I was among the students who worked on professor Tim Robbins’ classroom project at Graceland University to expand The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature. Enrolled in Tim’s Early American Literature course last fall, he introduced an assignment that would entail us contributing and expanding an open anthology of literature. Most of us must have pondered: “open anthology”? I know I did. Divided into groups, each of us took on various roles from writing introductions for literary works to researching biographical information to provide brief historical context. Although initially daunting, I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say that as a class this assignment offered rewards and payoffs both intellectually and communally; plus, it was just plain fun. My group in particular chose the works of Roger Williams to curate, write introductions to, and research Williams’ historical impact. Here, I quickly realized the importance of such an anthology. Williams’ work fought in defense of indigenous people’s rights in North America. Neither I nor the rest of my group had encountered his works or narratives in high school classes.
It became clear that this was more than just some group project reinforcing the value of collaboration or how to conduct proper research; the open source anthology plugged a handful of university undergraduates into a larger, reciprocal community between peers and instructors. Ultimately, however, that line began to blur. The autonomy and authority fostered in the students, and the fact that this project actively sought and utilized student perspectives, was empowering. Engaged with this digital pedagogy, given backstage passes to the world of academic anthologies, we curated works that seemed urgent for a new generation of students. In this way, it was our own critique of the traditional and reiterated canon that has been burnt into the retinas of undergrad English majors anywhere. Within that space we included untold histories, suppressed narratives, and stories that didn’t make the cut. In a small yet surprisingly diverse university with students from all different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and who encounter literature in their own nuanced ways, the inclusion of these pieces was vital. It was less a matter of reprinting a time-honored magnum opus as it was a cultural responsibility to validate the works of quelled voices.
We also, indirectly, became acquainted with the bureaucratic side of anthologizing: working within open domain and the restrictions of copyright, which lent insight into the inner workings of the literary industry.
It dawned on me: in the larger picture, and with each contribution, we were opening access to academic material to a global community; possibly even to some without access to higher education. In that sense, we felt as if our positions of academic privilege, in this case, were used in a productive and egalitarian way, even if it may have been a small feat. Knowing that our contributions to the open source anthology would be read, understood, and interpreted by future readers from all avenues of life is a mesmerizing thought.
Having been led to believe in the authoritative role of the textbook, its glorified place in academia, this project turned that notion on its head and, instead, cultivated a community of student-to-student communication that was far more productive and valuable to some of us than purchasing a $150 textbook. From the university student who can’t afford the textbook, let alone grip the thing, to the literary nerd aimlessly scouring the recesses of the Internet in search of a literary text, the benefits of being open are many. With an anthology for students written by students, we break away from a precedent of reading these works in esoteric circles, and open new, inclusive frontiers of engaging with a text and, more important, having access to it.
Matthew Moore is a writer, artist, and worker currently residing in rural Missouri.