OER, Anthologies, and Open Pedagogy in Early American Literature
by Jason Nielsen, English
In early American literature much of the primary material is freely available because it is in the public domain. It is, as I sometimes hear myself saying to students, "already free” (an overly simplistic or problematic way to put it, I admit). Project Guttenberg, as one example, offers thousands of books, in multiple formats, that are in the public domain. Short introductions to authors I teach are abundantly available and readings can be found on various websites, in digital archives, and, increasingly, in anthologies that have been assembled and made available on OER repositories.
OER enable access to educational materials and the savings can be significant. Many hundreds of dollars on textbooks per year are an exorbitant expense to CUNY students, “nearly forty percent” of whom “come from households with annual incomes of less than $20,000.” The cost of books might prohibit registration, successfully finishing a class, or the choice of majors that require more expensive books. Additionally, OER can give students and teachers greater flexibility. Copyright is a constraint on teaching and learning and OER allow for content that is more customizable and useable for faculty, with the potential for increased relevance or relatability for students. Few students are in a hurry to purchase a print version of an anthology in early American literature, especially if they know the material is already available elsewhere.
I have found myself repeatedly turning towards print anthologies, usually the Norton Anthology in Early American Literature, for forms of support – introductions by editors, explanatory footnotes, or even for page design and layout – even though I decided a while ago that it made no sense to ask students to purchase these books. The increasing availability of OER have led me to think about how these primary texts function for student learning and I have realized how little print anthologies (and I am thinking about textbooks, too) matter for the ways that students can read or engage with these texts or for the kinds of ways I might incorporate them into my pedagogy.
Educators, librarians, and technologists that write about OER and education have been engaged in recent debates – debates that signal back to a much longer history of scholarship on open pedagogy – around the extent to which OER are necessarily dependent on what are referred to as the 5R permissions. These are rights that give users free and perpetual permission to:
retain (the right to make, own, and control copies),
reuse (the right to use content in a wide range of ways),
revise (the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content),
remix (the right to combine the original or revised content with other material), and
redistribute (the right to share copies of the original content, or any other versions or remixes).
As I read that list, I am reminded of “rights” as a constant theme that extends through so much of early American history and literature, specifically having to do with who is or is not included and who does or does not have access – the rights or affordances of access – to systems of knowledge at different points in time. More broadly, we might think about these rights listed above as they relate to histories of other fields and disciplines. How have other fields been put together, taught, closed, or made open and accessible? Or how is higher education open and accessible – or not – and how can we make these systems more transparent? These are interesting questions, I think, and posed rightly, they can capture the interest that students might have around inquiry-based work about the present make up or history of a discipline or the cost of higher education.
The open in OER is sometimes conflated with free – open access, free and open materials – but “open” is not necessarily “free.” Strings are sometimes attached. And free and open do not necessarily mean much without thinking about how OER can also enable learning for students. Access and accessibility go hand in hand.
As I thought about OER and reflected on my experience teaching students in different kinds of courses in early American literature, I found myself thinking less about the necessity of the 5R permissions and more about CUNY's mission to "remain responsive to the needs of its urban setting" and ensure "equal access and opportunity" for all students. Other terms of evaluation – accessibility, flexibility, functionality, democratization of knowledge, and local knowledge or experience – come to mind instead. These are, I think, more conducive to talking about OER and teaching than strict adherence to sets of permissions. I will first think about the print anthology (I might also say the textbook) as a teaching tool or means of transmission and I will then raise questions about OER as digital anthologies that simply replicate, at best, versions of what already exist in print. I will then briefly elaborate on these terms before considering several other examples of OER anthologies in early American literature that are better and more interesting demonstration of what is possible when the learner is kept at the center.
Anthologies and Teaching Early American Literature
Early American literature is usually taught in English departments as a survey course. I have taught this material in several forms at Queens College – as a course for English and Education majors, as a writing-intensive "Introduction to American Studies" class, and, most often, as a "Great Works" course for non-majors that also satisfies a Pathways requirement in "U.S. Experience in its Diversity." I have taught many of the same materials to students across multiple classes and, while I could do something very different for the "Great Works" courses, I have been interested in teaching some of these same writers and concepts to classrooms made up of non-majors. Specifically, how does the context of the class affect how I approach teaching certain texts and how might students who are not majors make very different kinds of connections that are as equally interesting?
Early American literature anthologies in print usually begin with narratives of exploration and colonization (Christopher Columbus and others) and end with the Civil War. This is over 350 years of material that includes, among other things, accounts of religious experience, political revolution, the "American Enlightenment," early writing on women's rights, and slavery and abolitionism. I usually conclude with Emerson's "Self-reliance," Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," and poetry by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
Almost all the material is in the public domain, but whether it was out of "convenience" or habit (from my years as an undergraduate), I had initially asked students to purchase a print anthology, usually the Norton Anthology of Early American Literature (Volumes 1 and 2). The recently revised Ninth Edition sells new for $76.94 on Amazon and is $48.58 to rent. My list of readings has been, I reluctantly admit, fairly canonical and I have too often let Norton's editorial revisions to the anthology do the work of pushing against the canon in small ways. The latest edition, for example, has revised introductions that reflect more recent work in the field and includes short excerpts from a slightly greater number of texts organized around thematic clusters. These revisions take many years to happen though and they are not actually addressing the more foundational problem of ways that I might teach these texts and make them accessible to the students in my classroom.
The work that print anthologies of early American literature do is generally similar, whether it is from Norton, Bedford, Heath, or others. Norton provides introductions to historical periods (“Beginnings to 1700”), thematic clusters, and individual author introductions (all of which I have made use of); annotations and footnotes; illustrations (minimally); and timelines. Students who purchase a new copy of the current edition can also activate their "free password" to access further resources on the "free" StudySpace website which has quizzes with feedback, summaries, literary workshops, "timelines, maps, audio recordings of public domain texts," and a "new 'Literary Places' feature that uses Google Tours tools." There is also access for instructors to segments of the series American Passages: A Literary Survey, "available without charge on orders of specified quantities" of the Norton. This is all seems impressive (if used) but none of this is actually “free” or “without charge,” of course.
Anthologies serve a utilitarian and time saving function, but their design, scale, or sheer volume does not excite most students; and while I might like the academic work that they do, they are rarely student-centered. I used the Norton anthology in my first several classes, but I quickly found myself wanting or needing to supplement the text with blogs, maps, video, art, photography, or links to archives because I needed or wanted something more visual as a way into the text. I would sometimes send or post links to the primary readings that were already on several websites just to give some design or format options, even if it meant we were not often in the "same spot" on the "same page." And I would make or encourage students to find thematic connections between readings and popular culture, to other points in history, or to recent news or events.
Whether we are thinking about using print anthologies or textbooks, OER e-books and other materials available through OER repositories, or incorporating a range of OERs in a course, there are several issues to consider, including: cost savings, labor issues, representation and inequality (what perspectives or voices are left out), and how to best incorporate OER into pedagogy. I stopped asking my students to buy the Norton some time ago because I was not able to justify the added expense for primary material that was freely and widely available, but those same materials in open e-books are not without issues either. There is disconnect between the anthology as it is often designed and the learning needs of the students. Introductions and context are necessary, of course, but I felt that the additional materials in the Norton that surrounded the primary text, such as author introductions or sections on historical context, were not as reader friendly or learner centered for most students. They are overburdened and I think that they can actually impede learning or interest.
Teaching with OER
A pedagogy built around OER, whether it is with material in the public domain or available through open licensing, can allow for more flexible ways to learn and organize knowledge. The investment in OER at CUNY is happening at a time of convergence, on a larger scale, between technology and open licensing. It might sound obvious, but text is more fluid now. We engage with text across different devices or platforms and words and images move around more easily. We read and receive (and create) in a variety of ways – through versions of books, on websites, with video, through social media, and more. Teaching materials are more varied, as well. But we should stay mindful of challenges that students continue to face, whether it is reliable access to technology in some cases, propriety for-profit systems that exchange one faulty closed system for another, or materials presented in bad form (I am thinking of all the rough pdfs I have sent before) without thinking about the ways that they can be incorporated more into learning.
I began to think about and look at OER anthologies in early American literature through another set of terms than the 5Rs, but I was also thinking about a broad set of questions that might apply to other disciplines. I am trying to think about OER in field-specific ways but I am also interested in how the uses of OER might intersect, more broadly, with principles around open pedagogy and technology. When we evaluate OER we should first ask how they will be put to best use for student learning. There must be other criteria to consider besides the amount of money saved. How might OER and pedagogy be thought of through accessibility, flexibility, functionality, and experience, and how might those ideas enable more democratized learning?
I am using access, accessible, and accessibility in somewhat loose and interchangeable ways here. Are OER presented or incorporated in ways that are more user-friendly and approachable to students compared to expensive and proprietary textbooks? How are they made available on different platforms? OER should be digitally accessible – downloadable, readable, and savable – and optimized for digital display, but there are impediments to access when OER are boxed in to learning management systems like Blackboard. Do OER make learning more accessible to a greater number of students? Are OER connected to concepts, learning objectives, or pedagogy in ways that are also accessible to and useful for an instructor's needs? I was not thinking about the language of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) when I began teaching, but I quickly saw that I needed to adjust to different student needs and learning styles. Questions about OER and access are connected to ways of thinking about access and accessibility.
How can OER expand the range of possibility for teaching? To what extent can they be easily reused and repurposed without losing previous work or contributions from students? One problem with print anthologies or OER on proprietary systems is that they may not be flexible in ways that teaching necessitates. They may not be adaptable to recent debates or scholarship in a field or adjustable to use with other kinds of material. I am using the language of the 5R permissions (retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute), but I do not think it needs to be an all or nothing situation when it comes to definitions of OER. Ultimately, I think it is a matter of what works best for an instructor and student learning. The flexibility of OER can facilitate experimentation – mixing, pairing, or connecting material with other resources – including, perhaps, with material under copyright. The flexibility of OER can allow for sharing, curation, revision, and adaptation to specific needs in the classroom or shifts in a field in pragmatic and responsive ways.
OER that are learner-centered must consider functionality. This includes user experience and design -- including layout, organization, and navigability -- to facilitate learning. More directly, how is functional design connected to ease of use? Do OER incorporate text with visual material or sound, and if so, is it possible to adjust or modify the display? Are there captions?
If OER are integrated with open assignments, do students have a say in what they want to be public or private and can they easily change their mind through edits or settings? If OER-enabled pedagogy has an interactive or social component, through annotations or a message board, for example, is it a user friendly experience? How functional are OER in ongoing ways, through the semester and after, and how do questions about functionality relate to the overall objectives in a course?
If OER can enable student learning in more open ways, how can students find ways to contribute? How can they personalize or curate their learning process? Student at Queens College, and across CUNY, are incredibly diverse – but they also live in very local ways (as most of us do). What are possible intersections between OER in a course and local knowledge? How can students relate concepts or ideas in a course to lived experience? I wonder how they can connect material in early American literature, for example, to issues or problems closer in time or space; how can how they can relate concepts back to the city they live in, to other aspects of their lives, or to the group of people in the room? CUNY students come from a wide range of backgrounds, and I could not necessarily presume shared ground of historical reference; but I also could not anticipate some of the feelings and connections that students had, from lived experience, in relation to some of the concepts I was trying to teach in early American literature.
Democratization of Learning
Financial relief might not seem like the most important thing to consider, but for many students, it might be. Students are supported in their capacity to participate if they are not faced with the dilemma over whether or not to buy required books, sometimes very expensive textbooks, in the first days of the semester; or whether to finally buy a book many weeks or more into a semester when it becomes increasingly apparent that they cannot get by without it; or whether or not to register for courses at all. OER do not necessarily solve the problem though. Students have occasional or persistent challenges around access to technology and how to learn with OERs.
How can OER democratize learning by leveling the field a little more – by giving students access to the materials they need to learn and perhaps also by de-centering the focus of the class a little more by placing students (instead of the instructor) at the center? Does pedagogy with OER invite interactive engagement, participation, or forms of social engagement? What do OER have to do with individual agency and choice about learning within the social context?
More radically, what do OER have to do with ways that students might collaboratively determine the shape of the class and the terms of their learning? Can OER enable more collective decision making about what works best and what is needed – in assignments, projects, assessment or grading, and in decisions about what to actually study or learn? How can OER make learning and fields of knowledge a little more transparent to students, even allowing them more ownership about their learning process than they usually experience in classrooms? I think that thoughtful use and inclusion of OER can alleviate that gap between text and concept somewhat – it can shift attention towards questions about how we think about teaching and how students learn about their own learning process.
Ultimately, are these OERs or OER anthologies thinking about pedagogy and the ways that students learn? How can they be used to further our learning objectives? Do they present knowledge as open and ongoing or static and closed? As a way into evaluating some of the open anthologies I looked at, I wondered how they might be designed in more aesthetically interesting ways or even offer students something creative and experiential.
OER on repositories put materials together in ways that are appealing – free access, ease of use, attractive design – but this may just exchange one problematic text for another. An OER anthology for American Literature I on Lumen Learning, for example, seems to have student learning or pedagogy in mind. There are guides for analyzing text, for reading and interpreting literary terms, and links to learning outcomes. Videos of open lectures from YouTube are added. But there is no real coherent structure in place for how this material might be included in a course. There is just content, and that selection of content is less inclusive and more canonical than almost any print anthology would be.
Lumen course materials are openly licensed and they can be adapted, and it is all much more affordable, but Lumen is still, ultimately, a proprietary system. The material as it is presented looks and feels somewhat static. The assignments menu is empty. It is hard to imagine any instructor or student wanting to use or interact with it in any meaningful way. It looks like a static object – a digital version of a print anthology – that isn’t “alive” to actual use or change.
Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature
An open anthology or textbook does not just mean freely available online. The “book” should also be open to more immediate forms of revision, editing, and customization through an open license. A better example, by far, of an OER anthology that is interesting – more accessible, flexible, and functional looking – and with much better design, is the Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature.
The open anthology was started by Robin DeRosa and other collaborators at Plymouth University on Pressbooks in 2015 (with a Creative Commons license, which allows for use and repurposing). This was followed by Abby Goode’s revisions, with others, for her “Rethinking Early American Literature Course” (also at Plymouth University) and the project is now being supervised through further revisions by Tim Robbins of Graceland University with support from the Rebus Community. I mention these versions because it is helpful to see multiple iterations of a book over a few years and to see ways that it expands both in terms of its greater inclusion of “primary” content but also in the way that it can readily incorporate student work and be responsive to and inclusive of student work in immediate ways that would never be possible in a print anthology.
Robin DeRosa began with the desire to save students money. Why have students pay over $70 for a book (The Heath Anthology of American Literature) for texts that were freely available. DeRosa set up the initial shell quickly and easily – very minimal skill is required – but then realized in teaching that students wanted some supporting material or framing. The anthology developed rapidly over the course of a semester as she worked with students doing some of the work, either as part of course work or compensated for their labor, adding some supporting materials (introductions, videos, and so on). Students added or commented on annotations by using hypothes.is and were also able to include links, images, videos, or gifs.
Abby Goode’s subsequent revisions expanded the anthology by adding many dozens of student essays that made links between historical texts and contemporary examples and they are included in an additional section of the anthology titled “Where is American Literature Now?” and another section on music. Students also added supplementary materials on next texts that were added, as well as writing on topics having to do with “Herman Melville’s transnationalism” or “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s racial politics.”
These open anthologies are engaging with questions going on in the field, but they are doing so in ways that are accessible to students by inviting and including contributions from everyone in the room. More “recent” debates in the field, in scholarship or teaching, have engaged questions of boundaries, the nation, temporality, thematic organization, or continuous expansion around “what” constitutes American literature. These questions take years – many years – to make their way through incremental revisions to print anthologies. Robin DeRosa, Abby Goode, and Tim Robbins are engaging these questions immediately, with students who are not majors or previously invested in American literature or history. Editorial work can be a great thing, of course, but this project seems to level the field in meaningful ways for students.
The project enabled students to become have more ownership or investment in the stakes of the project because they were figuring out, on some level, for themselves and for other students what was needed to learn certain texts. Students shared but also took greater ownership over their own learning process and it led to more open discussions about rubrics, grading, and kinds of assignments. In addition to expanding the range of writers from underrepresented voices, even beyond the recent revision to the Norton, there was something more interactive happening through annotations (thousands of annotations over a semester).
I am wondering how versions of an OER anthology in my field can be differently constructed than a typical survey – even a survey that attempts to push further against the canon? Can an anthology work more thematically and less chronologically through attention to ways that it can be used for assignments and project-based learning? Or can OER be used for an anthology, or an edition, or even a chapter or assignment, that remains open, in sustained ways, used and revised by or added to by students in subsequent semesters. Or, could an “Introduction to American Studies” course give up on the book altogether and approach access and accessibility through OER and pedagogy that is more experiential – possibly through assignments that are more meaningful, sustained, or connected to the world? OER in survey courses in early American literature – or any field – might be more connected to campuses or parts of the city in ways that other teaching materials are not. And finally, OER might be used for a more open, democratic pedagogy that involves building or making decisions together about some of the terms of the course in more collaborative ways. This kind of flexibility – through OER – can allow students to take more ownership over the materials and their own learning in sustained ways.