10 Case Study: Expanding the Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature

Timothy Robbins, assistant professor of English, Graceland University

OER, Open Pedagogy, and the Early American Literature Survey

At the start of each semester, I write a simple maxim on the board for discussion: “all people are equally intelligent.” The underlying claim, in a paraphrased line from radical philosopher Jacques Rancière, is that any measurable differences in “intelligence” have more to do with access than with intellect. So, before course themes, content, objectives, or outcomes, I insist upon equality as a first principle and a constant practice. Then, as a group, we deliberate: what does “equal” mean in this context? How about “intelligent”? Is the claim true? How does it call upon us to relate to one another? Before the hour is up, we find ourselves in a thick of pedagogical inquiry, from which students tend to reach a fragile but thoughtful consensus: there really exists no one-size-fits-all measure for intelligence. Furthermore, the acquisition of knowledge assumed to be the epitome of individual intelligence–the “Jeopardy contestant” theory of smarts, as one student called it–is a tragic misconception. Learning, instead, is a collaborative enterprise: it’s dialogic, responsive and revisable according to new information, and applicable to our everyday experience. So, yes, all people are in fact equally intelligent once we define “intelligence” more aptly as lived experimentation, rather than the highest grades and test scores.

I’m very clear with my students from the start: I wholeheartedly believe and affirm this principle. It’s that very faith which prompted me to take up the ambitious Open Anthology project described below. And now I hope to build on that text and the pedagogical practices it demands for the rest of my scholarly career.

Teaching a survey of “Early American Literature”

Two years ago, I was fortunate to be hired out right of graduate school and onto the tenure track as an “Early Americanist.” All that means, effectively, is that, every year for the foreseeable future, I’ll be teaching the English Department survey course titled “American Literature to 1900.” That covers the period ranging from colonial contact with the “New World” (the world “new” to Europeans, that is) to the United States’ industrial era, i.e., the beginnings of America’s ascension to a global power.

I’ll go on the record and say it’s impossible to adequately cover any four centuries of literary history. But the truth is, I—newbie I was—made the task all the more impossible. For here I was, freshly trained in literary studies, newly recovering from the discipline’s foundational urge to “cover” everything. My students, of course, would read deeply within and widely across the tradition’s most celebrated authors. At the same time, it was my sacred duty to introduce the significant works of literature recovered since the explosion of “canon” in the last four to five decades. That includes the ever-growing roster of prose, poetry, and drama written by women, indigenous peoples, Africans and African-Americans, South American and Latinx authors, and ethnic immigrants.

So I went to work composing a reading list that could combine (or in the very least mediate) these opposing impulses. As a student of social movements, I like to adopt social history as a methodology, and so I saw “American Literature to 1900” as an opportunity to chart the various and contentious stories of the culture’s movements towards emancipation and equality. As “America” was made into European colonies and eventually a liberal (white, patriarchal, landowner) democracy, from a country of farms and frontiers into an industrialized economic and military power, its literature played an important role in expanding the reading public and creating the definition of a nation. The course tracked roughly chronologically and featured the representative authors and texts. Indigenous creation stories confronted European colonial documents; the early texts of New England’s Puritan pulpits were met and challenged by the voices and pens of native peoples, African slaves, and women writers. The American Revolution gave way to an explosion of social movements and an expansion of the canon stretching from Thomas Paine’s republican propaganda to the birth of African-American letters in Phillis Wheatley. The selections from the early nineteenth century included the familiar names of the “American Renaissance” — Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville — in tandem with the literature of women’s rights and abolitionism. The final post-Civil War push balanced the social writings of the Gilded Age and Reconstruction with the co-emergence of realist fiction.

This literary historical narrative will seem familiar to Early American scholars, as will the course structure and the palpable tension it produced between content covered and time allowed. What was never at issue, for me, was locating a textbook. See, the literature survey course sports its own special media, the anthology; nearly exhaustive, this master text’s pedagogical significance is matched only by its physical mass. The leading Early American anthologies on the academic market, — Wiley’s The Literatures of Colonial America[1] and Norton’s Anthology of American Literature[2] — are the size of small encyclopedias, coming in at 602 and 1845 pages, respectively. These truly impressive scholarly books, which introduced me and the current crop of Early American scholars to the field, have done a great deal in shaping our syllabuses and lesson plans, and, as a consequence, our conception of the era’s literary output. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Again, these anthologies are excellent, compiled and edited by leading scholars in the field–all acquainted and attentive to the concerns of teaching the literature survey course.

That first fall semester, I decided to assign the Norton edition, chiefly because it contains Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in its entirety. I figured a classic piece of fiction, one that allowed us to approach the fault lines between race, slavery, Reconstruction, and national identity, would make for a brilliant capstone. Yet for all of its helpful background material, framed by the anthology’s wonderfully generative thematic groupings, our class never truly used the book. Admittedly, that’s due in part to the sizable number of students who never even laid hands on it. The latest edition of the Norton American literature anthology retails at $81.25 to purchase and between sixteen to twenty-five dollars for a six-month rental. For many working-class, first-generation students, the costs of the text–or, the means to access it, a credit card, for example–are simply prohibitive. As a result, just two or three students bought the latest edition outright—though, they were all generous enough to share with friends. Some purchased older, used versions from online booksellers, still more relied on the web versions of assigned readings that I’d linked to on the course site.

The ensuing scramble and unevenness of our discussions proved a semester-long irritant. The medium was always the message. The few students who purchased the text had access to all the introductory material and paratextual supplements Norton offered. The rest had different editions with different page numbers, or online texts without page numbers; all seemed to be missing crucial excerpts at some point in the term. While a handful of students read along in physical texts during class discussion, others multitasked on laptops or squinted through smartphone screen readings; still others, lacking any portable device, simply stared at the front of the room. It was a logistical nightmare of my own doing because, let’s face it, the college anthology has one real utility and aim: to centralize all course content in an edited and professional manner ready to be taught. That is its appeal. The problem here was that, at the same time, the anthology was making some assumptions about our students, not just in its hefty price tag, but in its very centralizing and authoritative structure.

All the anthology had done for us at this point, where half the class hadn’t adopted it, was allow me to dictate the content of “American Literature to 1900,” raising “coverage” of authors and texts to supreme importance. To “learn” the period’s literature, then, was to consume a whole bunch of texts, be they found in a fresh, glossy, weighty anthology or retrieved as HTML code on one’s screen of choice.

Open Educational Resources and the Literature Anthology

Right away, I decided I would scrap the paperback anthology the following fall, but I wavered on an alternative outside of simply posting a syllabus of hyperlinks on the site and providing introductory context through mini-lectures. Wasn’t that just “banking education” for the digital age?

In the waning months of graduate school, — when I should have been writing — I began reading up on the burgeoning discussion around Open Educational Resources (OER), materials made free and available on the web to be accessed, downloaded, revised, and recirculated. The conversations of OER had already evolved beyond advocacy for their adoption as learning content, moving instead to sketch the larger contours of Open Education as a pedagogical principle. Recent studies–like the Florida Virtual Campus’s annual surveys[3] –underscore that the integration of free and open textbooks cut costs, increase access, and improve student learning. Still, over and above replacing expensive industry textbooks, OER proponents contemplate how the virtues inherent to open materials necessitate new kinds of teaching and learning, methods that embrace the open ethos to reuse, remix, revise, and redistribute in content and practice. David Wiley, for example, has challenged[4] instructors to discard the “disposable” individual assignment in favor of collaborative and “renewable” open projects. Gardner Campbell recently called[5] for an open pedagogy centered on producing insight, where educators turn design over to students, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning. The discourse spoke to me.

In line with its disciplinary history, literary studies found itself at the forefront of open initiatives. Thus, after just a few weeks spent revisiting conversations around #openped, I discovered Robin DeRosa’s rather heroic “open anthology,” a text she created together with her Early American Literature students at Plymouth State. The project entailed that students read widely through the Early American syllabus and decide collectively which authors to excerpt and provide contextual materials for, before polishing and collecting their works in an online anthology to be read and revised by the following crop of students. Drawing on the legacy of Paulo Freire, DeRosa described[6] the project in more detail:

The open textbook allowed for student contribution to the “master text” of the course, which seemed to change the whole dynamic of the course from a banking model (I download info from the textbook into their brains) to an inquiry-based model (they converse with me and with the text, altering both my thinking and the text itself with their contributions).

The more I learned of the project, the more I liked it; and so, in true open pedagogy fashion, I stole it to redesign my own course.

Adopting the user-friendly Pressbooks[7] software, DeRosa and her students had managed to put together a promising framework for the “master text” in just a semester’s time, what became the Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature[8]. As I reimagined the survey, following their lead and content, I saw that my inclination towards social history would be easy enough to retain. So, in the first half of our most recent iteration of “American Literature to 1900,” we read through the texts published in the extant Pressbooks anthology–which included a potpourri of canonical and “minor” writers–interspersed with selections from some of the more conspicuously absent names, including Roger Williams, James Fenimore Cooper, William Apess, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. Throughout the term, students agreed to complete short reading engagement worksheets, designed to both guide our in-class discussion and provide “training” in the editing skills needed to build out the anthology. In the latter half, we shifted focus to the hands-on project of remaking the anthology. We dedicated the final months to reading and discussing Open Education and Creative Commons licensing, learning the software, and practicing plenty on putting together materials for the various elements of the anthology—editing texts, locating and annotating biographical and secondary research, writing introductions, developing supplementary materials, and deliberating on how to make the texts “teachable.” Teams of three built entries for authors and texts not yet represented, and, in the final weeks of the term, led a classroom lesson based on their newly designed anthology chapter.

Truth be told, the analytical skills on display above are the same honed in any upper level literature course, and they’re assessed through similar assignments: regular reading and discussion, oral presentations, secondary research, critical source annotation, literature reviews, etc. The core difference came in the final product, and here there is, I think, a significant distinction. The traditional boss-level challenge in an English course is the literary critical essay, i.e., it is the peer-reviewed journal article in miniature—only in a version read and peer reviewed by just one expert, the professor. Don’t get me wrong, I still assign essays and I believe there’s much to be gained from the craft, especially in terms of sharpening argumentation. But I think most literature instructors will confess to the assignment’s utter “disposability,” which is to say, while the skills developed and assessed in essay writing should endure over the course of a student’s college career,–and hopefully throughout their life–the actual assignment almost certainly will not. For her, the essay dies mercifully at the professor’s desk, resurrected momentarily only as a final grade is uploaded to the registrar’s website. That abrupt conclusion couldn’t be more at odds with the intellectual afterlife of the professional essay, where publication at least aspires to respond and further instigate critical dialogue.

At its best, then, an “open” project like the student-designed anthology should simulate those aspects of intellectual collaboration and growth. Nowhere is that connection more apparent than in the project’s demand for assessment. In our course, each group met with me to negotiate a grading contract that addressed the entire scope of their chapter, complete with an outline of group members’ roles and workload and criteria for evaluation and grading. The practice forced students to take a kind of critical ownership of the project by thinking both proactively and reflectively on their own learning and engagement.

Some Practical Advice

Dear reader, if by now you count yourself among the Open Anthology-converted, perhaps you’re curious still about the finer details that go into re-organizing a survey course around an OER project. I leave you with a few tidbits of wisdom from my experience–including a sample syllabus and assignments, all of which you are welcome to steal (I mean, retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute)[9] for your own course.

“Syllabus Day”

  • Because I have a flair for the dramatic, on day one I lugged the six or seven literature anthologies I own–all adorned with big, bright retail price tags–into class; I then heaved them onto a desk in the front of the room before launching into some ice breakers and then general introductions.
  • Once the energy in the room felt upbeat and conducive to dialogue, I passed the tomes around and asked students to flip through the pages and mark down any familiar names and discernible thematic patterns across the texts. This is to provide a sense of the way scholars have conceptualized “Early American Literature.”
  • I then explained that we wouldn’t, in fact, be using any of these books, but creating our own instead! That’s when I introduced the existing Pressbooks anthology, the final project, and the concept of OER.
  • I handed out a schedule with abbreviated course and assignment descriptions to be read for the next session.


Unless you can ensure that each student has personal access to a device–smartphones alone won’t cut it, unfortunately–you will need to get into a computer lab at multiple points in the term.

  • Pro tip: Reserve lab space early in the semester, preferably before it even begins. I went ahead and blocked out a room for the final month to help “train” students in Pressbooks (the software they would use to expand the anthology).
  • Securing this space right away is especially important if your institution, like mine, is small and has limited tech resources on campus.

I am a great believer in the power of persistent and collaborative note taking.

  • A class-wide or group-specific Google Doc[10] will still get the job done in this regard. In last year’s class, I posted sparsely outlined “Keywords” and “Timeline” Google Docs to the course site and had students develop them via in-class and homework assignments throughout the term.
  • For in-text highlighting and notes, I use the annotation tool Hypothesis.is, a web overlay that is not only easy to use[11] in the classroom, but is tailor-made for groupwork[12] tasks and for use in Pressbooks.[13]
  • The most important aspect of these tools–and, I would argue, of any you choose to introduce in the course–is that students can be given the option to publish privately among peers or anonymously with a private nod to the instructor.
  • Last, I think it is important to give students the option of adopting “lo-tech” methods, too–i.e., note taking with machine-made pen and paper–as a substitute to the abovementioned.

As far as expanding, revising, and publishing a scholarly anthology via Pressbooks, Julie Ward has written a fabulous primer for chapter fifteen of this very handbook.[14]


If you’re looking to reproduce this project to expand Robin DeRosa’s American Literature anthology, but you need broad ideas on the course schedule and structure, and/or specific tasks to accompany the readings, and/or a general set of guidelines for the final project, I give to you my initial crack at a syllabus (Attachment A), sample “reading guides” (Attachments B, C, D, and E), and a final project assignment sheet (Attachment F).

Note: The “reading guides” (Attachments B-E) are effectively daily homework assignments that are to be peer-reviewed in class. Intended as scaffolding tasks to introduce students to Early American authors and texts, reading guides should also progressively build on the concepts and skills needed to curate anthology chapters in the latter part of the course while also helping students connect (what’s more than likely to be) foreign material–colonial documents, oral tales, Puritan sermons, etc.–to contemporary issues that seem more relevant to their everyday experiences.

Key Takeaways

  • Build on an existing open textbook to expand it.
  • Get your students to reflect on their participation and engagement in the collaborative project: ask them to develop their own grading rubrics, outline individual and group roles, or more.
  • Think about how you can add to the “traditional” approach to your subject matter to engage students and how an open textbook might afford those opportunities.
  • Frame learning as an ongoing process rather than one that ends upon receipt of a final grade.

Timothy Robbins is an assistant professor of English at Graceland University. His research interests include literature of the “Long Nineteenth Century” in the United States, especially the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman, as well as protest literature and reception theory.

  1. Susan Castillo, and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. The Literatures of Colonial America, (Wiley: 2001), http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-063121125X.html
  2. Nina Baym, et al., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: 2011), http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=23664
  3. "2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey," Florida Virtual Campus, October 7, 2016, http://www.openaccesstextbooks.org/pdf/2016_Florida_Student_Textbook_Survey.pdf.
  4. David Wiley, "What is Open Pedagogy," iterating toward openness, October 21, 2013, https://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2975.
  5. Gardner Campbell, "2017: Quarks, Love and Insight," Gardner Campbell's professional website, January 1, 2017. http://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=2603
  6. Robin DeRosa, "My Open Textbook: Pedagogy and Practice," Robin DeRosa's professional website, May 18, 2016. http://robinderosa.net/uncategorized/my-open-textbook-pedagogy-and-practice/.
  7. Pressbooks, https://pressbooks.com/.
  8. Robin DeRosa, The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature (Public Commons Publishing: 2015). https://openamlit.pressbooks.com/.
  9. "Defining the 'Open' in Open Content and Open Educational Resources," Opencontent.org, http://www.opencontent.org/definition/.
  10. Shep McAllister, "Use Google Docs to Collaborate on Class Note Taking," Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hack-college/use-google-docs-to-collab_b_844192.html.
  11. "Quick Start Guide for Teachers," Hypothes.is, https://web.hypothes.is/quick-start-guide/.
  12. "Creating Groups," Hypothes.is, https://web.hypothes.is/creating-groups/.
  13. Zoe Wake Hyde, "Introducing: Hypothesis Annotations in Pressbooks," Pressbooks, https://pressbooks.com/blog/introducing-hypothesis-annotations-in-pressbooks/.
  14. https://press.rebus.community/makingopentextbookswithstudents/chapter/teaching-assignment-expand-an-open-textbook/

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