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Blog 243

Blog 243

Commonplace Book Assignments: Using Commonplacing in the Literature Classroom

By Cheryl Cowdy and Natalie Neill

“A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading” (

A commonplace book is a notebook that contains extracts from and reflections on one’s readings. It is part reading journal, part book of quotations. It is a treasury of passages, notes, and other copied fragments. Since the Renaissance, readers have used commonplace books to gather excerpts and ideas. John Milton kept a commonplace book in which he collected quotations that he later incorporated into his epic poem, Paradise Lost. As such, the commonplace book could serve as an aide-mémoire and a repository of learning. 

Teachers are beginning to recognize the pedagogical value of commonplacing, especially within the context of English literature classrooms. Below we describe the commonplace book assignments we have used with success in our recent courses. We hope that some of you will feel inspired to create similar assignments for your courses.

CCY 3998 Commonplace Book Assignment

When Scott McLaren and I (Cheryl) first started co-teaching CCY 3998, “The Child & the Book: Children’s Literature Research Methods,” we wanted to create an assignment that would encourage students to document their research, reading, and close examination of historical books in the Children’s Literature Collection of the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections. This was the first practical purpose of our idea to have them keep a commonplace book, but we soon recognized that the assignment offers students the opportunity to think about how their commonplace books function as a kind of personal archive and as a curatorial practice.  When the commonplace books are submitted at the end of year, we encourage students to reflect on their ongoing entries and to imagine their own books as artefacts kept in an archive: what might their books reveal about their cultural and reading practices to researchers one hundred years from now? 

While preparing the assignment, I’ve come across a few resources I share with students to inspire them. I love this blog post by Katie Bergen for its appeal to the pleasures of curiosity and reading famous people’s commonplace books. Bergen draws analogies between the commonplace book and more contemporary records of our digital everyday lives in a way that helps make the assignment relatable to students (“Did you ever want to go through John Milton’s browser history?” she asks). I found myself digging around online for examples of some of my favourite authors’ commonplace books. Of course, this one by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) is not only fascinating, but relevant to a course on children’s literature. 

In the assignment guidelines, we allow students to decide whether to keep a physical book or to experiment with digital tools. Since the course is also concerned with the book as a material object, we challenge them to think about what material features would be notable to future researchers – whether they keep a physical or a virtual commonplace book. Both formats seem to work equally well, as these examples show. In retrospect, it’s fascinating how many students meaningfully made sense of their cultural selves during the pandemic through the keeping of their commonplace books. I particularly love how this student used their commonplace book to give readers insight into their “academic life,” as “a 22-year old queer person in Toronto,” documenting other media they consumed, all in the context of the “political climate” that year. Last summer, when I brought a small group of students to conduct research in Dublin, Ireland for a study abroad version of the course, the commonplace books became especially beautiful records of the students’ travel experiences as well. (Thanks to all the students who allowed me to share their lovely commonplace books!).

EN 3560 Commonplace Book Extra Credit Assignment

“The English Romantics” (EN 3560) is a course that I (Natalie) have taught many times. It is one of my favourite courses, not only because I’m so fond of Romantic literature but also because I’ve found that undergraduate students respond well to the texts of this period… radical pamphlets, sublime nature poetry, shocking Gothic novels: what’s not to love about the Romantics? In the most recent iteration of the course, I wanted to give my students an optional assignment to help them engage with the course material and boost their participation mark. I landed on the idea of commonplacing as a fun, low-stakes extra credit activity. In the early weeks of the course, I told my students about the assignment, and I explained that, while it was completely optional, they might find it enjoyable and useful: at the end of the course, the commonplace book would be a “souvenir” of the texts and ideas they’d found most engaging; the commonplace book would also be a valuable aid as they worked on their essays and reviewed for the final test.

I talked to my students about the history of commonplace books. I explained that the commonplace book became a highly personal form of expression in the Romantic Period. Romantic readers copied down passages they found moving, amusing, or morally elevating. The Romantic commonplace book was a source of inspiration and a tool of contemplation. I was delighted that many (indeed most) of the students were persuaded to try their hand at commonplacing. And I found that, just like Robert Burns, Dorothy Wordsworth, Elizabeth Rose, and other authors of commonplace books in the period, my students created very personal books. Throughout the year, I often began class discussions by asking students which assigned reading they had found most interesting. Had they copied any quotations into their commonplace books? The commonplace books thus provided us with excellent conversation starters and an occasion for students to share the passages they found intriguing or meaningful. It was clear that commonplacing helped my students to read more closely and feel more closely connected with what they were reading.

At the end of the year, the students shared images of their wonderful books (some manuscript, some digital) on an eClass discussion forum I had created for this purpose. You can see just a few examples here, here, here, and here. Like Cheryl and Scott, I included a reflective component. In my students’ short reflections, they described the benefits of the exercise. One student wrote, “The process made me feel like I am preserving a part of the poets and writers and making it mine.” Another commented: “I’ve learned that not only was I more actively engaged with the material, but I also found that keeping a commonplace book helped me to retain more of what I read. When I came back to the book later, I could easily find the passages that I had highlighted and revisit my own thoughts.” A third student mused, “I opted for a physical book because I find that so much of my work is done digitally, that it allowed me to unwind, and practice my penmanship again. I found myself really enjoying keeping a Commonplace Book, and I think it might be a practice I’ll have to implement in my personal reading habits.” Overall, the exercise was worthwhile for the students – it deepened their interest in our readings, helped them to remember what they’d read, and gave them a chance to increase their final mark. That is success in my book! I will certainly experiment with commonplace book assignments in future courses, and we hope that this blog post encourages you to do so, too.

About the Authors

Cheryl Cowdy is an Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director in the Department of Humanities. She teaches in the Children, Childhood and Youth program, focusing on children’s literature research methods with Humanities librarian, Scott McLaren (CCY 3998), and an honours research project (CCY 4998). Together with Professor Alison Halsall, she created the new Children’s Literature Certificate. She recently taught a summer abroad version of the research methods course, taking a group of undergraduate students to Dublin, Ireland to explore special collections of children’s books in that city. Her research interests include the intersections between children’s literature and childhood and youth studies, with a particular focus on historical Canadian children’s literatures and suburban literature. 

Headshot of Cheryl Cowdy

Natalie Neill is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Department of English, where she teaches introductory literature courses and upper-year courses in nineteenth-century literature. Her research interests include Romantic-period literature, the Gothic, transmedia adaptation, and satire. She has recently edited an edition of Mary Charlton’s 1799 Gothic parody, Rosella; or Modern Occurrences for Routledge. This summer she will take a group of undergraduates to England for “Romantics en Route,” a 3000-level study abroad course about Romantic literary production, reception, and tourism.

Headshot of Natalie Neill