As part of Open Access Week, Manifold is featuring interviews with the creators of exemplary projects that use Manifold's capabilities to the fullest. Our third installment in this series is The Negro and The Nation. We interviewed Justin Rogers-Cooper, a Professor at CUNY LaGuardia and the Graduate Center, about this collaborative project.
This project is partly a story about the network effects of the CUNY Graduate Center, where I got my PhD in English and was later appointed as a faculty member in the Master of Liberal Studies (MALS) program. In Spring 2019, I learned about Manifold from Krystyna (Krysia) Michael through spontaneous social and professional occasions common among Grad Center folks. At the time, Krysia was on the development team for Manifold at the Grad Center working as an open educational technologist. We both knew a mutual colleague of ours, Matt Gold, who was directing the Digital Humanities initiatives at the Grad Center. Through Krysia and fellow technologist Jojo Karlin, I discovered how to adapt Manifold into my upcoming class for the MALS program, “American Culture and Values.” Through their generous time and instruction, I learned more about the platform and its capacities, and was able to design an interactive assignment around the recovery of Hubert Harrison’s out of print book from 1917, The Negro and the Nation.
Manifold lends itself to different forms of collaboration, and that’s one its best aspects. The Manifold team, led by Krysia and Jojo, generously provided my class and me with tips, resources, and support from the planning stage forward. Jojo actually came to my class and started getting the students excited to learn more. Krysia provided tons of technical assistance that was necessary to actually realizing the project on the platform, and provided superb feedback on the assignment as it evolved around the Harrison text.
Of course, another layer of collaboration took place in and out of the class. The project, punningly entitled “The Manifold Harrison,” became a center of gravity for classroom discussion throughout the semester. Since one of the key aspects of our assignment was annotating the text, many of our discussions focused on how to connect passages from the text to other works of American Studies we were reading. As students read each other’s annotations, their comments and feedback led to recurring conversations between them. Many took place before and after class. Having a common, collective assignment on a core project like The Manifold Harrison thus spurred the sparks of collegiality one always hopes to ignite in a class.
The main feature of this project is the annotation tool, where students could make formal comments on certain passages and link them to relevant media, and which allowed them to make connections, comments, and citations.
As I share in an upcoming conference presentation with Matt, Krysia, and other Manifold scholars in the CUNY system, I encountered one expected challenge and a couple unexpected ones (by the way, check out the awesome work of Christina Katopodis, Jason Neilsen, and Paul Hebert!.
I knew that having CUNY students learn another online platform can sometimes be frustrating for them. I addressed this like most faculty address technology in the classroom: through patience, demonstration, encouragement, and modeling. If you’re not creating and sharing resources about how to use a platform, and not actively modeling how to complete the work in class, it can be difficult to have students meet one’s expectations and deadlines. This required that I use some class time somewhat differently than in prior MALS courses.
What I didn’t expect was the students’ initial intimidation at creating permanent annotations in a published text, which I attribute to the ‘imposter syndrome’ common among graduate students and to their respect for Harrison’s intellect. To address the former, I made clear that their reactions, connections, and comments upon The Negro and the Nation were necessary elements of ‘recovering’ Harrison and his work. They were not only ‘recent voices’ on the text, but some of the only ones, sadly, that were identifying passages of interest to American Studies and to a wider public. In short, their efforts were important, but also, inevitably, novel.
I also asked them to look upon the permanence of their contributions as a kind of meaningful gift to future students, who would learn from their annotations and add to them. Feeling like they were part of an on-going project ended up relaxing them, in part because they imagined they were writing to an audience like themselves.
For one, it’s compelling to me that I was able to assign chapters from The Negro and the Nation to my students at LaGuardia Community College the semester after the recovery project in my Masters class. They read both Harrison and the annotations made by my MALS students, and that helped them understand the text.
Further, I committed to solely assigning OER texts at LaGuardia several years ago, and I was pleased to offer my two-year students a readable, accessible, and mobile-ready text to complement my traditional menu of PDFs and occasional commercial websites. Manifold is a powerful platform within the ecosystem of open access texts for both undergraduate and graduate students, in part because it models a kind of dynamic, media-rich, and mobile-friendly reading experience that students so often associate with for-profit apps and sites. For me, part of Manifold’s value comes from its ability to socialize the reading process, and to provide tools for collaboration around ‘academic’ reading practices that are competitive with, and more than equal to, the online experiences students naturally couple with platform capitalism.
In this respect, I think publishing Harrison’s book on Manifold as an open access text would make him smile. He was, after all, an avowed socialist. I have no doubt he would be delighted to learn that an advanced platform like Manifold was publishing and distributing his work to CUNY students, but also to readers everywhere. In a small way, I see that impact as part of his legacy, not just ours.
Justin Rogers-Cooper is an English professor at LaGuardia Community College, and a faculty member in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the CUNY Graduate Center. He's a scholar of nineteenth century American Studies, and a regular guest on the history-themed podcast Nostalgia Trap.