We Can Decide What OER Are For

This is the first of a series of posts by participants in the Spring 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.

Marianne Madoré is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology, concentrating on feminist theories, race and racism, and global sociology. This semester, she is teaching at Brooklyn College and collecting data for a collective research project on the use of free-of-charge materials in CUNY classrooms.


In April 2017, a somewhat unexpected budget line appeared in the CUNY budget. New York State announced an allocation of $4 million to the development of Open Educational Resources (OER) at CUNY. True, it was a drop in the budget. Nonetheless, the scale of this new initiative ($4 million for CUNY and $4 million for SUNY) was unprecedented. The following year, Governor Cuomo announced an additional allocation of $8 million. The plan was to establish CUNY as a national leader in OER. Over the two-year period, OER campus-led initiatives emerged and flourished

Why? Why would Governor Cuomo, who has routinely demonstrated a lack of interest in funding CUNY, also become the champion of OER? In keeping with four decades of austerity, the 2017 budget agreement effectively defunded CUNY. It reduced the allocation per student, increased tuition for all senior-college students, and failed to provide living wages to the adjunct faculty or to adequately address housing and food insecurity among students.

Buscando La Esencia” by Peri Helio. Acrilic paint and spray. Desordes Creativas Festival, 2013. Shared under Creative Commons license.

In this context, it takes some creative mental gymnastics to understand that the OER initiative was part of a widely advertised strategy of “making college affordable” for students. The central feature of this plan was the controversial Excelsior scholarship, which Governor Cuomo called the first tuition-free program in the country, and critics, reading the fine print, called a path to disaster and a “smokescreen for backdoor tuition hikes.” So where do OER fit in the plan to commodify public higher education? Why have ed-tech experts called this unprecedented allocation to promote OER an “investment”? The more recent partnership between New York State and the tech philanthropes reinforced my suspicion towards the OER frenzy. 

Certainly, I am not in favor of asking students to buy costly textbooks. In fact, like many of my colleagues, I don’t require students to buy textbooks and in the few years I taught at CUNY I made time to craft syllabi, scan books and search for pdfs, write assignments, and design course sites. Together with Joanna Dressel, Sami Disu, Jamila Hammami and Conor Tomás Reed, I am currently researching the experience of CUNY adjuncts who opted out of the textbook business and only used free resources during the year 2020. Specifically, we are interested in understanding the relationship between precarious employment situations and our pedagogical practices, especially in the time of Covid-19, austerity measures in education funding, and a renewed Black Lives Matter movement. 

I am hesitant towards the OER initiatives at CUNY because I am uncertain about the implications of sharing the products of my (underpaid) labor with the world in general, and more specifically with university admins. What happens to our open-access course sites, syllabi, and carefully curated teaching materials when we are not re-appointed the following semester? What are the immediate and long-term implications of the OER initiative on our material conditions for teaching and learning? 

It is with these doubts and questions in mind that I applied to the Spring 2021 Open Pedagogy fellowship, as an OER skeptic! The Fellowship provided a much-needed space for reflection and growth, bonding and hope.

The fellowship foregrounded the relationship between open access, labor and social change. We learned about the profit margins of academic publishers and the genesis of CUNY Academic Works. We read Emily Drabinski’s article on critical librarianship and discussed the necessary articulation between open knowledge and the struggle against white supremacy and for better working conditions for librarians. From Dr. Sherry Deckman and PhD student Kristen Miller we learned how “open pedagogy” was intimately connected to the Black Radical Tradition’s practices of co-constructing knowledge and growing citational trees.

Overall, I felt very inspired. Embracing what Conor Tomás Reed calls “the transformation of our university system into a veritable laboratory for different liberation strategies,” I started to re-think OER. Could students and faculty (and staff!) use open educational resources as yet another strategy for liberation?

Certainly, we could decide what OER are for. We could take advantage of the university-led initiative and the growing interests for OER to create and circulate OER for political education, attuned to the context of our colleges and departments. As a first step, I began looking for the CUNY-focused OER that could find their way onto our syllabi across disciplines. The list below presents some of these homegrown OER. They are all freely accessible online and, taken together, contribute to enrich or problematize our understanding of our university system. I organized them by type of material.

Digitized archival materials

  • Linda Luu’s digital archival collection retracing the history of student and faculty struggles for the survival of Asian American studies at Hunter
  • The CLAGSNews Repository Project: the Center for LGBTQ Studies (CLAGS)’s recently released repository of the newsletters from 1992 to 2013
  • the forthcoming “Radiating CUNY Curriculum” by Conor Tomás Reed: a series of lesson plans, discussion and writing prompts, and annotated introductions to a broad range of CUNY archival sources spanning almost a century (from the 1930s at CCNY to the present day )

Articles from open-access journals or openly-accessible book chapters

Blog posts/self-published writings

Newspaper and magazine articles

Videos (with live captioning)

Slide decks



As many faculty are going through the time-consuming process of looking for open-access materials to replace their old textbook, I hope that this (always incomplete and ever growing) list can provide some inspiration!

About the Author

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