Teaching Materials

Originally assigned in COMM 3011: “Media, Medicine, and the Arts of Mortality” (Fall 2023) at the Annenberg School for Communication


Throughout the course, each of you will design and compose a commonplace book about [topic]. A commonplace book is both akin to and distinct from a notebook, scrapbook, annotated bibliography, journal, miscellany, and Wunderkammer. In our case, it’ll be a compendium of quotations from scholarship and literature, links, clips, commentary and analysis, memes, screenshots, photographs, and other materials collected from both course materials and other encounters with [topic].

What is a Commonplace Book?


A passage of text considered to be generally relevant or appropriate, which may serve as the basis for a discourse or discussion; a topic suitable to the purpose of a rhetorician. historical after 17th cent.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “commonplace, n.², sense 1.a.,” July 2023.

Commonplace Book

a collection of commonplaces…a book or scrapbook into which interesting quotations, extracts, etc., are copied for personal reference.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “commonplace book, n.,” July 2023.


  • Creating a commonplace book will give you space to refine and collate your interests; make connections across course materials, the rest of the world, and the rest of your life; and recall, organize, synthesize, and build on your ideas over time.
  • Sharing and browsing each other’s commonplace books will spur insights and collaborations, helping you develop final project ideas and organize final project groups.
  • The commonplace book can function as a collection of takeaways from the course.


  • You can assemble your commonplace book in any format you like, digital or print, as long as it’s semi-routinely accessible to other members of the class and the instructor. We’ll discuss possible format options in class.
  • A commonplace book should be well-organized and well-selected: it’s not a chronological repository or a complete dump of every note you take and every idea you have. It’s also not a research paper, with a single, focused argument. Rather, it’s a structured collection of materials, commentary/analysis, and connections between materials that should be coherent and comprehensible to others (and your future self).
  • Cite sources clearly but don’t worry too much about citation format. It should be possible for a reader to identify and track down where everything came from, but commas vs. periods vs. colons aren’t important.
  • When you paste a link, image, quotation, or other reference, make sure to include some indication of why you added it. This could take the form of written analysis or description; it could also take the form of some organizational principle (e.g., placing a quotation under a topical heading to demonstrate its significance).
  • You’ll submit your commonplace book at the end of the course.

Scholarly Characterizations of Commonplace Books

Notes can take many forms—oral, written, or electronic. At its deepest level, whatever the medium, note taking involves variations on and combinations of a few basic maneuvers, which I propose to identify as the four Ss: storing, sorting, summarizing, and selecting. (85)

Francis Bacon outlined the two principal methods of note taking [ . . . ] The first method, epitome or abridgment, entails summarizing or paraphrasing the original text or texts. These notes, generally presented in the order of the text from which they were produced, are often called adversaria. The second method is to select passages of interest for their content or their style, which are copied and sorted under a thematic or topical heading to facilitate retrieval. These categories and the notes that correspond to them are usually called commonplaces. Bacon favored the latter as “of far more profit, and use.” (87)

Ann Blair, “Note Taking as an Art of Transmission,” Critical Inquiry 31, No. 1 (2004).

Many stockpiled notes with the idea of helping not only themselves but also contemporaries and descendants. Commonplace books especially were meant to be passed on within a family.

Ann Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 86.

In this method of reading (which I will call the method of commonplaces) one selects passages of interest for the rhetorical turns of phrase, the dialectical arguments, or the factual information they contain; one then copies them out in a note book, the commonplace book, kept handy for the purpose, grouping them under appropriate headings to facilitate later retrieval and use, notably in composing prose of one’s own. (541)

In sorting incoming information, the commonplace book offers opportunities for new critical confrontation of material; on the other hand the indefinite multiplication of separate headings can easily harbor contradictions which seem to belie the very critical faculties demonstrated elsewhere. As a tool for composition which opens many possibilities but requires none in particular, the commonplace book is supremely tolerant of cognitive dissonance. (547-548)

Ann Blair, “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 4 (1992).

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

All the keepers of commonplace books, from Drake to Madan, read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns. The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it, not by elaborating theories but by imposing form on matter. Commonplacing was like quilting: it produced pictures, some more beautiful than others, but each of them interesting in its own way. The assembled texts reveal patterns of culture: the segments that went into it, the stitching that connected them, the tears that pulled them apart, and the common cloth of which they were composed.

Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000.

In-Class Exercise

Part 1: Full-Class Discussion of Commonplace Book Examples

Sarah Cowper’s Commonplace Book (1673), Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies

Sarah Cowper, “Contempt of Death” (1673)

Amy Matilda Cassey, Library Company of Philadelphia Friendship Album Project

Friendship album compiled 1833-1856 by Philadelphia, middle-class, African American social activist Amy Matilda Cassey (1808-1856). Cassey was a member of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society, founder of the African American coeducation literary and scientific society the Gilbert Lyceum, and active in the temperance movement. Volume contains entries by men and women, most active in the anti-slavery movement, of original and transcribed poems, prose, and essays, and watercolors and pencil sketches. Topics range from abolitionism and slavery, to love and friendship, to female beauty and refinement, as well as motherhood, mortality, and death. Contributors include Frederick Douglass (1881-1895), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), James McCune Smith (1813-1865), Lucy Stone (1818-1893), Sarah Forten Purvis (1814-1883), and Margaretta Forten (1815-1887).

Washington Irving, “The Wife,” calligraphy by African American engraver Patrick Henry Reason, New York 1839 (see link for transcript).

Note from Frederick Douglass, Philadelphia 1850 (see link for transcript).

Part 2: Small Group Discussion


  • Break students into groups of 3-4
  • Assign commonplace examples (below)
  • Ask them to take 3-4 minutes to browse the commonplace book
  • Ask them to discuss the questions below with their groups
  • Reconvene students for a full-class discussion
    • Each group presents their commonplace book & shares what they discussed
    • Follow-up questions: differences between commonplace books? Which of these (if any) would you be interested in reading from beginning to end? Which would you prefer to flip through? What are some advantages/disadvantages to a physical vs. digital commonplace book? For physical commonplace books, what strategies could you use to: organize notes using some system other than sequential, dated entries; allocate blank space for future notes; deal with running out of space in a section; avoid chaos?

Discussion Questions

  • How are the notes organized? Are there ways to find entries without flipping through every page?
    • Recall Ann Blair’s four S’s: storing, sorting, summarizing, and selecting
  • What are some potential uses for these notes?

Commonplace Book Examples (one per group)