The Art of Open Pedagogy

Below is the third in a series of posts by participants in the Summer 2020 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight to the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship. 


Anna Carroll is a 3rd year student in the Art History PhD Program at The Graduate Center, with a specialization in Early Christian and Byzantine Art. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Art History at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the early Byzantine church and asks questions about how church design and decoration functions within the liturgical environment- how did people interact with art objects, and how did this affect their experience? She currently teaches ART1010 (Art: Its History and Meaning), the introductory art history class at Brooklyn College, and is passionate about making art history interesting, relevant, and accessible to students from all academic backgrounds.


The Art of Open Pedagogy by Anna Carroll

Art history, as a discipline, has baggage. Picture the stereotypical armchair art historian, scrutinizing pictures and judging their quality and aesthetic value. This archetypal scholar determines what’s beautiful and what’s worthy. This image seems to pervade popular culture, but this is not what art history is, at least not anymore. Former President Obama once said that obtaining an art history degree is not as useful as learning a skilled trade; he later apologized, but, in some ways, he was right and many undergraduates (and their parents) seem to agree. There is something about art that is, or at least feels, antiquated, privileged, and unwelcoming. I believe this can be well addressed with open pedagogy.

Teaching an open course with Open Educational Resources (OER) is a deceptively difficult task. When I taught my first class in the Fall of 2019, I did not require my students to purchase a textbook; textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars apiece, and to require a class of 45-65 undergraduates, mostly non-majors, to shell out that kind of cash seemed ludicrous. I gathered readings from free online resources and museum websites, and happily deemed my course “OER.”

While my students certainly appreciated not being asked to spend upwards of a $100 on a textbook, I quickly discovered further barriers to education, in cost, technology, and ideology that went far beyond the simple and suddenly less-radical rejection of the textbook. A particularly problematic ideology for an art history class is the assumption that there is only one kind of “good” art, and that “good” art has a single meaning; this enforces the Western canon and discourages creative and critical thinking. Students must feel like there is space for their ideas- which are, more often than not, provocative and pertinent. What then makes an art history class accessible and relevant? Putting pictures of objects up with a projector feels distant; it keeps students at arm’s length from the art, and reinforces the idea that art isn’t for everyone – not everyone gets to touch, let alone see, the objects.

In New York City, there seems to be a very obvious solution—museums. After all, New York is the center of the art world, and its art is (often) free to view; why not send students out into the museum? While I always felt at ease in the statue-lined halls of The Met, many of my students have expressed a profound discomfort entering art historical academic and museological spaces. Many museums, though certainly not all, are free, but have “suggested donations,” which create a cost of admission. Behind safely guarded doors, the art that lines the halls serves a canon that reinforces patriarchal, colonial, and imperialist ideals. The information about the works of art on display comes on small labels; sometimes there’s more information online, but often a visitor is asked to pay for an audio guide or buy an exhibition catalog if they want to learn more.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that all arts resources should be free, but isn’t it my job as a professor to prepare my students for this environment? I ask my students to think critically, to seek out information and ask tough questions, but when they arrive at the museum they are faced with an institution that puts a price on their curiosity. I should add that I feel incredibly lucky to teach in New York City and to have access to museums; but it is worth noting that the atmospheres of many institutions aren’t “open” and that the powers that be that control these spaces could very well benefit from participating in their own Open Pedagogy Fellowship. But, this blog is not the place to opine at length about the shortcomings of museums. My point is simply; what at first appears open, isn’t always truly accessible, and open education and open pedagogy as a philosophy can make known and address this shortcoming.

So, what is the goal of Open Educational Resources, if it isn’t just classes without pricey textbooks? That’s really what I searched for when I began my (still nascent) journey to open pedagogy. For me, open pedagogy became a grounding philosophy in what my responsibilities are as a professor. It’s not just about creating a zero-cost course, but about actively removing obstacles that students face in my (currently virtual) Introduction to Art History course and in the learning environments they will enter during and after my class. There is a misconception that using free online resources mitigates financial inequities or that using a public facing website instead of a private class on Blackboard is a catchall. Rather, open pedagogy asks us to actively think through the barriers that are built into the education system, and to bring our students in as we dismantle them. It means making students active learners, and encouraging them to question educational structures that they are a part of. Yes, it certainly means using zero-cost materials, and giving credit to the creators of these resources, but there is a greater ideology of open access that encourages us to be critical in our own learning and pedagogy.

And, as I learned this summer, it means continually building resources for open access and zero cost education. As a professor I cannot, in the blink of an eye, transform a closed class into an open one. A commitment to open access pedagogy is a continual commitment to its greater philosophy, rather than a short-term investment with a set finish line.

For me, this is about setting expectations for myself as a student and a teacher, and committing to open access as an ever-evolving pedagogical goal. While keeping my class zero-cost, I need to also hold myself accountable to creating spaces for open discussions about these topics and to allow my students agency in their learning. I set a goal for myself to update my course over this and coming semesters in order to serve the canon less and my students more. This involves asking questions about what is open and what is not, even though it might appear to be; students should not be left isolated to navigate obstacles to their own education. Rather, through open pedagogy, we, as a community of learners, can begin to tackle those barriers – and, perhaps most crucially at the present moment, acknowledge their existence.

About the Author

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