Author’s Note: this was originally published on my previous site, in December of 2020. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I cannot tell you how invaluable this textbook proved to be with the onset of the pandemic and remote teaching. I think the gaps in digital equity that became apparent and the desire students have to access learning everywhere and at all times make these types of projects all the more relevant and necessary.
CLICK HERE to access the anthology I discuss below.
It’s been a long journey. I’m proud to say that I’ve finished a two-year-long odyssey into open pedagogy that has culminated with the digital publication of a textbook I co-created with my students.
I have looked forward to writing this blog post for quite some time and I hope those who want to embark on similar projects will find it useful.
Back in the summer of 2017, I was a new, first-time mother and was cursing myself for having signed up for a week-long professional development series in the blissful ignorance of pregnancy half a year before. I dragged myself to the campus, coffee in hand, to learn about “sustainable assignments”—a topic that had intrigued me as an alternative to the draft-revise-dispose cycles of freshman comp. The keynote on the first day was Robin deRosa who introduced a number of open pedagogical assignments and activities (many of which I have since implemented across my courses, including my writing courses).
But there was one rather ambitious project she spoke about: the authoring of a student-created anthology of Early American Literature. Many of my colleagues scoffed at this approach, claiming that it would be almost impossible to do this at the community college level, presumably because of how many students we have in a given semester and the amount of individualized instruction this would require. But the idea stayed with me.
A year later, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board issued a call for proposals, soliciting faculty willing to adopt OER in their lower-division courses. As it turns out, there was only one area in English that had a decided dearth of OER: British Literature, specifically early British literature. It’s not hard to see why: Old English and medieval texts can be inscrutable (Piers Plowman, anyone?) and feel so removed from the everyday experiences of our students that we struggle to make the case for their relevance. On the other hand, all of the texts were clearly way out of copyright. I knew these two factors presented the opportunity to create a similar project to deRosa’s, harnessing the power of open pedagogy to engage students and, at the same time, create a living textbook other instructors could turn to as a genuine alternative to costly anthologies. I submitted my application. It was accepted. And the work began.
Existing OER for Early British Lit
The first stage was to get the lay of the land. At the time I began my work, Wendy Howard Grey’s English Literature I, published by Lumen, was the only OER anthology of British literature I could find. It is an excellent resource but, in my case, I couldn’t use Lumen materials because of a conflicting grant at my institution. I also wanted to expand its offerings, particularly in the Old English, Anglo-Norman and early medieval periods. About four months after I began work on my grant, Bonnie J. Robinson and Laura Getty’s British Literature I was published. It has many more readings and extensive introductions but didn’t have footnotes (something I knew I could address through Hypothes.is).
With this in mind, I rewrote my British Literature I curriculum to ensure my students would help me close the gaps by writing original introductions, discussion questions, and linking to the resources they thought would be most useful to fellow students. I also knew that we could create footnotes as a class and have “discussions” virtually by responding, clarifying, defining, and linking multimedia in text. This would help them understand the material better and could inform any future readers as well. This was the plan. Here is how I brought it all together:
Step 1: Defining Texts
I cracked open the Norton Anthology of English Literature and set about plugging what I thought were the most interesting and useful texts from the table of contents into a massive spreadsheet. Later, I would add texts from the Broadview Anthology that helped “round out” the offerings (as they feature works that relate to British literature even if they are not specifically written in English). I took the better part of two weeks to locate open-source versions of these texts. I went through this process two more times, locating additional texts and giving up on those I couldn’t find:
One particular issue: translations. Though the texts themselves are out of copyright, often their modern translations were copyright-protected; this was especially true of lesser-known works, for example, those by women who had been “rediscovered” in the past century or so. Many times I had to abandon a particularly beautiful piece because I couldn’t find an open-source translation into modern English from Old English, Latin or French.
Step 2: Selecting a Platform
I was impressed with the design of deRosa’s anthology and I knew a bit of WordPress beforehand, so I decided to use the same platform she had: Pressbooks. Though there is a bit of a learning curve, I found it to be a versatile space that could accommodate multimedia, visuals and had features of standard textbooks. Once I had chosen this, I plugged in the texts I had found, using the same sections as in the Norton Anthology (by historical era).
Step 3: Crafting Sustainable Assignments & “Open” Teaching
The next part, and by far the hardest, was figuring out how to write open assignments wherein everything could potentially be used in the book. You can see the results here.
I had an assignment where students wrote the introductions (as deRosa had) but also had them write question banks for tests, create digital learning objects, post annotations (using hypothes.is) and submit their formal essay assignments as samples. This is a photo of my first class of students whose good humor and encouragement got the project off the ground:
Step 4: Editing and Publishing
By far the hardest part was to take all of this material and sort, revise, and edit for publication. I worked hard to retain those original and interesting student insights while refining the rough edges of their contributions. My teaching really came alive in the mentorship of these students, these writers, and they created work that impressed and amazed me every semester for four semesters in a row.
I am so indebted to Robin deRosa, the ACC Professional development team, and to the many inspiring individuals who help build the Creative Commons and from whom I have learned so much. If you are reading this and wondering whether to try some of it out, go for it. Open pedagogy made me unlearn some of the outdated teaching habits I had adopted over the years and gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my practice.