As I finish planning for the fourth quarter of the school year today, I found among my materials from last year my directions for a summative project I made up called “The Commonplace Blog.”
“Commonplacing is the act of selecting important phrases, lines, and/or passages from texts and writing them down; the commonplace book is the notebook in which a reader has collected quotations from works s/he has read. Commonplace books can also include comments and notes from the reader; they are frequently indexed so that the reader can classify important themes and locate quotations related to particular topics or authors.”
“Students with literary tastes, in days when books were hard to come by, kept ‘commonplace’ or notebooks into which they copied out verses or prose extracts that particularly appealed to them.” The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965; reprint of the 2nd ed., 1956): p. 49.
“An early practitioner of reflective journaling was Thomas Jefferson. He would synopsize and capture the key points of his readings and add his own reflections, recording them in a journal which he called his ‘commonplace book.’ One of his biographers quoted Jefferson as saying ‘I was in the habit of abridging and commonplacing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject’ (Cunningham, 1987, p. 9). His tutor, James Maury, commended the practice as a means ‘to reflect, and remark on, and digest what you read’ (Wilson, 1989, p. 7).”-Herman W. Hughes, Dialogic Reflection: A New Face on an Old Pedagogy
So, it’s a very old tradition of keeping clips of writing you like in a sort of scrapbook. For more about commonplace books, and especially to see how important they were in the early American tradition, see this article from Yale.
People quite loigcally think of the current habit of blogging as a modern incarnation of the commonplace notebook; I see the old trend of “zines” as a link between commonplaces and blogs. (I put together a couple of ‘zines myself in high school in the early 90’s. I’ll tell you more about The Dead Cows Forum sometime.)
The basic directions for the project run like this:
To serve as a review of our readings this year, to help you collect a stockpile of favorite literature from which you can find inspiration and material for future projects (Emerson and Thoreau both used their commonplaces for this), to give you further practice organizing and responding to serious writing, and to mold you in both an ancient (commonplace books) and a modern tradition (blogging), I give you…
“The Commonplace Blog”
First, set up an account with a blogging web site, such as WordPress, Blogger, LiveJournal, or TypePad. Each of these should have free services, as well as options to keep pages private, and to delete them after the project is over, if you wish.
On your new blog, create four entries that follow these guidelines:
Copy (including titles and authors) five quotes from any five different fiction works we’ve read for this class this year (novels or short stories). After each, include a short paragraph of your commentary on it.
Copy (including titles and authors) five quotes from any five different non-fiction works we’ve read for this class this year (speeches, essays, etc.). After each, include a short paragraph of your commentary on it.
Copy (including titles and authors) five quotes from any five different works of poetry we’ve read for this class this year. After each, include a short paragraph of your commentary on it.
Copy (including titles and authors) five quotes from any five different sources, about whatever single topic you want (happiness, humor, love, family, music, death, etc.) They need not be from this class. After each, include a short paragraph of your commentary on it.
The students email me the link to their blog, I reply with brief comments and a grade. The benefits here are perfect: they get to use technology, and I get to run a useful review activity at the end of the year…with no papers to grade!