Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Great Conversation blogspot

I have launched a "commonplace blog" for one of the courses I teach. The blog is called The Great Conversation. The course I teach is Classical Civilization, a senior course focusing on the literature, philosophy, culture and history of the Greco-Roman world.

A commonplace blog and a Well Educated Mind

My students are collecting from their readings any interesting, pithy, thought-provoking quotations/excerpts and posting them to the blog. Some posts are simple quotations; some posts will include commentary, analysis and reflection. My hope is that my students will do more than "read" the assigned texts; my hope is that they will take in, interact with and learn from the texts we are studying.

The idea to create a "commonplace blog" came from reading The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (2003). In the book, Bauer writes about commonplace books, books where readers would gather and collect quotations from what they were reading. It serves as a record of some one's intellectual journey through collected passages from his readings. Below is an explanation of the origin and methods of keeping commonplace books:

“Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it… The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. 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. . . . The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.”
—Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,”
The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

The Great Conversation

My plan is for the creation of a class set of collected quotations and commentary, posted in the blogsphere. Students will listen in and contribute to the Great Conversation---that is, three millenia of writing, discussion and thinking about the ideas and values that have shaped Classical and Western civilizations. Collectively, we can chart our intellectual growth and changing perspectives as a class.

Why Blog?

Blogging adds a public and communal aspect to the commonplace book; students can read and comment on each other's thoughts, positions and opinions. Students are exposed to varying perspectives on the same texts they have also read. Blogging also adds a "published" aspect to writing. Students need to organize their thoughts in a way that can be understood. They are writing for an audience. They must adhere to the conventions of grammar, spelling and vocabulary. This is not always done perfectly... but the students are no longer writing for a mark. They are writing to communicate to other people, in their class and in cyberspace.

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