Cultivating Resources for the Future

Below is the eighth 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.

Nicole Cote is a second-year PhD student at the Graduate Center. She holds an MS in Integrated Digital Media from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and an MScR from the University of Edinburgh. She works at the intersection of the environmental and digital humanities, thinking about plants, knowledge generation, and applying feminist theory and ethics to those fields.

Working with predominantly open resources for my Spring 2021 English 110 course (Food as Philosophy, System, and Controversy) at Queens College allowed me to shift how the course could be taught, and what my students might be able to take away from it. In this open model, the course site has been able to serve as an easily accessible resource hub for my students, and the open course materials allow students to establish a repository of freely available content with which to engage in the future. 

At Queens College, English 110 is a required course, and one that is normally geared toward first semester freshmen, aiming to teach students college-level writing and research skills—techniques that they will ultimately take with them and build upon throughout their undergraduate career. In my course, students learn these skills by engaging in discussions of food and related issues concerning social justice, cultural identity, access, and labor. Crafting such a course therefore entails identifying resources across various disciplines—from composition and rhetoric to food and cultural studies—while keeping in mind the very real consideration that it is a required course. Whereas my students will undoubtedly need to write and research throughout their degree program, they have many different majors and writing needs, and may ultimately have no particular research interest in the theme of the course. Working with zero cost and open content saves students from having to purchase materials that may not be in line with their own interests, while simultaneously offering a direction in which they might continue to explore in the future. It shows students what is “out there” without requiring them to make a financial commitment to engage with those topics. My course site on CUNY’s Academic Commons also links to possibilities for further reading.   

Often in these writing/research courses, instructors assign a college composition textbook, which students are required to purchase and work through. And, surely, that remains the easier option for faculty! Through the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, however, I have found that there are many excellent, freely and openly available resources online for students to use. Working with material from open textbooks, such as Amy Guptill’s Writing in College, and websites, such as The Writing Commons, and UNC Chapel Hill’s Writing Center resource guides, was particularly helpful for generating material for this course. I developed what might be considered a scrapbooking approach—one that necessitated piecing together readings and guides from various sources to create the syllabus I wanted. That work took time. It required reading and sifting through significant material, and looking through various OER listings, as there seems to exist no one centralized means to find material, but a number of various repositories.

None of the material I found could entirely stand alone—by which I mean that no single resource easily fit the bill for 100% of what I was looking for, especially not on every topic. But it reminded me of how that is true of the standard textbooks we ask students to purchase as well. Because none of this material would generate a cost for my students, I assigned as many texts as I wanted, guilt-free, therefore putting many different resources at their disposal. Students will hopefully leave the course with various places to look for writing and research materials for future courses. From the range of resources offered in this course, students can test out different options, and decide what work best for them going forward. 

The course website on Academic Commons was also able to serve as a hub, which has proved helpful in teaching during a pandemic when tech issues abound, personal devices are more than ever essential to doing the work, and yet devices might be shared among family members. In working predominantly with material that is freely available online, and not behind a paywall or other restricted infrastructure, students can simply follow the link directly, from the course site to the reading or to YouTube, without having to log in for access. This makes it easier to work on phones and tablets—devices that students often use. And, given the research nature of the course, the Academic Commons’ ability to incorporate the Queens College library’s OneSearch was a helpful addition to the site. 

Working with open materials was not as straightforward as assigning the standard textbook(s).  It took more work and more time. That said, it seems like an important pedagogical shift, especially for a required skills-based course like the one I’m teaching this semester. It seems imperative, then, to consider how we can make these resources easier for faculty to identify and incorporate—especially to avoid generating even more work for contingent instructors. I’m interested in the ways OER can allow our students to work with a broader range of writers and materials, and how exposure to a wider body of resources can allow them to develop a toolkit of resources that they can continue to access and cultivate for use in future classes. And, in doing this work, I’m interested in how open knowledge infrastructure itself can facilitate ease of use, wherein the question of how to generate sustainable pathways forward for instructors remains entangled.

Photo by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash, under Unsplash License

About the Author

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