically, I examine artifacts published in Europe between 1500 and 1700. I’ve been involved already in the “bookish” academic groups at both the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC and Rare Book School at UVa. Nowadays you can often find me propping up a seventeenth-century folio in the reading room at Chicago’s Newberry Library. (I’ve also begun a collection of unusual, autographed, or hard-to-find books, centered mainly around a few first-edition Hemingways – but nothing too rare, really.) In the spirit of my book-historical approach, I am also getting involved with a few online textual analysis tools (I’ll mention these later).

What you can learn, or find out. The title of this blog is “Vade mecum,” which is Latin for “go-with-me.” In that sense, this website is designed to be a handy and useful window into the wonderful world of rare books (mostly in the Chicago area, mostly at the Newberry) and the oddities I encounter there. I’m therefore writing somewhat in the tradition of the Folger Library’s blog The Collation (which I highly recommend). If you’re involved in an academic community somehow, then you might learn about a particular artifact that could be of interest for your research. If you’re simply a lover of books and curious about the mysteries (and often, headaches) associated with dusty, hands-on archival research, well, this place is for you, too.

Something of an introduction.  We live in a remarkable time as human beings. I’ll clarify with the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared. . . . This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

The “age of Revolution” is a very compelling idea. Elizabeth Eisenstein, a historian of early modern printing, commented on one revolution in particular, the “print revolution,” and suggested in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) that the invention of printing was responsible for remarkable and momentous developments in religious, scientific, and cultural history. However, as scholars since have noted, the introduction of moveable type did not fully supplant or render useless the “technologies” of manuscript culture. Scribal culture and print culture complemented each other in significant ways, no matter how important the introduction of moveable type was. Both of these communication “technologies” – and it is essential to think of them as technologies – had distinct characteristics that rendered them more or less private, authentic, or valuable, depending on the context at hand. My account here is heretical in its simplicity, but I only mean to show that during the Renaissance, print could be simultaneously praised as a heavenly gift from God and scorned as a promiscuous cheapening of the authentic. In Emerson’s words, it was a time when the old and the new stood side by side, an “age of Revolution.”

My reasons for keeping this blog call to my mind a number of similar issues that attended early modern writers and thinkers. In our own “age of Revolution,” the “Information Age,” as some have called it, we are witnessing our own historically contingent configuration of the Renaissance’s “stigma of print.” Except now, this time, the tension lies not between the manuscript and the printed book, but between the printed book and the e-book (or Nook, or Kindle, or iPad – the picture is obviously complex). Advertisements, conversations I overhear on the train, small-talk on frivolous TV morning shows – they all provide evidence that this is the case. 400 years after Shakespeare’s time, we are undergoing an important and uncomfortable change in communication technology. The president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, recently published his anxieties about this transition on the AHA website. Cronon seems to join a number of scholars who have declared the physical book “dead” in an era that is increasingly digital, increasingly immaterial, and threatening to our sense of self. But – returning to Emerson – if we know what to do with the age of Revolution, it is a very good time to live in.

I hope it is a very good time to live in. I write from a somewhat vexed position as a graduate student in the humanities during a particularly challenging economic period in American history. The academy is changing, many think for the worse, into a neoliberal system characterized by videotaped lectures and adjunct faculty positions. I admit these frustrations, and I obviously do not approve of some of the truly shameful budgeting decisions in the public university system (If you’re interested in this, read Christopher Newfield’s book). But, if we know what to do, I think that there is a way to navigate a transition that is not an overnight change but a gradual movement. Things can change for the better in the academy, but we must first be vigilant and knowledgeable about the conditions of scholarly communication today (not in the sense that we must all become computer programmers – more on this later, maybe).

So, my decision to write this blog comes in part from a recognition that academic research, like journalism, is undergoing some important changes that, in a way, establish us as kindred spirits with writers of the Renaissance – men and women to whom the printed book was not an invisible container of authentic words, but a material technology with recognizable properties beyond the meaning of the words within. But if that seems too ambitious, I also want to use this space to share some photographs, thoughts, and suppositions about the dusty volumes in the archive in the hopes that someone might be as curious or intrigued as I am about that amazing technological device- the Renaissance book. Which, to me, is very much alive.

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