• Nick Miller

Building a Digital Commonplace Book Project

With the fall semester behind me, I am beginning to look ahead to new courses I will be teaching in the spring. One of those courses, a world literature survey that is part of the general education requirements here at Valdosta State University, will mark my first time assigning a commonplace book project to my students. Being that this is a new course as well as a new assignment for me, I wanted to write through some of my thoughts below.

This course is officially titled "World Literature II: The Age of Discovery," although I certainly have no interest in the colonizing assumptions that undergird its subtitle. Its historical scope runs from roughly 700 CE to 1700 CE, or what is often referred to as "The Middle Ages" and "The Renaissance." The course is already fully enrolled with thirty-five students, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about potential assignments. The standard move in these courses is to assign readings, discussion forums, quizzes, and exams that test a students' ability to recall or retain content. For a core class made up of mostly non-majors, however, I am not convinced that such assignments benefit the students. Instead, I want to design a series of assignments that will foreground engagement over execution or expertise.

To this end, I am giving students four assignments over the course of the semester that have been organized into the practices of participation, engagement, reflection, and synthesis. More specifically, students will watch a short video each week that frames their upcoming readings and introduces key concepts (participation), will annotate their readings digitally on the Perusall platform (engagement), will write brief micro-essays for each unit (reflection), and submit a digital commonplace book as a final project (synthesis). The idea here is that each assignment builds toward the next: the videos will give students ideas to look for, the annotations will help students identify and make meaning out of key passages, the essays will help them to reflect on the themes in each unit, and the final project will allow them to synthesize these themes across a semester's worth of material. If you want to look at the course and assignment descriptions I have put together, you can find the syllabus here.

Most of these assignments are familiar to my students, as they are staples of how I teach my online, asynchronous courses. But the final project will be new for them and for me. I have seen (and have even borrowed language from) several examples of commonplace book assignments posted online, but I have never attempted one in my own classes. I decided to do so next semester, however, for two primary reasons: 1) there is something wonderfully early modern about the practice of commonplacing, especially when you consider that we will be reading from The Pillow Book as the semester ends, and 2) it allows my students to be co-collaborators in identifying the key themes and ideas of this course. You see, one of the struggles students sometimes have with survey courses is the lack of a clear narrative trajectory or a lack of key concepts that help them to connect one reading to another. It is for this reason that I often teach explicitly thematized versions of this course; themes provide them with footholds when they are struggling to make sense of the more difficult readings. Being that this course is not thematized in that way, it is my hope that students will be able to use the commonplace book project to identify and articulate themes along the way.

I have selected a quotation by Geoffrey Whitney as an introduction to the project:

The use, not the reading of books, makes us wise.

What this (hopefully) signals is that I am less interested in the ability of my students to recall or retain what they read this semester than in their ability to put those readings to use. If nothing else, then, students should leave my class with increased confidence in their ability to read "books" and to create meaning from them. That said, one challenge we will face this semester is the fact that we are not reading any physical books at all. Instead, the readings for the semester are being placed online where they will be read and annotated digitally. It is for that reason that I have chosen to assign them a digital commonplace book.

Considering that my students have likely never heard of commonplace books before, much less digital commonplace books, I think it will be necessary to provide them with a handful of models that take advantage of contemporary technologies and social media platforms. My students will be given maximum flexibility in terms of how they develop their projects, but I know that it would also be helpful for them to see a couple of examples. I am currently working on one such example via Pinterest, which you can find here. The goal, as you can see, is to locate key passages, reflect on those passages, and organize them into themes or categories. Instead of testing them on their knowledge as the semester ends, this project will give them a chance to reflect on and synthesize the work they have already done.

Again, I have never given students this assignment before, so I will have to report back when the spring semester comes to a close. But I am open to any and all thoughts before then!

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