What is a Commonplace Book?

Commonplace books have a long history going back at least as far as the Renaissance. Traditionally, they are a way to compile knowledge for the writer’s own intellectual enrichment. They have been filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator’s particular interests.

By the early eighteenth century they had become an information management device in which a note-taker stored quotations, observations and definitions. They were even used by influential scientists.

You might think that a commonplace book sounds a lot like a diary, but there are some important differences. In 1706, the philosopher John Locke wrote that commonplace books contain “techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, [and] speeches.” Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”

Why do I have to keep a Commonplace Book in WRIT 100/101?

The Commonplace Book you’ll put together this semester is a devoted space for sustained reflection on your first-semester writing experience. You’ll use your Commonplace Book as a space to collect and unpack ideas independent of the essays and projects you have to submit for each unit. Hopefully, the book will help you develop a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be an academic writer. As the writer, you will have full agency over the space. Your teacher will give you prompts and guidelines to work from, but you have ownership over what you write, how you write it, and how you contextualize it.

In a typical writing classes, you might have a tendency to write a paper, submit it for a grade, and forget about it. Regardless of the grade you might have received, you learned something from writing that paper, but unless you reflect (and write about that reflection), there’s a good chance that you’ll lose a lot of what you learned over time. The Commonplace Book gives you a place to put all of your reflections. Because of the nature of blogs, you will also be able to use tags, categories, and links to analyze trends in your reflective practice over time.


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