Review: Commons In A Box
One of my teaching goals is to end the practice of “Cul-de-Sac Pedagogy,” where students travel down sheltered roads, drop off assignments, and then make anxious return loops to collect their grades. Much to the students’ detriment, no one outside the cul-de-sac sees their work. I’ve recently promised my students that all major assignments would invite an audience larger than me, but achieving this goal would require a technological boost: enter Commons In A Box (CBOX), a free software project developed by Matthew K. Gold’s team at the City University of New York (CUNY). In one semester’s time CBOX’s functional versatility, as well as its open, non-proprietary environment, have helped improve the practical and philosophical elements of my teaching.
CBOX is not exclusively for academic use, so a few words are in order concerning my specific intentions. I sought out CBOX as a teaching and community-building tool for those interested in digital and public humanities. I teach literature and creative writing in an undergraduate humanities department whose primary mission is interdisciplinarity; accordingly, I wanted a platform that would help students reach larger audiences, as well as centralize and showcase the work of multiple humanistic disciplines. As someone who teaches face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses, I needed a tool that wasn’t bogged down in a proprietary course management system or too dispersed across a digital landscape of free, online services. CBOX provided versatility and centrality. In a single location my students could blog, use wiki resources, build pages, create and manage groups, and engage in discussion forums, all while maintaining control of their needs for academic privacy and public outreach.
The need for non-proprietary centrality is up to individual users, but one practical selling point of CBOX is student access to aesthetic control, something entirely absent in rigid course management systems and most campus-supported web space. CBOX allows curricular objectives to expand into the rhetoric of presentation: document design, digital literacy, and visual rhetoric were additional, valuable skill sets added to the customary writing portion of my curriculum. If you are someone who believes that students need early and frequent exposure to composition in digital environments, CBOX’s use of WordPress/BuddyPress facilitates just this: students gain experience with powerful, widely-used blogging and web design software where they are not walled off from CSS, HTML, PHP, or multi-media as it relates to the presentation of their work. CBOX’s versatile settings do allow you to lock down the environment through a wide range of permissions, yet its ability to involve students in the interface is the real payoff. Because CBOX adds the BuddyPress plugin’s networking capacity, students are not relegated to the role of user or consumer; the platform allows students to inhabit roles such as editor, curator, publisher, and even programmer.
Beyond this practicality, CBOX allowed me to make an important philosophical shift. In walled-off course management systems, students are relegated to being users — more accurately, customers — of an expensive educational product. I’ve often asked, “What is the benefit of this? What employer is starving for people who know how to use Blackboard or D2L?” The answer, of course, is none. Why not use a free product that not only saves the institution money (which ideally would come back to the students somehow), but also affords more learning opportunities in malleable, open-source environments? With CBOX, the environment can become part of the teaching-and-learning experience, and students are no longer shut out from obtaining these valuable skills.
My main goal in utilizing CBOX was outreach; instead of being trapped in the cul-de-sac, I wanted students to see their projects emerging within larger discussions and communities, thus allowing them to reflect on their place in, and relationship with, the humanities in general (though any discipline could easily employ CBOX to good effect). For example, I ran an entire course through CBOX instead of D2L (which my university system contracts with), while at the same time I and other instructors were developing additional material for our site, called the UWGB Commons for the Digital and Public Humanities.
As my students began publishing their blog posts in response to course texts, the CBOX platform allowed them to see their work not in isolation, but published alongside digital projects from German and History courses, a faculty project on the Oneida language, and listings for community events involving campus faculty and students. I cannot overemphasize the positive effect that publishing class work instead of merely “turning it in” has on students. Using CBOX, my students put their work into the world in a way that made it real, available, and networked; in other words, a good portion of our academic work shifted from private practice to public practice.
The centrality and accessibility of CBOX provided a coherent showcase for student and faculty projects — in my case, work specific to digital humanities — to people outside the university. It’s clear that the “value of the humanities” is always a hot topic, and since creating the UWGB Commons, I have had more requests for information about the work we are doing. Because CBOX allowed my students to create and post project suites connected to our readings, author Stephen Graham Jones unexpectedly linked to my students’ work on his novel from his author site. Needless to say, this was a great thrill for my class, and the CBOX platform is largely responsible for that visibility — in a previous version of the course, that work was inaccessible because it was dispersed across D2L, MediaWiki, GoogleSites, and standard Word documents. CBOX has also helped us promote our school’s humanities program, as the public nature of the site has led to new contacts with humanities-based grant offices; the first line of such emails usually reads, “I’ve been spending some time exploring your Commons site.” Unlike any other software I have used in my teaching, CBOX has facilitated more fluid connections between all of my goals, from process to product and beyond.
With any software platform there are logistical concerns, but CBOX has presented me with very few problems. Their support forums are busy and responsive, with both the creators and the user community cooperating to provide assistance. Because CBOX uses the BuddyPress plugin, the standard WordPress dashboard does become more diffuse and complicated, but if this minor inconvenience is what I have to deal with while reaping the benefits of this robust and still-developing tool, then I’ll gladly take it.