Commonplace Book Assignment


Commonplace Book Assignment


Andie Silva, York College/CUNY


Students were asked to keep a commonplace book throughout the semester, and particularly encouraged to use it as a space to resist and push back against the curriculum and interrogate the Eurocentric narratives prominent in medieval and Early Modern literature anthologies. In order to encourage this work, I included "creative intervention/resistance" as part of my assessment rubric (you can find it here) and kept my own commonplace book as a model. I used my book as a space to provide additional readings and references to medieval and Early Modern works and contexts outside of England/Europe. For example, when we were reading Beowulf I added images and links about knighthood cultures in the Middle East and Japan. During our discussions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales I shared links about oral storytelling traditions and used this as an entry point to discuss with students the ways canonic literature privileges writing-based cultures and to consider how our focus on printed books often centers on Western, white, and male authors and reinforces Colonial narratives through the erasure of native traditions.

Keeping this book became increasingly challenging as the semester progressed, and I admit I did not use it as consistently as I would have liked. In the future, I plan to integrate it more closely with my lecture notes, particularly in hybrid classes where I might ask students to contribute comments or links. Students interpreted the call to resist in a number of fascinating ways: for instance, one student centered her book around iterations of motherhood and even asked her young son to contribute doodles; another student focused on gender and class issues, researching African women and social class structures outside of England. Not all students curated their books with this kind of decolonizing goal in mind, but every student brought their own values and interests to their work, effectively taking ownership of our readings and finding spaces to make those texts work for them and even reflect their experiences, backgrounds, and stories.

This assignment works best when undertaken as a semester-long project. This means scheduling regular times for students to submit their works in progress and receive feedback. Most of the assignments in the course can be used to feed into the commonplace book, if the instructor should wish to do so. For instance, students can use class time to exchange books; low- and high-stakes writing assignments might ask students to either reflect on their work or build an argument based on ideas or quotes they recorded in their books; and responses or close-readings might be submitted via the commonplace book rather than another platform. This will help the instructor minimize additional work and avoid adding one more time-consuming project on top of all other assignments in the course. Check-ins can be done quickly, however, or in groups of 3-4 during office hours. In my course I established one week a month when students had to complete a “checkpoint” and show me their commonplace book, but they could do this in their own time either by coming to office hours, chatting in my office immediately before or after class, or emailing me links. I kept a document with all the students names and columns for each checkpoint, which made it easier to give them credit quickly and effectively. Although this process might seem a bit to scattered for some, it meant that I was not looking through 25 commonplace books at once each month.


Type of course: Lower Level; Upper Level; Literature Survey; In-Person; Hybrid


Andie Silva, York College/CUNY, “Commonplace Book Assignment,” Teaching the Middle Ages in Higher Ed, accessed October 30, 2020,

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