Emily Drabinski on Critical Pedagogy

Below is one of a series of posts by participants in the 2020 Open Pedagogy Fellowship. Fellows will share their unique insights to the process of converting a syllabus to open or zero-cost resources, and/or review a workshop from the Open Educational Resources Bootcamp held in mid-January 2020.


Sally Sharif is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center. Upon completing the Open Pedagogy Workshop in January 2020, she revised her syllabus for the course “Civil Wars and Peacebuilding,” making it entirely open access. Her recent publications are “The Art of Winning a Peace Agreement: The Case of the FARC,” and “Predicting the End of the Syrian Conflict: From Theory to the Reality of a Civil War.”


Emily Drabinski on Critical Pedagogy by Sally Sharif

Emily Drabinski, now Interim Chief Librarian at the Graduate Center Library, presented at the OER Bootcamp in January 2020. She started the session with a think-pair-share on the definition of critical pedagogy, which elicited responses on four constitutive elements of critical action. First, critical thinking on the material taught; second, critical self-assessment by the learner; third, critical introspection by the instructor; and fourth, critical evaluation of learning. Attendees agreed that the last element was crucial for critical pedagogy because of the dialogue it opens between instructor and learner in critically assessing the act that is being performed – learning. Such critical assessment acknowledges and engages with the power dynamics that constantly evolve in the classroom between the learners and the instructor, as well as among learners.

Critical pedagogy is almost impossible if teaching and learning, and the roles of those involved in it, are defined by pre-existing –isms: racism, sexism, classism, and ableism. Drabinski noted that reflection by itself can be a critical practice and self-assessment means reflecting on the learning process without considering pre-defined norms. Decentering authority by the instructor is an important part of critical pedagogy, something that is not reflected in routine classroom assessments in the form of department reports or quantitative evaluations of learning.

Critical pedagogy also critically reflects on the purpose of learning. If teaching for liberation is the classroom’s goal, what are the voices that need to be included in the syllabus? Once those voices are selected, how can the instructor make sure they can be made available to students? Open pedagogy invites transparency into the process of material selection, which was previously closed to instructors. Critical engagement with course material involves not just the selection of texts, but reflection on how the use of open-access material affects student learning.

An edited volume on the topic of Critical Pedagogy in the context of library instruction.

While the instructor to a large extent reflects on the material included in the syllabus before a course begins, they are faced with the challenge of including students in the selection process. What if students are only interested in the credentials they will receive upon completing the class? Workshop participants agreed that critical pedagogy is a process that requires training for both students and instructors need: first-year college students should be familiarized with the process, without the expectation that they become proficient in it after a few classes. However, college seniors should be expected to be in a position to critically reflect on class material, the teaching, and learning goals.

The workshop ended with Drabinski describing what critical pedagogy means for the library and for librarians: engaging critically with information and how it is constructed, sold, bought, described, organized, preserved, and circulated. Critical pedagogy is an essential part of Open Pedagogy in its critical assessment of what open-source material is available to learners and how the universe of open-source material can determine what is taught and what is learned.

Capitalizing on the workshop material, I reconstructed my syllabus for the course “Civil Wars and Peacebuilding” at Baruch College, making the required course materials completely open access. I was surprised to find a host of books relevant to my class on CUNY Academic Works. I also critically studied the syllabus, asking myself how I could open a space within it for critical reflection on how political science theories about civil wars are created and adopted.

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is the Interim Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library.