Teaching with Commonplace Books in the Age of #RelatableContent

I wrote and classroom-tested my first Commonplace Book assignment in the Spring of 2012. At this point in my career as a professor, I had taught a course called “Shakespeare’s Early Plays” every semester for six years, and was ready for a change in how I approached close reading in my class. The commonplace book assignment I wrote to replace the traditional literary analysis proved to be one of my most generative and successful experiments in twenty years of college teaching, though I didn’t know it when I initially described the assignment in a short essay, published in 2014 in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.[i] The present essay is a follow-up to that piece that provides a more substantive explanation of how I developed my commonplace book assignment within my specific institutional context as well as a complement to the pedagogical benefits and challenges of teaching with commonplace books expressed by other essays in the present volume.

Without discounting the claims that assignments of this nature enable a historicist study of early modern reading practices and material culture, I want to acknowledge the tricky-ness of the concept of sententiae that is integral to these texts’ name and production. I will explore what I began to think of as the Scylla and Charybdis of teaching with a commonplace book assignment: the readily available but fraught links between early modern commonplace culture and late-capitalist internet culture, and the adjacent danger of reducing literary texts to highly subjective notions of “relatability.” Reflecting on the factors that conditioned my original sense of the potential pitfalls of these assignments, I describe my effort to develop an assignment that would empower individual readers across time and cultures to identify recurring features within early modern texts while discouraging their identification with characters’ experiences and aphoristic content.

[i] “The Commonplace Book Assignment,” The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/the-commonplace-book-assignment/ 11 March 2014.