Proposal for Using Commons in a Box in English Department

If you’re actively using the MLA Commons, you probably don’t need much convincing about its usefulness. But what about convincing someone to bring Commons In a Box, the WordPress add-on that powers the MLA Commons, to your own department? The following is a modification of a proposal I made to my chair to explore the possibility of using it in our department. If you’ve made a similar proposal, please post it on this blog. And leave comments–what would you add or leave out from the following post?

Some of the most exciting things happening in academia are the increased networks of communication and collaboration among researchers, teachers, and students. From an evolving department website, to Facebook, to improved faculty and graduate student web pages, many English departments have taken important steps to increase their online visibility and establish connectivity among its members. However, in some cases, members of the department essentially use this material passively. That is, they do not contribute to it. Or, to borrow from the digital humanities, they do not collaborate to build the department’s networks from within. As a result, members are like little islands except when they share with each other highlights of their work in the elevator and the photocopy machine, or at more formal events, such as community lectures or meetings.

Commons In a Box (CBox) may be a way to address the current situation. This project, developed by the City University of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY, is a free platform using WordPress for building online communities. The MLA has adopted the platform and at the 2013 Convention, it has become an exciting hive of activity. Similarly, an English department might use it as a space where its members may discuss issues, collaborate on projects, and share their work.

CBox has many dynamic features. It is a one-stop place for news and networking. It allows faculty and students to become an engaged community. For schools with more than one campus, English departments in different locations can draw closer together, if they wish. Members may easily post news and announcements. Faculty and students will stay informed about each other’s work. They might find collaborators on projects. Individuals and groups can create blogs. A wiki can be made available for sharing syllabi or for graduate students to share study material for comprehensive exams. Individual groups within a department, such as Americanists or Romanticists, could have a public or private space for discussion. CBox is not a substitute for the department website. Rather, it would augment the department’s online presence in a dynamic, interactive way.

The best example of CBox in action is the CUNY Academic Commons and the MLA Commons. Its members are extremely enthusiastic about the platform. Students at the Grad Center have told me that they use the site daily for communication and sharing research. They consider it integral to their academic life. As for myself, I can say that since signing up, I have been drawn to the MLA Commons throughout the day, catching up on news from the Convention and joining groups. Moreover, I’m thrilled to be able to create a group to connect with people who want to develop an online community in their own departments. We all have much to learn from each other. I also see the MLA Commons as a major bright spot amid the doom and gloom that sometimes seem to pervade academia these days.

There are many other benefits of using CBox in an English department. It is a friendly way for individuals who resist academia’s digital realm to test those waters. CBox also gives students valuable experience in both creating an online presence and using software tools needed to build it. It gives teachers and students an opportunity to develop and grow an interactive community. If the platform is adopted, the department sends a signal to the broader academic community that it is engaged with platforms at the forefront of academia. Closer to home, if the adoption of this platform is a success (perhaps other departments will decide to employ it), the administration will have more proof (not that it should need it) that the English department is a crucial node in any university or college’s efforts to position itself as a viable, if not major, 21st-century academic institution. For that reason, the administration should be kept informed of the project’s progress and effects on the English department’s community.

To explore how CBox might serve an English Department, there should be an investigation on cost, the human resources required to maintain it, how to promote it, and train people to use it. What are the best practices for documenting how the platform is used, as well as its successes and challenges?

More specific details about CBox come from the platform’s website:

CBOX provides:

  • Out-of-the-box functionality with an intuitive set-up that guides site administrators through each step of installation.
  • A powerful, responsive, highly customizable theme developed for community engagement, based on PressCrew’s Infinity Theming Engine.
  • Collaborative document creation and file sharing.
  • Reply-By-Email functionality for quick, on-the-go communication.
  • Compatibility with many other WordPress and BuddyPress themes and plug-ins.
  • Expansive wiki options.
  • Responsive design for easy viewing on many devices, including tablets and smartphones.

This post was modified from a document that Elizabeth Cornell wrote with the assistance of Allison Adair Alberts, at Fordham University.