On Commonplacing

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a few commonplace books, journals, and scrapbooks strewn across an oak desk.png

I’m just reading a new and fascinating book by Jillian Hess: How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information. In it, Hess examines the tradition of commonplace books—“a system of collecting quotations and other bits of information for personal use”—arguing that the tradition “continued to structure literary practice throughout the nineteenth century [and] facilitated engagement among commonplacing and associated traditions, especially the scrapbook and album” (3). 

I hope to write more about this book when I have been able to absorb it carefully. But for now I want to suggest that writing classes might well introduce students to this tradition (it’s quite possible that some of their grandparents kept commonplace books of their own, perhaps with another name). Some students may already be keeping such collections—in diaries or journals, for instance. In Black or Right: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics, Louis Maraj writes extensively about hashtagging, relating it to the commonplace tradition and making a strong case for including it in our writing curricula. Hess comments on the commonplace tradition’s ability to evolve “to fit new epistemic virtues and technological capabilities”—so, not much of a stretch from commonplacing to hashtagging after all!

In a time of information overload, when students are overwhelmed with what amounts to an onslaught of data every day of their lives, an act like commonplacing (or hashtagging) calls on them to be carefully selective, to choose pieces or bits of information that are worthy of being remembered and perhaps studied—or perhaps simply enjoyed for their inspiration or consolation.

So, here's an assignment idea: begin with engaging students in discussion of what topics, ideas, or questions they see as important enough to devote a collection to, then ask them to brainstorm criteria for selection together. Then, ask them to spend a week looking for and collecting quotations, images, snippets of podcasts or videos, pieces of music—whatever they find that brings their topic or idea to life. Finally, ask students to present their collections, explaining how and where they found the entries and how the entries, taken together, illuminate the topic or idea. The presentations should be wide open in terms of language and style, inviting students to connect to their audience in the way that seems most suited to who they are and how they want to represent themselves—and their ideas.

I’d surely like to be in class to listen to and enjoy their work, and I hope that at least some students may choose to continue commonplacing; it turns out to be a very good way to learn and to transfer learning from one situation to another.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.