Commonplace Book Assignment

The Commonplace Book

As you will learn this semester, early modern readers often copied and altered quotes from their reading and put them into Commonplace Books for easy access and remembrance. Alongside quotes, these readers would write poetry, ideas, receipts, and even recipes. Alan Jacobs has compared these books to Tumblrs; we might see them also as Pinterest-Instagram-Facebook combos: they offer a place to keep ideas and to shape one’s own (sometimes) public persona.

Your final project for the class will be the culmination of a series of regular, and primarily self-monitored creative and close-reading exercises that you will work on over the course of the entire semester. In its final form, your Commonplace Book will consist of at least one entry for ten weeks’ worth of assigned primary texts from your textbook. How you engage with our readings will be entirely up to you! Your goals are to create a final project that ticks off most of Adam Smyth’s 16 Traits for Commonplace Books (see below) and, most importantly, shows off your critical growth throughout the term.

Note: I too will be keeping a commonplace book this term! I’m using the Commons (you can, too) and you can follow my adventures by finding the link on the menu (under Commonplace Book)


  1. First, you will want to decide on the FORMAT of your book. You need to decide whether you’re going analog (i.e. using pen and paper) or digital (using an online tool like a blog, Tumblr, Twitter, etc). It will be difficult to switch formats down the line, so choose wisely in regards to your comfort and creativity level.
  2. Form a HABIT. It will be hard at first to remember to commonplace regularly. Our aim is to, like Adam Hooks taught us, “Read like a Renaissance Reader.” The best way to get used to this is to a) choose a format you already use and enjoy and b) always read our assignments with your commonplace book at hand. You will find that “playing catch up” and trying to create too many entries at once will not only hurt your grade but make your book look lazy and haphazard.
  3. Copy and ANALYZE. Whereas early compilers tended to copy down what they believed contained exemplary wisdom or beauty, you will be looking for passages that are compelling for the way their diction, form, structure, and (trans)historical/cultural relevance. You can and are encouraged to use this book as a journal to keep track of your readings, interests, and questions. Because this book will be somewhat PUBLIC, however, keep in mind that writing is often a type of RHETORICAL PERFORMANCE: you’re trying to showcase your thoughtfulness, wit, and creativity.
  4. Keep track of CHECKPOINTS. Check the schedule to see when you will be required to showcase your work and discuss it with me. Your goals for each checkpoint are:
    1. CP #1: Your Book should exist and have at least a couple of entries
    2. CP #2: You should have started thinking about recurring themes, motifs, or points of analysis
    3. CP #3: You will be asked to contribute to another peer’s commonplace book (what you add is up to you, but this should be a substantial contribution, not just a “great job” comment)
    4. CP #4: In-person office hours appointment to discuss how your project is wrapping up, plans for completion/revision, and reflection drafts


You will be asked to turn in a short reflection draft (3 pages, roughly 700 words) upon your final checkpoint outlining and analyzing the three most productive/creative/analytical entries in your Commonplace Book. Regardless of how many direct quotes you used throughout the book (I expect you’ll have a few if you use your book to take reading notes), your reflection must make direct reference to our readings. Because you are required to write analytical commentary for your work, you must aim to demonstrate with it that you have been reading with deep engagement and effort throughout the semester. You must, therefore, not only have a rationale for your choices, but also provide an explicit explanation of that rationale in clear prose.

Upon submission of our completed Commonplace Book, you will be asked to turn in a revised and expanded version of this reflection, which will introduce your book, explain your goals (at the start, and how they evolved over time), analyze three entries in detail, and offer a conclusion. Your conclusion should offer observations about what your passages have taught you about medieval and early modern literature, and reflects upon your reading practices and how they have changed as the semester progressed.

You’re encouraged to be flexible, playful, and even (on occasion) mindless about what you include in your book. But there are a few guiding rules:

  • your book should contain passages from or critical notes/questions about at least one reading from every week of the term
  • at least 2 of your entries should be annotated close-readings (you can take a picture of your notes or print a fresh copy of the text to annotate and include in your book) which demonstrate that you are able to correctly identify a wide variety of literary devices and that you can recognize and “unpack” complex metaphors, conceits, and motifs, as well as the images, ideas, and meanings they construct
  • as a whole, your entries should show that you have thought about the assigned works independently, and that you are not relying solely on class discussions and others’ insights to develop your own set of
  • Be creative! Showcase your originality. Don’t just have written text in your book. Think about images, sounds, colors, and photos.
  • You can, and are encouraged to, keep adding to and revising old entries as you go. Find ways to draw connections across text, put quotes in context or compare authors to others in the period.


Your Commonplace Book will be evaluated according to Smyth’s 16 Traits of Commonplace Books. An A-level final Commonplace Book will attend to:

  • Critical interventions (traits #2), or your ability to interact with the texts, showcase your own voice, and demonstrate your capacity for critical thinking
  • (Dis)Order (traits #5, 6, 9), or your ability to find common threads, themes, and issues among your notes and observations, and to restructure or organize your book accordingly (this may be accomplished digitally through categories on a website, adding separate notebooks on Evernote, reordering, tagging your notebook with post-its, moving pages around in a binder, creating new boards on Pinterest, etc)
  • Creative interventions/resistance (traits #7, 8, 11), or your ability to rework the texts we read to make them your own (examples include cutting and pasting, writing poetry/text that responds to the reading; curating photos/images related to the text; illustrating narratives; making soundtracks; etc)
  • Collaboration (trait #12), or your ability to intervene in each other’s work and challenge your peers. This will be done at least once this term (see our schedule) but you may do it as often as you and your classmates wish (just make sure you tag/sign your interventions)
  • Materiality (trait #15), or your attention to detail in making and keeping your commonplace book. This includes thinking through design elements like the theme of your site, the balance of image, text, and original work in your Pinterest/Evernote, using colorful pens, stickies, stickers in your notebook, etc.
  • Reflection (trait #14), or your ability to critically evaluate your own work. You will be asked to perform a few check-ins throughout the term and to write a longer reflection at the end of the semester to accompany your book.

Rubric (total: 300 points):

  • 150  points: completed commonplace book, including a variety of entries that combine critical thinking, creativity, and organization, showcasing the student’s learning and dedication to the course throughout the term. See particulars above.
  • 100 points:  student’s reflection draft and revised, expanded version showcase an ability to identify key historical, cultural, and literary contexts for our assigned readings. Student demonstrates meta-cognition by critically examining their own work as it developed throughout the term.
  • 50 points: checkpoint submissions attend to minimum requirements and demonstrate student’s continued engagement with the project. Student makes adjustments and revisions to the project as needed according to instructor feedback


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