building an academic wordpress ecosphere

Summers are nice for academics because it gives us a chance to work hard on research and other projects that seem to getcrowded out by service, teaching, writing conference papers, and the like during the academic year.  One of my goals for this summer is to restructure and organize my own online ecosphere– the places I live and interact as a professional academic. It’s my online habitable zone. For now, and for the foreseeable future, this zone is constructed on the wordpress platform because,

  • wordpress has an initially shallow learning curve
  • there are plugins that do just about everything I need to do for the needs of my various sites
  • WP 3.0 makes constructing a multisite network very easy
  • the new menus feature eases bringing external/non-wp sites into one’s online ecosphere

The chart represents what my plans are for developing this habitable zone. is the center, and also the core site in my multi-site installation. What should an academic put on their home page? I’ve decided on the basics– c.v., syllabi (I think everyone should share their syllabi freely), a page about my research, and this blog. I’ve had this blog for a couple of years now, and don’t feel the need to relocate it, especially given the ease with which one can feed a site with this plugin. The sites that orbit fit into a variety of research, teaching, and service needs.

I love using wordpress as my Course Management System (CMS). Yes, that acronym usually means something else in the tech world, and in edtech the CMS is also known as Learning Management System/LMS – but I find that term ridiculous, because I’m managing my courses, not my students learning. That’s their responsibility.  I’ve opted for a subfolder multisite installation, so each of my classes from now on will have their own subfolder site instead of a subdomain. One of my preferred assignments is to have students write weekly posts on their own blog, which I then feed onto the course site. I have found over the past year that students are much more likely to write thoughtfully if they are doing so on their own space on the web. That’s not universal, but rather an impression from reading weekly responses in a variety of forms (journals, emails, closed discussion boards on blackboard, 5min writing exercises at the beginning of class, and on public blogs) over the past 5 years. With a combination of the feedwordpress and add_a_link plugins, and a custom menu entry filtered by a category particular to the course, the student blog feed is automated to its own page. At the beginning of the semester, students have to register their own blogs on, blogger, or the like, and then go to the course page and add their link from a sidebar widget. The link is automatically added to the feedwordpress queue, and I then approve it. In addition to posts, I’m planning on video podcasting some of my lectures using the HTML5 video tag.

One bit of blackboard that I found myself using even after I’d abandoned the rest was the group email function. This coming year, my plan is to use a google form on the course site to populate a spreadsheet of student names and email addresses. That way, students can use the email address they most like to use. It’s a simple cut-and-paste from the spreadsheet to set up an email group.

On my local dev site (using MAMP), I’ve been playing with two other elements on the chart– a forum and a wiki. My plan for this coming year is to set up a forum on using Simple:Press for forums for each of my classes. Additionally, in the spring I’m teaching a Latin American history through film class that I want to have a wiki assignment, in which groups will construct a wiki for one of the semester’s films. I want them to understand wikis, and wikipedia in particular, and have been using wiki media on my dev site. So, I’m going to set up a separate install of wiki media and use it in the future for any time where a wiki assignment seems interesting.

I also lead dissertation writing group at UTK. I have set up a private site using commentpress. We meet every two weeks or so to discuss a member’s chapter or prospectus or other piece, as well as the process of dissertating. With the commentpress site, members of the group upload their work and we collaboratively read/comment on it before we meet face-to-face. It’s an experiment in digital peer review for them and me. It’s also the basis behind the works-in-progress bubble in the chart. I’m putting up a commentpress site to host my own work in progress, with appropriate copyright claims, for pre-review as it were. The utility of that will depend on connecting with other Latin Americanists interested in reading and conversing about work along the way.

Finally, I’ll mention that I’m still in the process of planning a site under the domain that will host my research materials, commentary, and the like for my current research project on sex, punishment, and empire in the age of Charles III.

Taken together, I like that wordpress 3.0 makes it so easy to consolidate one’s professional online habitations, and makes it so easy to approach the production of academic knowledge in an open manner.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Digital History, Research and Writing, Teaching
9 comments on “building an academic wordpress ecosphere
  1. The Email Users plugin (as modified by Boone Gorges to work well with one specific blog in WPMU) is a great solution to emailing all the students if you have a whole-class blog (would probably work fine with feedwordpress aggregated blogs, too, although I haven’t tested that).

    Students can just enter their email addresses in their profiles right in WordPress, whatever addresses they like, and be responsible for keeping them updated.

  2. ctb says:

    Thanks, Joseph. I’ll give it a look. By the way, I really enjoyed reading your series of posts on Alternate Worlds. They’ve been helpful in thinking about some of the possibilities of wordpress as a CMS.

  3. Miguel says:

    I have been playing with Tumblr a little bit. I had an active blogspot blog last year (for the research trip), but feel the need to do more. I tried Tumblr because it is easy to work on from the old iPhone. Have you explored this issue with your setup?

  4. […] June 17, 2010 wordpress 3.0 official Posted by ctb under Uncategorized Leave a Comment  WordPress 3.0 was officially released for download today. I’ve written recently about my experiences playing around with the beta and rc releases over the past month or so. WP 3.0 really is a major upgrade filled all kinds of new — or at least new to the wp core– functionality. No more using plugins for custom menus, taxonomies, post-types, etc.  And, the default theme is really excellent. In fact, I like it so much I’m currently using it as the basis for my own wordpress ecosphere. […]

  5. Fabio says:

    Hello, do you have any tip for a free theme on WPMU to build a ecosphere for academic debate and article publishing?


  6. ctb says:

    Hi Fabio– well, I think the best theme for that is actually the commentpress theme which can be found here. Note, that version of commentpress isn’t in the wordpress plugin directory. Commentpress provides both a plugin and a theme which allows paragraph-by-paragraph commenting. This works better, I think, for article publishing and discussion than others. It can also be fixed up with CSS to look however you would like it to look. Aside from that, I the options are endless in the themes directory. For academic writing, I think minimalist themes, and maybe even serif fonts are better.

  7. […] know that I’m most familiar and comfortable with WordPress, which I’ve been using as a CMS for my teaching and other professional activities for a little while now. WordPress does so many things easily and well that work for edu deployment. […]

  8. […] building an academic wordpress ecosphere « parezco y digo […]

  9. […] ctb I use a multisite wordpress installation to manage all of my courses, and a number of other virtual presences, hosted on a VPS at dreamhost. In the process of moving everything onto the virtual machine, and […]

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