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A Second Try for Commonplace Books

Last semester I debuted an assignment in my introductory U.S. history survey course (the first half, up to 1877), in which students were required to make a commonplace book using quotations they found in course readings. Having run through the semester once, thought through how it went myself, and read student evaluations of the course, I’ve decided to keep the assignment but make a few tweaks.

First, students mostly reacted positively to the assignment in their evaluations. They saw it as a way to encourage them to keep up with the reading (mission accomplished) and to think about what they were reading before coming to class. So far, so good, because that was what I’d hoped for, and in fact had told students was part of the rationale for the assignment. But there was a minority that didn’t like the assignment, either because they felt it was busy work or because they procrastinated (which made it useless during the semester, and a painful experience to catch up at the very end). My sympathy is somewhat lower for the last group, but I knew it was a danger of the assignment going in. Many students asked for more “check-ins” during the semester, on the theory that if I was holding them accountable more regularly they would keep up. Last, a small group asked that I make the assignment worth more of the final grade (it was 10%) so that the effort was worth it come the end of the semester.

Their reactions make sense to me. I had worried about whether people would keep up, and about how to ensure that students were keeping up. I ended up doing 4-5 spot checks during the semester, which caught a few people, but overall I didn’t want to police their work too closely. More importantly, even for those students who kept up with the book, it didn’t seem to have a significant impact on class participation. So that part needs some work.

All that said, I still believe that the assignment is useful, so I’m making a few tweaks for the coming semester to address some of the weaknesses:

  • I’m adding a reading from an eighteenth-century commonplace book. One of the two rationales for the project was to have students replicate an early American practice, and I think an example will make that clearer to them. We’ll therefore read an excerpt from Milcah Martha Moore’s Book, edited by Karin Wulf and Catherine La Courreye Blecki. It will fall in the right place in the chronology of the course (about five weeks in), but even then will hopefully clarify what students are doing.
  • Equally important, I’m going to commit myself to using the books in class as a conversation starter, especially in the first few weeks of the semester. In fairness, I am also making that clear in the assignment language so that students are not surprised.
  • There are a few technical adjustments that will accompany a change to the course’s weekly schedule.

There are also a few things that I either will not change or have not quite figured out how to manage:

  • If students ask questions, as I hope they do, I need to make a better effort to ensure that they’re answered in some way. The book is supposed to be a resource to students as they review for exams and write their papers, but that works less well if they have never had the opportunity to think through the answers.
  • I still think that four or five chances to take a look at the book will be sufficient, though I may make sure that more of those come quickly in the semester as a way to help establish good habits.
  • I plan to leave the assignment at 10% of the final grade. To me, that number makes the assignment significant enough without overtaking everything else. And honestly, I don’t intend it to be a major imposition of time—in fact, I hope that it saves students time at exam and paper time.

My courses meet for the first time on Wednesday. We’ll see how it goes from there.

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