This assignment, developed for a course on Shakespeare’s Early Plays and Sonnets, asks students to create their own Commonplace Book, both a text in itself and a collection of others’ texts, encouraging them to think about reading practices in old and new forms of media.
Readers in the early modern period typically produced “Commonplace Books,” in which they would take the best examples of wisdom and style from their reading and copy them into a “table book” or notebook of their own for easy access and recall. Writers would copy out by hand, with pens and ink, the fragments or portions of what other writers and scribes had copied or written with the same, or they would take the words that compositors, typesetters, printers, and book sellers had produced as commodities for sale, and from them make a personal account, an anthology—not words to buy, but words to live by, to revisit and add on to. It seems to me that there is no better way to teach students about the consumption of literary works and textual forms than to have them assemble their own Commonplace books. The (decidedly-first draft) prompt below asks students to design books that assemble passages from Shakespeare’s works for somewhat different purposes. Prior to completing the assignment, students had already been reading The Norton Shakespeare, which provides a fairly good sense of the pervasiveness of manuals in circulation during the period that imparted the names and desired effects of devices and figures for aspirant poets. Students also read Adam Hooks’ blog post and Alan Jacobs’ article on Commonplace books, which are accessible for undergraduates and excellent for reinforcing the command to be active readers and learners. My creation and subsequent introduction of the prompt owes a great deal to these texts.
Rationale and Results My desire to create such an assignment was motivated in part by boredom with the short close reading papers I have assigned over several years. Those papers aimed to help students learn about more sophisticated elements of language than the basic literary devices they learned in high school, asking them to recognize those elements and show how they work to create meaning. Although I think that goal remains sound and important, and although I typically change the works on my syllabus every semester, I grew accustomed to the kinds of claims students made in these papers and began to feel I could predict every single passage they would cite as evidence simply from reading their first paragraph. While I could see that they were learning in their writing, I stopped feeling as if I was when I read their work. I wanted a new assignment that would require similar kinds of analysis, but would force them to read Shakespeare and talk about his works in ways that were fresh—to them, but also to me. More substantively, I wanted an assignment that would allow me to emphasize the technologies of textual dissemination that literally were bound up through the media of paper-transmission and print, and that remediated texts by binding them together with others and shaped their meanings anew. I was ultimately pleased with the assignment and the work students produced in fulfilling it. I could continue to assess their ability to identify devices and aesthetic features of Shakespeare’s works, while also encouraging them to recognize the important role they play as readers in discerning and constructing the relationship between literary form and meaning. I required them to submit their books through anti-plagiarism software, but encouraged them to produce work in forms that captured the design or spirit of the early modern books using 21st century technologies; in addition to keeping their book on a blog or Tumblr, they could make use of other online tools such as Voyant or Wordle and add images as well as screen shots of hand-written scrawls. They could also play with font choices and typeface, using a variety of markers and visual cues to demarcate the borders of literary works and their own literary criticism. As a result, the projects were interesting to look at and reflected students’ personal stylistic and aesthetic choices in addition to their mindfulness about the implications of such choices. Not every student produced sophisticated, analytical prose, of course, but I did find that every project bore witness to the labor students put into their reading. Looking forward, I hope to figure out a better way to address the word-count requirements set by my university without specifying a required page length for the assignment. Many of my students found the prompt’s wording on this subject confusing and others exceeded the 6 to 8 page range—a response in keeping with our discussions in class, but technically in defiance of the prompt as written. Ultimately, I’d like my assignment prompt to be clearer and less dense than it is currently, even as it remains insufficient for conveying necessary information. (It had to be supplemented by additional documents explaining how the project would be graded, how to submit it, how to cite some of the trickier works in our textbook, and how a sample entry would look.) I also believe this draft of the assignment erred in emphasizing the need for cohesion. In class, I found myself back-tracking on what I had written about the option to organize passage around themes in the assignment prompt. When I teach it again, I will revise the draft and encourage students to produce books that are, in fact, more idiosyncratic. Regardless, with the work I received this semester, I’m excited to try it again.
- Article by Zachary Lesser and Peter Stallybrass, “The First Literary Hamlet and the Commonplacing of Professional Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly 59.4 (2008): 371-420. OCLC 701876560. Available online here.
- Link to a Commonplace Book created on Pinterest by student, Anna Watts, who has granted permission for its inclusion in my description.
About the Author
Vimala Pasupathi is an Associate Professor of English at Hofstra University. Her work on early modern literature and culture appears in journals such as ELH, Modern Philology,Shakespeare, and Early Theatre, as well as in edited collections, most recently Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers (Ashgate, 2013). She is currently finishing a book on the militia in early modern English history and drama.