First Steps Toward Opening the University

Following is the fourth 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.

Stefano Morello is a doctoral candidate in English and a Digital Fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His interests include pop culture, urban studies, poetics, and digital humanities. His dissertation explores the heterotopic space of the East Bay punk scene and its modes of resistance and (dis-)association. He is also working on a book on cultural, architectural, and public health policy responses to immigration, poverty, and disease on the Lower East Side in the 20th century.


I applied for the Open Pedagogy Fellowship because, as a first generation college graduate (and graduate student) teaching at a public university, I wished to learn how to better serve my students by removing potential barriers that prevent them from succeeding in their academic endeavors. 

At a basic level, offering courses that are consciously designed to avoid worsening the financial burden of college students falls in line with both my pedagogical philosophy and CUNY’s very mission. My own experience as a student in a public Italian university offers all too many reminders of how even a seemingly financially accessible public institution can be punctuated by gatekeeping practices and produce hierarchies between those who can afford (or know how to) access to resources and those who don’t. To give you an example: I have taken classes with professors who, on the day of the exam, would sign the copy of the book they had assigned—books that, in the great majority of cases, were also authored by them. This practice gave the (often correct) impression that the student’s grade rested on their ability to purchase a new copy of the professor’s book. However outrageous, this is far from an uncommon practice. In light of my experience—of which this anecdote is but the most blatantly eloquent example—the principles that inform my teaching are inevitably shaped by my desire to offer my students a radically different classroom experience. 

In the fall of 2021 I will be teaching my first undergraduate course at Queens College after a three-year hiatus (due to my tenure as a GC Digital Fellow). Upon this return to the classroom, I wished to make conscious choices with regards to my reading assignments. In other words, I wanted to make sure that the criteria I use in assigning Open Access or OER material went beyond settling on what I could easily find available through a Google search. In the past, I had tried to free my students from the financial burden of purchasing texts for class by offering unorthodox alternatives. In addition to “suggesting” there were ways to find full-texts online, I had sometimes contributed to defraying my students’ costs in creative ways—for instance, in the fall of 2017, I assigned an out-of-print fanzine by Aaron Cometbus in my countercultural literature class and asked the zine-makers if I could reproduce his work for educational purposes in exchange for a nominal fee (we settled on $1 per copy) that I would pay out of my own pocket. 

Through the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, I learned to make a more systematic, sustainable, and legal commitment to teaching with open access resources. After learning about best practices, how to best locate, and the very possibilities and terminology of Open Access (I must admit to having, wrongly, used the expression Open Access and Open Educational Resources interchangeably before participating in the seminars), I started reworking a syllabus for a composition class that I have previously taught into a Zero Textbook Cost course. I also began working on a syllabus for a “Literature and Place” course that I will be teaching in the fall.

I am still working through my course site for the latter class, in part because finding Zero Cost replacements to literary texts has been especially challenging. Even if I decided to focus the course on the way New York City has been represented in the first half of the 20th Century, I have had to get creative to include some of the literary currents that I wanted to include. For example, I couldn’t find any OA novel from the Harlem Renaissance, because most of them were published after 1923 (by the way, this is a great resource to assess whether a text is still under copyright). I decided, instead, to include a selection of poems by Langston Hughes freely available on the Poetry Foundation’s website

I also want to add two additional reasons why I found the seminars I attended as part of my Open Pedagogy Fellowship extremely valuable. First, as I have been the editor in chief of an academic journal based in an Italian university, the journal-assessing activity we held during one of our meetings also helped me consider the journal’s policies when it comes to ethics and accessibility. I found out about the Directory of Open Access Journals, a precious resource to identify OA resources, as well as COPE, a resource to check the ethical stances of academic journals. The editorial board is currently in the process of applying for both of those directories. 

Finally, attending the workshop also gave me food for thoughts for my own research. In the concluding chapter of my dissertation—which focuses on a specific subcultural moment in the San Francisco Bay area—I try to imagine a kind of punk epistemology, based on both my own engagement with the subculture and my experience as a student, researcher, and teacher at a public university. The kind of knowledge production and circulation that I have been trying to articulate is one based on values that answer and echo recent calls of my primary fields of engagement (American Studies and Digital Humanities), such as hacking, collegiality, experimentation, and, of course, openness. It’s easy to see how the ethos and values behind Open Pedagogy are central to imagining such better academic practices. The conversations held with librarians, archivists, and colleagues over the weeks of the Fellowship helped me enlarge the range of possibilities of what we, as researchers, and as teachers, can do to advocate for structural changes (as opposed to relying on acts of individual and collective kindness) that would enable more equitable and open modes of knowledge production.

Open-door image by mcmurryjulie, under Pixabay license.

About the Author

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