An Interview with the MLA’s Humanities Commons Team

The MLA’s Humanities Commons team maintains several WordPress projects to support Digital Humanities at colleges and universities.

If you've come across Commons in a Box (CBOX) in the BuddyPress ecosystem, CommentPress at the Institute for the Future of the Book, or either in the WordPress.org plugin repository, you may have wondered about their origins.

While they may not be well known in the larger WordPress community, these projects represent the purchase WordPress has as an open source platform in the academic world, especially in the field of Digital Humanities, which is shaping how scholarly research, teaching, and publishing is done and will be done in post-secondary institutions around the globe. 

The Modern Language Association‘s Humanities Commons (HC) is an example of CBOX at work on a large scale with WordPress Multisite. It actively serves more than 10,000 scholars and practitioners in the humanities. The HC team leadership took some time to talk about their history and vision for the future with WordPress and the Digital Humanities.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University;  she has been project director of HC from its beginning.

Eric Knappe is head of software development at the MLA and the technical lead on HC.

Anne Donlon is project manager for HC and other digital initiatives at the MLA.

How did you come to be involved with the digital humanities and the Humanities Commons project, and what is your background with WordPress? What are your goals and hopes for Humanities Commons?

KF: I came to the digital humanities in a somewhat roundabout fashion: I’d been studying representations of communication networks in contemporary American fiction and gradually found my interests shifting to an exploration of the ways that scholars in the humanities use those communication networks. In large part, this shift came from the fact that I’d started blogging in 2002 (on another platform; I migrated to WordPress in 2007) and was compelled by the potential the form presented for scholars and their communities. So when I became director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association in 2011, my central goal was to find a way for the organization to facilitate ongoing communication among its members using these systems.

AD: I’ve been working on Humanities Commons for a little over a year. When I was doing my PhD in English, I started using WordPress for a couple of small personal projects as well as teaching. Then, I served as managing editor for a journal published on the CUNY Academic Commons, the platform where Commons in a Box began. After graduate school, I worked as a CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) postdoc in an academic library on a number of digital projects. Humanities Commons draws on both my experience with the CUNY Academic Commons and with digital library infrastructure. I hope that Humanities Commons will grow as a space for people engaged with the humanities to share their work and make connections.

EK: I began working with open source CMS software (WordPress and Drupal) in 2005 after many years of consulting in the Oracle market. I was attracted to the LAMP stack and these database-backed content management systems. I worked on several small Drupal projects but by 2007 I was more interested in WordPress. In 2008, I went to work for the public television station WNET and contributed to running several WordPress multi-site installs. I worked on some high profile sites in the PBS network. I learned a lot working there and later at The New York Times. I came to the MLA in 2014 specifically to build the prototype for the Humanities CORE product. At that time there was only the one network: MLA Commons. That was my first introduction to digital humanities.

The growth of Humanities Commons has been fairly steady. The network has over 15,000 members. My hope is that we continue to attract people working in the humanities and that we enhance HC with additional features that scholars find useful.

Why was WordPress selected for HC? Are there any particular challenges (technical or otherwise) in developing and maintaining it? I'm guessing Commons in a Box was a factor — can you talk about the history of that project, its significance, and how “digital humanists” have been contributing code to the WP community?

KF: Before coming to the MLA, I was a co-founder of another scholarly network, MediaCommons. MediaCommons is built on another platform, one that’s not only far more difficult to maintain and upgrade but also far less user-friendly. I’d also been watching the development of the CUNY Academic Commons for a while, which was led by my friend Matt Gold at the Graduate Center, a thriving network connecting faculty and graduate students on all of the CUNY campuses around New York. So as I started thinking about the network that would evolve into Humanities Commons, I asked Matt whether his team had given any thought to packaging the work they’d done on the Commons in a way that could be re-used by other groups. As it turned out, they had; they proposed and received funding from the Sloan Foundation for what became Commons In A Box, of which the MLA became the first major user.

EK: The evolution of MLA Commons into Humanities Commons in 2016 was rapid, we had a lot to do in a short period of time. The idea behind HC is that scholarly societies have similar needs with respect to connecting with members and helping members connect with each other. We decided to take our Commons In A Box installation and morph it into a “Commons As A Service” platform. Scholarly societies can partner with us to provide a Commons to members without incurring the full cost of deploying and maintaining the platform.

Humanities Commons is a multi-network, multi-site install with one set of users. Each society has a network running a standard set of plugins including BuddyPress for Groups and User Profiles, among other features. The tricky part was adding another network — the HC hub — that has access to all public content from each of the society networks. We accomplished this with a large set of BuddyPress hooks and filters that control content access as needed depending on which network the user is accessing.

Societies and individual members can host WordPress sites on HC.

Our biggest challenge was integrating HC with our chosen Identity Management System. Our IDMS is based on the open source projects available from Internet2. We use the TIER components COmanage, Grouper, and Shibboleth. These projects are widely used in higher ed., particularly Shibboleth. We run both Shibboleth SPs and IDPs. Our IDMS consultant helped us extend Comanage with plugins that add the ability to query society membership systems in real time to provision users with the correct memberships. We currently integrate with three different membership management systems.

AD: We can see evidence of digital humanists’ contributions to the WP community in a few ways on Humanities Commons, not only in Commons in a Box, but also in tools like CommentPress. The MLA published an anthology, Literary Studies in a Digital Age, on MLA Commons that uses CommentPress both for a public peer review process and annotation of the revised version. Another project, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, used CommentPress during a public peer review process, and we’re currently developing a site on the Commons for the revised version, which will allow readers to mix and match artifacts to create their own collections for research and teaching.

What kind of future do you see (or hope to see) for WordPress and open source software in higher education?

EK: I'm very excited by the growth of WPCampus, which has run conferences (IRL and virtual) twice a year for three years and has grown to over 800 members. It has a fairly active Slack community where folks can ask questions and share experiences of what is working in higher ed. and what is not. It is very different from the WordPress Slack experience which is WordPress developer focused.

WordPress multi-site is getting some much-needed enhancements recently and higher ed. is well represented on the multi-site team. We have found multi-network, multi-site WordPress to be a very flexible platform. I think it is a natural fit for institutions that have a multitude of web properties to manage.

AD: The widespread use of WordPress means that there’s a lot of possibilities for shared development efforts. For Humanities Commons, we’re interested in creating spaces for collaboration and communicating among people engaged in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. We’re thinking about what connections we can make with other organizations and initiatives, whether in WordPress higher ed, or digital library infrastructure.