Friday, April 24, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Commonplace Book

For a while on here I had a commonplace book running on Tuesdays -- poems or paragraphs I thought worth quoting. That kind of fell into disarray (as a lot of my work on here has) but I want to try to revive it in a particular form.

I have decided to radically revise my Composition One course. I am envisioning a structure where every day I hand out a paragraph from some work of philosophy, cultural criticism, literary criticism, religious parable, anecdote, etc. and then as a class we work with it (using the excellent textbook They Say/I Say, if you teach this kind of thing and care). But I can't find everything myself, and want you send me stuff. Then I would like to put some of the things you send me into the commonplace book on the blog -- because if they are not interesting to us then they are not interesting enough for my students. Right now I am thinking of a paragraph from Nietzsche for example -- one of the short ones from Beyond Good and Evil. But I am also thinking of that passage in that superhero book that Tarantino ripped off for Bill's Speech in Kill Bill about Clark Kent being Superman's criticism of the human race. I am thinking of the Parable of the Greedy Man and the Envious Man, or Harold Bloom on Freud and Love.

Here are the parameters:
1. It can be no longer than 600 words.
2. It must be relatively self contained -- to the point where it would require no more context than 40 words of introduction.
3. I do not mind weird allusions in the text -- I can always add footnotes.
4. Preference will be given to important "History of Idea" guys but this can come from anywhere.
5. It should come from a work of non-fiction.
6. Vocabulary is not a problem -- my students need to get in the habit of using the dictionary anyway.

Basically, I want you to go though your non-fiction books at home, look for a paragraph you underlined, and if it looks like it might fit the parameters, email it to me.


scott91777 said...

I have a few ideas but Chuck Klosterman has these fun rhetorical questions that he poses in both Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Klosterman IV.

Here's an example:
"Let us assume you met a rudimentary magician. Let us assume he can do five simple tricks--he can pull a rabbit out of his hat, he can make a coin disappear, he can turn the ace of spades into the Joker card, and two others in a similar vein. These are his only tricks and he can't learn any more; he can only do these five. HOWEVER, it turns out he's doing these five tricks with real magic. It's not an illusion; he can actually conjure the bunny out of the ether and he can move the coin through space. He's legitimately magical, but extremely limited in scope and influence.

Would this person be more impressive than Albert Einstein?"

Would something like this work? I have to say, I use Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs in my 101 course and, for an assigment, I let them go through and choose any one of these questions (there are 23 in all in the book) and write a brief paper in response to it and, quite often, it results in the best paper they do all semester.
Also, as most of the questions require a choice of some sort, they're great for generating some good-natured debate in the class (and since they're all rather silly topics it's nothing that anyone can get too upset/offended about but it still teaches them to really analyze a question).

ba said...

Hah, if you want hard science or buddhism, go through my bookshelf.

This is better than any existential musing, I submit:

Only about one bone in a billion, it is thought, ever becomes fossilized. If that is so, it means that the complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today - that's 270 million people with 206 bones each - will only be about fifty bones, one quarter of a complete skeleton. That's not to say of course that any of these bones will actually be found. Bearing in mind that they can be buried anywhere within an area of slightly over 3.6 million square miles, little of which will ever be turned over, much less examined, it would be something of a miracle if they were. Fossils are in every sense vanishingly rare. Most of what has lived on Earth has left behind no record at all. It has been estimated that less than one species in 10,000 has made it into the fossil record. That in itself is a stunningly infinitesimal proportion. However, if you accept the common estimate that the Earth has produced 30 billion species of creature in its time, and Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin's statement (in The Sixth Extinction) that there are 250,000 species of creature in the fossil record, that reduces the proportion to just one in 120,000. Either way, what we possess is the merest sampling of all life that Earth has ever spawned.

"A Short History of Nearly Everything," by Bill Bryson.

scott91777 said...

How about something like this:

Bob Dylan on religion:
Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs

plok said...

I'll think of the meantime, Mr, Freidrich:

"Beware those in whom the urge to punish is strong."