Languaging in the CUNY Academic Commons

Below is the fourth 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. 

Anthony J. Harb is a Palestinian-American PhD student in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures at the CUNY Graduate Center. He also teaches courses in Spanish language and linguistic anthropology at Medgar Evers College and Brooklyn College respectively. Working in collaboration with a Spanish-language community radio program in rural Minnesota, his research takes an ethnographic and participatory action research approach to consider radio’s potential to reimagine Spanish language education. Anthony has been a Posse Scholar, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and the recipient of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant in Madrid, Spain.

Languaging in the CUNY Academic Commons by Anthony J. Harb

This semester, where both accessibility and grief about global uncertainty makes building virtual communities even more difficult, I look to OER as a space to encourage collaborative knowledge production and create a space to archive my students and my virtual classroom. This is our modest step towards the need to reconceptualize the value of lived knowledge in academia. 

“Language” by Nofrills is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching and learning about language is that most people have something to say about it. Whether signed, gestural, or verbal, language is a social practice that is part of human experience in ways nothing else is. As an educator, language’s ubiquity is my biggest advantage; everyone has some level of expertise, which makes for lively and experientially-driven class discussions. This is also one the most challenging aspects of what I perceive to be my job, which is to encourage my students to contextualize their personal experiences with and perceptions of language use within broader public discourse about language and its speakers. I attempt this by illustrating the ways in which linguistic anthropology has observed how language and language ideologies are active forces in the construction and enactment of social inequalities, as well as their dismantling, on an interactional and institutional level. 

A crucial thread in this conversation is that knowledge produced about language is often fraught with deficit discourses that position some speakers and forms of knowledge as inferior to others. The movement towards OER helps us think through this process of (de-)legitimization and encourages us to teach and learn through sources that reject the neoliberal market of paywalled academic publishing, which limits widespread access to academic work. In conjunction with the context of the moment, this form of critical pedagogy also pushes us to reimagine our classes in ways that incorporate information justice in the very design of the syllabus.

I am teaching an Anthropology course at Brooklyn College this semester called People and Language, an introductory linguistic anthropology class that I’ve designed as part of my participation in the Open Pedagogy Fellowship. Apart from incorporating as many open resources as possible (a difficult feat for critical language studies, sadly), two colleagues and I have designed a project that gives our students an opportunity to publish and publicize what they are reflecting on as part of the class. Instead of a traditional, individual midterm exam, my students will work in groups to create a blog post on the topic they find most interesting: sign languages, language and race, gender, class, and national origin, language acquisition and socialization, language contact and contact languages, language and (social) media, among others. Under each topic, I’ve listed a series of open resources about the topic, ranging from academic articles to YouTube videos to feature-length documentaries. Once the students read a selection of the articles, the assignment is twofold: first, each student will write and audio record an ethnographic vignette that features a life experience or observation that helps illustrate the topic being discussed. Then, the students will gather in their groups (assigned based on topic interest) and collectively write an introduction and conclusion to their piece that unites and differentiates their vignettes.

The goal is not only for students to engage with the open access course material within language studies, and to do so alongside their peers and me, but also to position their voices as valid contributions to the field and general understanding of language as an embodied social practice. These blog posts will be published on the CUNY Academic Commons so that other students interested in the course, educators who teach about language, and anyone else interested in the topics has access to a set of writings rooted in the experience of our students and their understanding of whether or not what we learn through linguistic anthropology resonates in their daily lives.

I became interested in the idea of publicly archiving student-produced knowledge through open pedagogy in light of the ephemerality of online learning and a desire to present our findings beyond the confines of our little Zoom boxes. OER provides a platform to do this type of project in accessible and imaginative ways by engaging in a philosophical critique of information gatekeeping rooted in the capitalist structure of the circulation of knowledge, while also providing ways to transform how we interact with, create, and disseminate our ideas within and outside of the academic sphere. 

To use language is to do something in the social world. In our class, we are moving from language towards languaging by being active in the construction of critical forms of lived knowledge through and about one of the most universal social practices. I’m curious and excited to see how my first venture into open pedagogy goes, and what my students, colleagues, and I can create together. Be sure to check out our site and join our conversations about language!

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is currently the Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library. They're also proud to serve on the University LGBTQ Council, and as a board member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies.