This is the seventh in a series of reports filed by Donna Langille, a practicum student who joined us for the spring of 2019. We’ll be releasing each chapter as a weekly blog post. Find the complete text at Rebus Community Reports.
The Collective Work of Collected Works
Creating Tim Robbins’ Open Anthology
The anthology is hardly a new concept when it comes to literature survey courses. The term itself derives from the Greek ἀνθολογία (anthologia), meaning “a collection of words.” Generally, however, that collecting process is carried out under a singular vision, focused on bringing together specific cross-section of texts. But what happens when an effort to create a collected works becomes more a matter of coordinating collective work?
Tim Robbins is the lead editor of the Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, a project he started in 2017 with Rebus. As an assistant professor of English at Graceland University, he teaches an American literature survey course every year, and knows the value of an anthology as a teaching tool. Yet the Open Anthology is more than just a collection of canonical writings—it is also a learning exercise, a collaborative initiative that engages students in both sourcing and synthesizing literary works. Tim assigns the textbook as reading material for his course, but also tasks students with writing introductions to the new pieces they recommend for inclusion.
Early on, the students focused on making sure that the book included the classics of American literature. More recently, however, the assignment has been to seek out lesser-known and more marginalized authors. Students are required to find literature in the public domain using a variety of open archives and repositories, including the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. Each recommendation is accompanied by an introduction, written by the student, that contextualizes the piece within its historical moment and provides biographical information about the author. During this process, Tim meets with students regularly, advising them on finding written works and prioritizing what to include in the introductory texts. Matt Moore, a student assistant who has now graduated from Graceland, was one of the first to complete the assignment. He then went to work with Tim on the project, including acting as liaison with Rebus and the student writers.
Early on, Tim’s students didn’t think they were themselves qualified enough for this assignment. Over time, Tim learned how to instill confidence in them, providing clearer guidelines as well as the editorial support that emerging writers often need. This has created more successful outcomes from the assignment and has generated greater student appreciation for the project as a whole. And, as new cohorts use the Open Anthology in class, the previous contributors have gained the satisfaction of seeing their work being used by subsequent students. Added to that, they get to see their names in print, a small but important bit of positive reinforcement.
Occasionally, students’ work does not meet Tim’s standards for the textbook, requiring additional work on those chapters. This has been one of the more challenging aspects of this project, and one of the reasons Tim is grateful to be working with Rebus Community. For future additions to the anthology, he will likely put out a call for reviewers and editors through the Contributor Marketplace. Despite the collective work needed to make this OER succeed in the classroom, Tim has found the open community to be generous with their time. He recognizes that people working in higher education already have unusually heavy workloads, but perhaps this is precisely why they are more willing to make unpaid, volunteer contributions. Unlike other scholarly communities that may see each other once or twice a year at a conference, the open community keeps in touch more regularly—it is a lively network. Twitter, in particular, has been an important communication and learning platform for Tim, who credits it with being a source of insights about OER as well as a means to connect.
Like all open textbooks, the anthology is easy to revise and update, but it seems that its success is also due to its modularity. Because other users are able to pick and choose the parts of the book they want to include in their lectures, it adapts well to different classrooms and becomes more useful for students. Unlike a printed copy of, for example, a Norton Anthology of literature, nothing is wasted if a teacher decides to lop off a few chapters. The digital book also allows for augmenting the reading experience, such as annotating passages. Tim has witnessed that students find a lot of value in starting conversations in the margin of the text. Similarly, when he made it an assignment to annotate lines from a given poem, students responded positively. These sorts of peer-to-peer interactions appear to have created more pedagogic traction than using the forum feature in standard learning management systems.
Through the process of collectivizing the collection of his anthology, Tim has become a strong advocate for OER on his campus. Students demonstrate real gratitude for his efforts in making textbooks affordable and accessible, and this has helped him persuade other colleagues to adopt open resources in their own courses. He does, however, caution them to be more reliant on the open community than he originally was—specifically in the use of a communication platform like Rebus, which help project leads reach out to a large network of collaborators from the beginning. By doing so, experiences with open publishing can become energizing, rather than draining, a feeling that isn’t generally produced in the lives of the average academic.
Images from the new Rebus Community project homepage have been included in this post. To view the complete project homepage for The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature visit Rebus.Community. Create a project homepage for your open textbook in development by logging on to Rebus.Community and clicking “Create a Project.”