Tim Robbins Presents Open Anthology of American Literature at MLA Convention

The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature continues to grow and evolve. Robin DeRosa, professor at Plymouth State University, and her students, who were looking for a cost-savings anthology for their classroom, started the project. Now, with support from the Rebus Community, the book is under the wing of a new lead editor, Timothy Robbins, assistant professor of English at Graceland University. The anthology has since expanded to include more texts, with collaborators from institutions around the U.S. contributing to the book.

Next, Tim will present the anthology and its iterations at the annual Modern Language Association convention on Jan. 5. He will show Robin’s initial book shell, Abby Goode’s recent classroom-led revision, his own class’s revisions, and the current work in progress with Rebus. If you’re in New York, we encourage you to attend Tim’s session and learn more about this dynamic project.

Inspired by Robin’s experience, Tim included an assignment in his course for students to help expand the anthology. His students read through the texts in Robin’s shell, which included what Tim calls a “potpourri of canonical and ‘minor’ writers.” Tim says his students completed activities to guide their classroom discussions and also give them the skills needed to build the anthology, which they did in teams near the end of the semester.

As part of the process, Tim’s students read about and discussed open education and Creative Commons licensing. Early in the term, student teams participated in developing criteria for evaluation and grading. Tim says that he found this “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.”

During the term, students used the Pressbooks software to format the anthology. They located and annotated secondary research, edited texts, wrote introductions, all while focusing on “how to make the texts ‘teachable.’” At the end of the semester, teams led a classroom lesson based on their newly designed anthology chapter. The expanded anthology included entries for authors and texts not yet represented in traditional texts.

“My own ‘American Literature to 1900’ course charts some of the various, often contentious stories of “American” culture’s movements towards inclusion, emancipation, and equality across those four centuries of coverage,” Tim says. “When I took on the project with Rebus, I knew that inclination would color the anthology’s roster, a case reinforced in the current Table of Contents. As expected, the sections track roughly chronologically and feature representative authors and texts. Indigenous creation stories confront European colonial documents; the early texts of New England’s Puritan pulpits are met and challenged by the voices and pens of native peoples, African slaves, and women writers. The American Revolution gives 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 include the familiar names of the ‘American Renaissance’—Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville—in tandem with the literature of abolitionism. The post-Civil War sections aim to balance the significant social writings of the Gilded Age and Reconstruction era with the emergence of realist fiction.”

Robin DeRosa reflects on the expansion, saying: “When my students and I created the first version of The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, we were mainly trying to save money. Students were regularly paying about $85 to purchase an anthology full of literature that was virtually all in the public domain. The first Fall that we used the book started off a little rough: We realized it didn’t have any of the introductions or illustrations or annotations that students generally rely on in commercial anthologies. So that semester, students started adding these things to the book, and before long, we realized that the cost-savings were the least exciting part of our dynamic, student-generated textbook. By the end of that semester, students had created lots of great content, other schools had begun using the book, and I had a whole new sense of the pedagogical possibilities inherent in open textbooks.”

Rebus is excited to be building off of Robin and her students’ work, and could not be more grateful to have Tim at the helm. With Rebus’ support, further entries have been added to the anthology, with more expected in 2018. Roughly 30 entries are completed and polished, and we’re seeking more contributors, including people to take the lead on organizing and writing introductions to the various periodized sections. Tim’s student assistants at Graceland have been charged with line editing, and he has also enlisted a graphic design major to help create a new cover for the anthology.

Robin is proud to see the anthology grow. “Now that Rebus is facilitating a more coordinated expansion of the project, you can’t imagine the pride that my students and I feel knowing that our initial work was the seed that led to the emergence of what will be such a game-changing text,” she says. “There is nothing in my career I feel prouder of being a part of than this project, and I am so grateful to the current editors and team at Rebus for taking our small idea and growing it so beautifully: What a wonderful example of the open community at work!”

The open text is gearing up towards an official launch in the summer, but given the nature of this project, the text will continue to evolve and grow indefinitely. Stay tuned for more updates later in the year, and for those who’ll be in New York in January, please support Tim at the MLA convention on Jan. 5!

If you’d like to collaborate with us on this unique project, please let us know in the Rebus Community forum.

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