What We Have in Common(s): WordPress and its Anthologizing Possibilities
By Anne Lovering Rounds
When I think about the Teaching and Learning Commons website I designed for my colleagues in the English Department at Hostos Community College, a South Bronx campus that is part of the City University of New York, I think of the TV show Portlandia.1 In one sketch from the show, which satirizes the liberal culture of Portland, Oregon, the show’s co-stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen portay the owners of a social media company, LinxPDX, that has recently taken over one of Portland’s newspapers. In these roles, they advise erstwhile journalists on how to adapt to the change from print journalism to the online environment. “We don’t actually have articles. We have links to other articles,” Carrie’s character says. Fred’s character advises one staff writer, “Think of yourself less as journalist…and more of a linkalist.”
When I set up the Teaching Commons website, intended as a resource for faculty members and students, the truth is I felt complicit in the ethos Portlandia is lampooning. The site includes an area entitled “Links to Texts,” where users can click through to articles, stories, and poems frequently assigned in the curricula of the college’s bread-and-butter English composition courses. “We don’t actually need to engage students or faculty members with the words in the literature we teach,” I imagined myself saying in a deadpan pitch for the website. “We just need the Commons to provide links to the words.” But as I reflect on the experience of designing the Commons, what particularly interests me is, in fact, the nature and consequences of this “linkalizing” capability.
As a considered repository of links to other texts, the Learning Commons acts as a new kind of anthology in the digital age. It is a collection of access points to articles and creative works, and in this way, it is a space for curating those works. I thus believe that the Commons’ “Links to Texts” page benefits from exposure to the questions that book historians and cultural critics like Leah Price (The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel), Barbara Benedict (Making the Modern Reader), and Anne Ferry (Tradition and the Individual Poem) have studied with respect to print anthologies. Such questions might be: on what basis does an anthology decide what to include and what to leave out? For what purpose is it made? Who empowers the canon it comes to reflect? And through what technology is that canon being disseminated and received? These are rich, complex questions, even when we address them for analog rather than digital or born digital anthologies, and the answers depend variously on a critic’s choice of national scope, choice of methodology, focus on a particular genre, and focus on particular medium such as print text or audio recording. But the question of technology’s relationship to anthology-creation would seem to have special relevance to a site such as the Learning Commons.
Before we address this question in the context of what I’m calling a digital anthology, we should acknowledge it as an equally important and interesting one in the context of print media artifacts, and the ways these artifacts shape encounters with literature. In Anne Ferry’s words,
The size of any book is always constrained by practical considerations…how heavy it is to hold, how portable, how conveniently sized to display or store, all possibilities inseparable from the consideration of what price it will sell for. Then the physical dimensions and cost are determined by paper, type face, format, binding, illustrations, and so on. (Ferry 24-5)
Speaking of 17th- and 18th-century anthologies like A Poetical Rapsody Containing, Elegies, Madrigalls, and other Poesies (1602) and The Warbling Muses, Or Treasure of Lyric Poetry: Containing Seven Hundred and Thirty-one Songs (1749), Ferry observes these anthologies’ “heightened awareness of the book as a containing space,” noting that anthologies have a predilection for calling attention to their own spatial dimensions (24). Thinking ahead in history, to books I have assigned or been assigned in my own courses, we can see that these spatial dimensions vary hugely among works calling themselves anthologies, from a slender work like Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets (128 pages) to the door-stopping Norton Anthology of English Literature in its many editions (3,078 pages). In the case of anthologies, the decision of size rests in a unique way with the aesthetics of the compiler, and on the brand experience the compiler wants the book to portray. But size also necessarily rests on pragmatic, material concerns. There is a risk, a pricetag, and a timeline of months or years for printing, binding, and distributing a 3,000-page book. In addition to the cost to the publisher and the price set for the intended reader, there is also a concrete experience of meeting a poem in such a material context, one tiny lyric on one of 3,000 tissue-paper-thin pages.
As a medium for anthologizing literary texts, and when it comes to creating containers for literature or literary metadata, the web dramatically alters this set of concerns because of the easy access and immediacy it offers potential anthologists. Not long ago, I updated the Commons’ “Links to Texts” page with links to the spring 2015 semester’s common final exam selections in the two-semester English composition sequence, providing links to articles in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. After I emailed the English department’s faculty members to say the site now had these links up, a course manager let me know within the hour that a link to one of the articles was missing, and I made the fix in minutes. After receiving a kind thank-you email for the page from another colleague, I remembered that he frequently assigns Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” in his course, and I updated the list of links, again within minutes.
At the end of Canons by Consensus, Joseph Csicsila suggests that
Recent pedagogical innovations such as Internet-based libraries, customized textbook publishing, and multimedia software technologies are poised to challenge the traditional college-level anthology of American literature—and its privileged, prominent place in the academic literary curriculum—in ways that course-packs, supplemental photocopies, and inexpensive paperbacks never could. (Csicsila 207-8)
Perhaps a site like the Commons is one of the kinds of innovation Csicsila has in mind, one that easily allows individual teachers, or the representatives of discrete departments, to be editors of their own anthologies. What is exhilarating about the “Links to Texts” collection is its instant gratification element—its ability to be so responsive to the mutable and unique curriculum of a department. The Commons does not replace the intellectually challenging and stimulating work of discussing what texts to include in the curriculum. But because of the speed with which it can reflect changes or updates to that curriculum, because of the ease with which its curator can solicit and represent voices in the department, and because the web removes traditional concerns about how large a container can be, the Commons represents a powerful shift away from the one-size-fits-all authority, as well as the potential physical heft, of a print anthology typically assigned as a default textbook.
Equally interestingly, the concerns that an online “Links to Texts” collection raises resemble concerns about the anthology in the print era. Anne Ferry glosses the lengthy title of a 1704 anthology, The Theatre of Ingenuity: Or, The Gentleman’s and Lady’s Pleasing Recreation and Delightful Pastime at Leisure Hours, by saying the title suggests “anthologies have the advantage in containing discontinuous, short pieces suited to the desultory mode of reading that had come to be called dipping” (Ferry 29). Despite its weight and despite its conscious or subconscious practices of selectivity, the print anthology has also always been, in a way, a bid for open access—a would-be space saver, and a container where a higher quantity of stuff is more readily available to a wider audience, an inclusivity that the name Commons continues to evoke. But along with this inclusivity historically has come the concern that the anthology promotes “skipping and dipping” reading practices, and this is no different in the age of the digital anthology. If the Commons’ “Link To Texts” space provides a unique, mindfully curated, readily accessible, and low- to no-cost introduction to curricular literature, it cannot ensure that students are clicking on the links, nor that they are reading the material once they have clicked, nor that they are information literate about web sources. While the digital anthology can redefine the contours of canonicity, it cannot stand in for the work of reading, thinking, or teaching.
Yet I still believe the ability to make the anthology both institution-specific and digital can transform literary encounters, because a Commons-type space can highlight questions of information literacy in a new way. If links to texts or digital versions of literature do not necessarily alter the content of the material from what a print copy would also provide, they can bring questions about textual publication, legitimacy, and authority to the fore. This in itself is a useful means for confounding student expectations and therefore a prompt for learning. Many of my students enter the classroom fearing that they will not be good at the coursework, or anticipating that they will dislike it; for them, reading and the hardcopy form it takes are at special risk for seeming arbitrarily authoritative and immutable. Just as reading could feel like an assigned, irrelevant, or difficult burden, the book could come across as a required, inconvenient object incapable of being altered. If the online anthology allows students to wonder what a book is, who decides on its content, and how that content appears—and, even further, if the online anthology allows us to teach students that these elements are potentially flexible rather than dispassionately imposed—isn’t that cause for everyone’s excitement?
- The address for the site is commons.hostos.edu/englishcommons
Csicsila, Joseph. Canons by Consensus: Critical Trends and American Literature Anthologies. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Print.
Ferry, Anne. Tradition and the Individual Poem: An Inquiry Into Anthologies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. Print.