Open Pedagogy and Teaching for Social Change

Below is the eleventh 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.

Kelsey Swift is a PhD candidate in linguistics at the Graduate Center. Her research focuses on critical approaches to language teaching and raciolinguistic ideologies in the adult English classroom. She teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses in linguistics throughout CUNY and also works in community-based adult education.

When I first started learning about Open Pedagogy, I mostly thought of it as being about financial cost, an issue I cared deeply about based on my own experience as a student whose undergraduate tuition was funded by scholarships and my background in community-based adult education. From my first semester teaching at CUNY, I made sure that my courses were always zero-cost, mostly by creating my own material and privately sharing articles or selected chapters with my students. This past year, however, I have become more aware of the other benefits of “openness” in teaching, and of the importance of using open resources not just to minimize economic barriers to higher education, but also to support the wider distribution of knowledge as part of structural change.

This year, I am teaching graduate-level courses in educational linguistics at Lehman College and City College, variations on courses I have taught before. Most of my students are in-service P-12 teachers, or other types of educational workers (paraprofessionals, tutors, etc.) who are hoping to become classroom teachers. While I do introduce them to basic linguistic concepts in these courses, my main goal is that they learn to think critically about language and how it intersects with other social systems, and to celebrate the rich linguistic practices their students bring to their classrooms.

But changing people’s minds about the validity of all linguistic practices is not enough without material transformation. For decades, linguists have focused on convincing people that all languages are equal and yet, minoritized language users (especially those labeled as English learners and/or speakers of “non-standard English”) continue to experience linguistic discrimination in addition to other forms of structural violence. Drawing on the work of Nelson Flores and other critical scholars in educational linguistics and sociolinguistics, I am re-thinking my role as a linguist and teacher-educator, and striving to develop an approach to linguistics education that incorporates a meaningful theory of social change.

In P-12 education, linguistic justice starts with changes in classroom policies and system-wide educational policies. To support my students (who are current and future educators) in working for these changes, I need to offer them more than feel-good linguistic aphorisms or esoteric approaches to studying linguistic form; I need to give them accessible and relevant resources they can share with their colleagues and superiors. This is what brought me to the Open Pedagogy fellowship and has informed the edits I have made to my course, Linguistics for Teachers.

With the help of the Graduate Center librarians and the other Winter 2021 fellows, I have been able to find open-access versions of some of the readings I was already planning on using, though to be honest, finding critical linguistic scholarship that is open-access has been a challenge. For more mainstream work on language form, there are a few open license textbooks (Essentials of Linguistics and The Language of Language are two good options), and it is not too hard to create your own material, which is the path I took. But for more applied or sociolinguistic work, it is harder to find open-access works, especially ones that center social justice issues. I suspect this has to do with the rarity of this work in general, along with the professional risk associated with it, as these topics continue to be excluded from traditional conceptions of what counts as ‘linguistics’. I hope that more options will emerge, and I am committed to contributing to such open scholarship with my own work.

But even though open-access articles and books on these topics are scarcer, many critically-minded language researchers engage in public scholarship in other forms; I am working on integrating these other “texts” into my teaching. So far, I have started with fellow Graduate Center student Mike Mena’s excellent YouTube videos and the CUNY-NYS Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals website. Students have responded positively and enthusiastically to both resources, sharing them with friends and co-workers, and in the case of the CUNY-NYSIEB site, immediately trying out some of the teaching suggestions in their own (often virtual) classrooms.

This is the potential of Open Pedagogy – providing knowledge that is accessible and actionable and which can be used to organize for new systems. In my classes, that looks like giving teachers material which they can easily access and apply in their work, and eventually share with allies as they push against unjust policies that disproportionately harm immigrant, racialized, and working-class students. Even or maybe especially in the midst of this extra-challenging teaching context (both for me and for my students), I am heartened by the possibility of sharing tools to be used in the slow, hard labor of reimagining education, and look forward to further centering open and liberatory work in my own pedagogy.

Image: “DeNeuville Mural” by Memphis CVB is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the Author

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