In eighteenth-century America, readers from Thomas Jefferson and William Byrd II to Milcah Martha Moore and John Adams copied out notable extracts from the books that they read into their own journals, often called commonplace books. This “commonplacing” helped readers to remember and make sense of the information and knowledge that proliferated in that era of expanding print culture.
A few years ago, an article in “The Chronicle” suggested having students compile their own commonplace books. This idea immediately appealed to me as a print culture historian. I wondered whether commonplacing, an early modern reading practice, could help students in the digital age make sense of their reading? So, I tested out the commonplace book assignment in a first-year history course two years ago and have since modified it. Since most students have engaged with the assignment in fruitful ways and the results pleased me, I wanted to share the assignment here.
At the beginning of the course, I told students that they must buy a reading journal. I specified that it should be something different than the spiral notebooks in which they typically take class notes, but added that if their finances were constrained, they should just buy a regular notebook. Most students bought something unique. In fact, the first time all the students brought their commonplace books to class, it was exhilarating to see the wide array of journal covers and styles that the students had chosen, each one reflecting the students’ individuality.
Over the course of the academic year, students read a combination of primary and secondary sources from Camilla Townsend’s “Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma,” to the writings of Alexander Hamilton, and Frederick Douglass’s narrative. In response to a specific reading (a source or a chapter), I instructed students to write out 3-5 unfamiliar vocabulary words, to look up the definitions in a dictionary and record them, and to copy out another 3-5 memorable sentences, quotations, passages, and extracts that intrigued them. Sometimes I also asked students to reflect on what they learned from the reading that was new or a question that remained unanswered.
I emphasized that the commonplace book was not a pedantic exercise, but a practical one. Book historian Robert Danton explained how in the early modern era “reading and writing were … inseparable activities;” they “belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things.” I wanted the commonplace books to serve as a similar bridge between reading and writing for my students. The commonplace book represented the foundation for everything else they’d do in class — preparing for class discussions, team work presentations, and essays. One student took this instruction to heart when he wrote on the first page of his book that “Commonplace books are to record what you read for your use [emphasis his].”
Students’ commonplace books exceeded my expectations. ( I even enjoyed grading them!) When I read through their entries on Douglass’s narrative, the well-chosen passages inscribed into their books captured the essential brutality of the institution of slavery as well as Douglass’s growing desire for freedom. In writing down Douglass’s words, students did more than merely copy them onto the page. They distilled a few hundred pages of text into a few dozen quotations. “There were no beds given the slaves, unless, one coarse blanket be considered such,” one student recorded in her journal. Reading through all these sentences and extracts recorded into the students’ commonplace books gave me a new perspective on Douglass’s narrative, an account I’ve read several times in the past. It illustrated the powerful testimony embedded in each word and sentence of Douglass’s narrative to the cruelty and deprivation of slavery and to his unrelenting desire for freedom.
Having the students track new vocabulary in their commonplace books proved another valuable part of the assignment. They highlighted words like “obduracy,” “concomitant,” and “avarice.” It was even useful for me as the instructor to see that the students considered some words like “blasphemy” and “schism” unfamiliar, a good reminder that first-year students’ vocabularies are often not as deep as one might expect. This part of the assignment enabled students to expand their vocabulary in a deliberate way, illustrating the obvious connection between reading and vocabulary development.
From evaluating the commonplace books, I gained insight into not only students’ engagement with the reading but also their intellectual development. It was fun reading some of my students’ reactions, including that of a student who described a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler as “swoon-worthy.” The commonplace book provided a space for students to record their first impressions. Subsequent assignments forced them to develop these ideas and think about them more systematically.
As I have developed the assignment over two years, I have used the commonplace books as a space for students to track their learning and thinking. At the beginning of a unit, I’ll ask students to brainstorm what and how they know about a subject such as slavery. During that unit, students will record their reading and their reflections in the pages of the commonplace book, and at the end, I’ll ask them to brainstorm what they’ve learned. One one page, after answering one of these brainstorm questions, a student left the rest of the page blank, and wrote in pencil: “SPACE RESERVED TO WRITE MORE THOUGHTS AND SEE IF I CHANGE MY MIND ABOUT THAT IN A COUPLE OF YEARS.” At its best, the commonplace book assignment helps students see that their learning is a dynamic and ongoing process. It enables them to take ownership of their education, helping them to judge information while figuring out what is valuable to them.
As with all work, some students put greater effort into their commonplace books than others, but most students went beyond the instructions of the assignment. Students added their names to the book. One student on her title page wrote “Property of [name],” making ownership clear. Another student added a table of contents. Another pasted in the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,” which we discussed in class. Others pasted in ticket stubs from the performances they had seen at the Utah Shakespeare Festival or the Utah Symphony. Some added in notes from guest lectures they had attended, such as a book talk by historian Spencer McBride on campus, or a TED talk they watched such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story.” They added illustrations and diagrams from their biology and physics classes, as well as their own doodles and drawings. They recorded memorable quotes from their professors too. Ultimately, each commonplace book became a material artifact that preserved not only their learning from one history class, but also memories from their first year of university.
From the design of the notebooks they chose to the inscriptions and markings they made in them, the commonplace books reflected students’ own intellectual journeys. Writing about early modern readers who kept commonplace books, Robert Darnton asserted that in the early modern era “by keeping an account of your reading, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.” By the end of the year, my students had done this. And, I relished reviewing their reading experiences, as I graded their books. As I perused the pages, students’ intellectual development unfolded before me in books of their own making.
For research on commonplace books in the early modern era, see Kevin Joel Berland, Jan Kirsten Gillam, Kenneth A. Lockridge, eds., “The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover.” (Chapel Hill, 2001); Catherine La Courreye Blecki and Karin A. Wulf, eds., “Milcah Martha Moore’s Book: A Commonplace Book from Revolutionary America.” (Penn State, 2007); Kenneth A. Lockridge, “On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century.” (New York, 1994)
For the best overview of commonplace books in the eighteenth century, see David Allan, “Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England.” (Cambridge, 2010)
For the article that suggested using commonplace books in the classroom, see James M. Lang, “Small Changes in Teaching: Making Connections,” February 08, 2016: “The Chronicle of higher Education”: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-/235230
The two quotations from Dartnon are found in: Robert Darnton, “The Case For Books: Past, Present, and Future.” (New York, 2009)