Millikin University Associate Professor of English, Dr. Michael O’Conner, is taking a different direction with his American Literature Survey course, “American Literature Through Twain.” This fall semester, the first iteration of his American literature anthology will be available to undergraduates at no charge digitally and online. The online anthology contains primary source materials with teaching and learning materials available through web links.
“I had been thinking about this project for a long time and over the last two years I was lucky enough to get the Hardy Professorship in the English Department,” remarked O’Conner. “The Hardy Professorship allowed me to work on a project like this and it has allowed me to bring the project to a near culmination.”
O’Conner put the anthology together through bits and pieces during its early stages, but he has made major strides over the last two years. The idea behind the Digital American literature anthology project is to adapt to the growing trend of students reading textbooks digitally.
“Over the last five to ten years I have noticed students at the undergraduate level have had difficulties paying for textbooks,” remarked O’Conner. “Part of my pedagogy is having students read critically and highlight texts. With the rise of the ability of anyone to self-publish, and with more students able to read texts online, that led me to the decision to publish my own textbook. Offering a free textbook would make students more inclined to mark up books and worry less about having to sell them back at the end of the semester.”
O’Conner is involved with an academic discipline that works well with self-publishing primary textbooks. He teaches the early portion of American Literature, much of which is in the public domain and out of copyright.
“Because there’s only so much time in a semester - you may only cover a third to a half of the material in a printed book,” remarked O’Conner. “That led me to think that if I had my own textbook it would only have the texts that I teach from year to year. There’s a sense of having control as an editor to be able to select portions of particular books that are going to work with my class. There’s a control factor involved with the process of this project.”
One of the key aspects of the project for Dr. O’Conner was the editing process and the decisions about which texts were going to be a part of his book.
“The nice thing about being in a 21st century society is that we are slowly converting to reading text on a screen, whether it’s a laptop or a tablet,” remarked O’Conner. “In my particular discipline, it’s become important to get as many of my students as possible to make this conversion. By getting more students to make the shift to electronic text reading it will give them access to so many more free books and resources for this particular discipline.”
Dr. O’Conner foresees the possibility of other professors of American Literature to be able to use these works. All material that he will compile and refine is going to be under a creative commons license which would allow anyone on the World Wide Web to use the materials and adapt them for their own purposes, as long as they are non-commercial.
“One of the future elements I want for this project is the addition of media,” remarked O’Conner. “Eventually I foresee students helping to create multimedia in the sense of audio or video recordings of the writings that they will allow me to add to the textbook. This would allow students at Millikin to become practitioners and be able to get into the act of creating the next version of the textbook.”
O’Conner’s fall semester course, “American Literature Through Twain,” has 29 Millikin undergraduates who have the opportunity to use the electronic textbook. The textbook will be available through several versions including web page format for laptops, versions for tablets and iPads, e-readers, and printable PDF format.
“I will try to survey the students at the beginning and at the end of the semester to see what sort of feedback they have about the project,” remarked O’Conner. “Hopefully I can make some changes in the next version or in the way I approach the next version. I certainly hope the majority of the students will be open to this project because it will open up so many resources for them to use. If the students can become comfortable reading text online, then there are literally hundreds of novels, short story, and poetry collections available to them for free. They can then carry around an entire literature library with them all the time, in a single lightweight device.”