“Free Somebody Else”

Below is the first in a series of posts by participants in the Winter 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship. 

Photo of Richard C. ClarkRichard C. Clark (They/She) is a doctoral student in Critical Social Psychology at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. Richard’s work focuses on the decolonial project of Dismantling White Supremacy. This work utilizes two interlocking foci: Decentering Whiteness & Deconstructing Normalcy. They are trained in a broad range of qualitative and quantitative research methods but specialize in Critical Discourse analysis and Thematic Analysis.

I tell my students, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Toni Morrison

I’ve waded through the swamp that we call academia for most of my life. The creatures in the murky waters tore at clothes and skin, demanding payment. The toxins from the swamp gas filled my lungs, making breathing all but impossible. The thick muck made each step a test of my resolve to keep pushing forward. However, while trudging through, I found countless pockets in the mud filled with treasure. Treasures that allowed me to know the world and myself within it. Treasures that gave me the language to speak on the feelings and experiences I trapped in my body, waiting for the day I might come to understand them. Holding these contradictory experiences, I found myself wondering: “Can we ever really pull free from this muck?” 

Much of my academic career has been a battle, and I believed that battle was just part of being a person dealing with compounding marginalizations in an American institution. I believed that hardship, violence, and pain was all part of the process. That to truly gain and give knowledge we need to suffer. What amazing lies I told myself! Once I became an adjunct, I realized so many of these hardships that I thought of as markers of advancement were really just unnecessary obstacles, made up of a combination of administrative gaslighting, inflated educator ego, inadequate resources, and/or deeply anti-collaborative mindsets. These factors combine to make students feel that everything, even the basic foundational materials, must come at a price. When I tell you, just thinking about it makes me want to fight everyone. Channeling that anger, as Audre Lorde taught me, I have spent my time as an adjunct finding ways to resist. One of the ways I do this is by finding and distributing zero-cost Open Educational Resource (OER) and Open Access (OA) materials in my classes and beyond. 

diagram of individual's experience of privilege and oppression in several categories

“Big 8 Privilege & Oppression Matrix” by Richard Clark is licensed under CC BY 4.0

More than just providing free textbooks/readings, I attempt to embody a critical sense of freedom that is mindful of all the social forces that helped and hindered folks on their journey(s) to my class. I say “attempt,” because I am human and don’t always get it right.  Using Bianca C. Williams’ Radical Honesty as Pedagogy, my students and I co-create a space that feels fundamentally different from the many oppressive classrooms that exist in the academy. I incorporate voluntary activities where students not only engage more deeply with the material, but that also ask them to engage with themselves in relation to it and larger societal forces. One such example, in my Community Psychology classroom, based on Kim & Andrews (2017) Privilege and Identity Wheel in combination with Collins (1990) Matrix of Domination is the Privilege and Oppression Matrix activity (personal example provided). Using lead-in questions I ask my students to fill out their own matix. With guiding breakout room questions and big group discussion I ask my students to hold the complexity of themselves in relation to their communities, and larger social forces. Also, to think about their communities within and beyond this matrix’s limited categories. Each time I do this activity, I ask for feedback in their weekly check-in questions, making it more and more meaningful with each iteration. Past students improve the experience of present students, just as present students will do for future students. Creating a legacy of collaboration rather than one of violence or individual achievement.

Though this activity and its feedback, I have seen students engage in ways I didn’t think possible in academia. With engaging activities, OER/OA materials, and vital shifts in classroom dynamics I can see my students finding voice, finding hidden contexts, and finding truths. I see them easily freeing and using their own treasures. It’s in this process that I have found the answer to my question. We can only free ourselves from the muck together. Freeing ourselves from the hardship can be as simple as finding OER or OA high quality readings to teach your class with, but it can also be more complex, such as changing the feel and structure of the classroom itself. It can be a combination of the two, or something even more revolutionary, beyond my imagination. What matters is that if we truly want to be free, we must do whatever we can to help free somebody else.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.