Open Educational Resources as the Soul of CUNY

Below is the thirteenth 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.

Open Educational Resources as the Soul of CUNY by Roberto Elvira Mathez

I came to the Open Pedagogy Fellowship with the objective of building an OER (Open Educational Resources) syllabus for my course, Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature in Translation. What I learned and built with the rest of my colleagues turned out to be much more than that: I have learned that the OER initiative of the Mina Rees Library is part of the soul of CUNY. 

As the University of the City of New York, CUNY serves all the five boroughs―Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan―and I have always felt at home at an institution which encourages the democratization of knowledge. The perspective on open resources that is provided by the Open Pedagogy Fellowship constitutes a kind of educational avant-garde. The goal is to pursue platforms and techniques that not only benefit our own students at CUNY, and also make them available to everyone – including those who lack educational access, but have the will to learn.

The fellowship has helped me on three levels, best described by the framework of Community, Class and the Individual. The initiative allowed me to work with other colleagues from different departments and discuss OER implementation from an interdisciplinary perspective. We have exchanged information within a variety of disciplines―astrophysics, sociology, psychology, biology―and discussed how to face the different challenges that we confront as pedagogues. The pluralities and differences were a fundamental part of this new community within CUNY which I was lucky to be part during the winter. It has also been a space of learning about the intricacies of knowledge production, copyright laws and new Open Access initiatives, the tools that CUNY already has available and others which are shared by other instructions. This wide-ranging approach allows us to be conscious of the branches that OER has all over the world.

As it relates to teaching, implementing OER has been a wonderful tool. There has been a great response after only a couple of weeks of using the platform I built on the CUNY Academic Commons (Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature in Translation), based on Open Access literary material. It took a while to adapt to the system that for the most part was new to the students. However, if the teacher takes time to explain the innovation of OER to students, the reaction is positive. Students begin the class with more commitment since they realize their teacher’s concern for the course, the effort to make available as many resources as possible in a hard time for many, especially during this pandemic. Secondly, students become aware that this OER community exists, with its potential to unite technology and knowledge; and third, there is the pragmatic consideration that the students, who are under economic pressure, do not have to choose which course to focus on because they can’t afford to pay for the material. These are just three examples of the many possible consequences of applying OER in class.

Creating an OER platform has been a learning process for me, as a pedagogue, translator and writer. I believe that private education is an oxymoron. This does not mean that we should not recognize intellectual labor, but it is a labor which should not give into the profit-only system that sometimes seems to take over the academic and cultural sphere. It was a surprise to find out that by limiting the selection to material which could be purchased only through monopolical editing houses, the course didn’t express the defiance to the system that the literary material I had chosen spoke for, be it Cervantes or Anzaldúa. What does it mean to teach a novel on Central American child migration to the USA when the book price is excessive and feeds into a larger system that exploits the differences between borders?

The solutions to this problem are not easy. As someone who is trying to deconstruct the patriarchal history of the literary Hispanic canon, I find that the contradictions which arise between literature and property are highlighted in this new challenge of finding material that fits OER standards. One of the main sources of OER literature is translations published before 1923, which are copyright free. This means that one can easily share male-authored classics of the Hispanic tradition whose copyright has already expired. However, since translations of and archival research on feminist and LGBTQ+ authors are mostly recent, they are restricted by copyright, and cannot be included in an OER course. As a translator myself, I quickly realized the importance of making the recent scholarship and literary material available for the general public as it is crucial for the radical change that the movement entails. However, there are always solutions: some of which, I found through alternative modes of art or artists, such as the work of Lola Arias and her theatre, who has filmed her plays and installations to share them with a global audience through Vimeo. 

As Paolo Freire said in his well-known book, Pedagogia do Oprimido (Pedagogy of the Oppressed): “There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” There is no doubt where Open Pedagogy positions itself, and I’m proud to be part of a community that reflects and acts toward this objective.

Roberto Elvira Mathez (all pronouns welcome) is a PhD Candidate in the Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures Department at the CUNY Graduate Center, a WAC fellow at Brooklyn College and teaches Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature at Queens College. Roberto studies contemporary Argentinean, Brazilian and Mexican literature, focusing on neoliberalism, community and resistance. Writer and translator, he has published two short story books (Tras el reflejo and Tú y yo y las primeras lluvias) and translated poetry from English, Portuguese and Norwegian to Spanish.

About the Author

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