I was intrigued by one of my recent class readings. The article (Laura Micciche’s “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar” in College Composition and Communication, 55(4), 2004) has prompted this post as a personal writing exercise.
Micciche describes her desire to help her students make connections between purposeful use of grammar with rhetorical concepts like audience and persuasion. To achieve this, Micciche has her students keep a commonplace book, “in which they imitate and record passages of their own choosing” (p. 724). Commonplace books have been around since pre-modern times, serving as a collection of copied passages, called “flowers of reading” in medieval times and “commonplace books” from the Renaissance onward. They are defined as “a notebook kept by a rhetor as a storehouse of materials to be remembered or quoted” (p. 724).
In contemporary times, these materials can include a wide array of texts, from book passages to snippets from lectures to television segments to billboard ads. Micciche’s purpose in assigning commonplace books is to prompt her students to “read and analyze texts as skillfully crafted documents that convey and perform different kinds of meanings—among them, aesthetic, rhetorical, and political. Students are able to tinker with language, seeing how it is crafted and directed rather than as simply ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect.'” This will help students to develop a “framework and a vocabulary for examining how language affects and infects social reality” (p. 724).
I can think of a couple friends who keep commonplace books – Jimmey has his sketchbook and Blair has his Moleskine, for example. I don’t keep a commonplace book, but I have been thinking about the application of this concept to Internet discourse. I use my blog as a type of commonplace book, collecting snippets of texts that interest me, interacting with them, and making them public.
It might be a stretch, but I think this application works. In some ways, a blog is an effective commonplace “book” by allowing efficient organization of thoughts, making the material easily searchable, and opening up the material to public interaction. Neil Postman is probably rolling over in his grave right now.
But the application of commonplace books to blogs can only go so far. For one thing, blogs aren’t portable; in order to make an entry into the commonplace blog, one must have Internet access or cell phone text messaging capabilities. This enforces a strong limitation on those who have something to record but don’t have immediate blog access. There have been countless times when I have material or a thought to record, but I am either driving or don’t have computer access. A blog is an effective type of commonplace book only insofar as one has access to an Internet connection. If not, a literal book must suffice. Maybe I should get me one.