Saving Face as a Critical Pedagogue

Below is the second 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. 

August Smith is a doctoral student in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Their research broadly looks at race and racism in U.S. education with an overarching goal of understanding how teachers and students can resist and subvert white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalist exploitation. Their current working project uses critical race theory to investigate differences in students’ and teachers’ perceptions of social justice in their school with the goal of better understanding the impacts of culturally-sustaining empathetic practices.

If I can be totally honest, my interest in the Open Pedagogy Fellowship came from a place of selfishness.

I would like to believe that I applied because I felt a deep ethical commitment to open knowledge, or a desire to subvert academic gatekeeping, or some other noble motivation. But really, I spent my January of 2021 learning about Open Access (OA), Open Educational Resources (OER), and open-source software because I didn’t want to look like a hypocrite to my students. I’m in this for the sake of saving face.

This spring is my second semester teaching at Lehman. Before my assignment there, I had never taught before. I am also 24, so most of my students are my age or older. Plus, I am a stereotypical type A, super anxious graduate student. AND, thus far, my only teaching experience is online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this to say, it is very difficult to feel confident in any aspect of my teaching practice. I am radically honest with my students about my inexperience and lack of confidence. They are kind and caring and patient, so they work with me. And still, I want to have at least something that I can confidently offer to my students. So far, the one thing that I feel confident about in my instruction is that I am doing my very best to align the lessons from class with my own pedagogy.

 I teach a course titled “Education and Society.” The course catalog describes it as follows: “Analysis of education as a social institution, the school as a social system, and the professional and organizational roles of teachers. Special attention is given to the problems of the school in the urban community.” I have taken the freedom that the Lehman department of sociology has given me to make the course as critical as I can. On the first day of class, I explain that we will use our time together to better understand how U.S. education systems perpetuate inequality and oppression. More specifically, we look at how education functions within the oppressive organizing institutions of white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, imperialism, and and and. Our time together is spent critiquing the current U.S. education system(s) and imagining new education system(s).

Teaching a critical course about U.S. education while teaching in the U.S. opens up many opportunities for looking like a complete hypocrite. What would it look like if I taught about the symbolic violence that emergent bilinguals face while simultaneously grading students’ grammar? Or if we talk about the anti-Blackness inherent in dis/ability diagnosis yet I require they have a letter from the Office of Disability Services in order to receive accommodations? My fear of looking like a hypocrite to my students and my deep commitment to critical scholarship have worked together to push me to a teaching praxis that I am proud of, despite the inherently incomplete nature of such work. Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about one question that I could not resolve my first semester teaching: How can I spend so much time working with my students to critique the capitalist nature of U.S. education and in the same breath assign readings that are paywalled?

Yes, of course, they have access to the articles and readings since they are enrolled in a university that offers institutional access. But what about when they graduate? Or if they wanted to share a reading with a friend? (I am not delusional; I know very few would want to do those things. But it’s the principle of the thing!) How could I try to convince my students that capitalism makes education inherently unequal, while using texts that exploit scholars’ labor for profit? This tension felt irreconcilable. Yet I didn’t feel emotionally ready to let go of the paywalled texts that had once inspired me, nor did I have the tools to easily find open access materials. So, I just sat with that contradiction and tried not to think about it too much.

Luckily! I was accepted as an Open Pedagogy Fellow. With the support of the library staff and the other fellows, I have been able to integrate OER and OA materials into my class. For me, using OER and OA materials in my class serves to reconcile this contradiction I was dealing with. I am still weaning myself off of the classic paywalled texts that are most comfortable for me, so right now only half of my course readings are OER/OA. I am also using the open-source CUNY Academic Commons as my primary course site with Blackboard as a support for grading (I hope to wean myself off of Blackboard soon too!).

Learning and implementing the tools I need to make my teaching more open has helped me begin to resolve this disjuncture between my teaching politics and my teaching practice. Of course, neither my teaching politics nor my teaching practice are not perfect. But I now feel a tiny bit more confident that my students won’t think I am a hypocrite for critically analyzing our education system(s) without critically analyzing my own educating first. I believe that I am on my way to saving face. 


Link to site: SOC 235: Education and Society | Spring 2021, Lehman College Sociology, Instructor August Smith (


About the Author

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