Following is the eighth 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.

Jeff Voss is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently studying the social practice of comedy as a self-destructive, convivial tool and indeterminate force of revolutionary desire. He teaches English Composition at Brooklyn College.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed begins with the image of a wall: “There was a wall.… Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” Does the wall bound the universe, leaving the anarchist planet Anarres outside and free? Or does the barrier encircle the planet, imprisoning the people of the planet inside, “cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine”?

What’s sticking with me the most so far about this spring’s Open Pedagogy Fellowship, even more than the valuable open access resources that the truly rad(ical) librarians at the GC shared with us (such as the Directory of Open Access Books, CUNY Academic Works, the digital CLAGS Archive), are the conversations we shared about the wall. Conversations about the wall—the wall being, for us in the seminar, obstacles to sharing scholarly work—are never really about the wall itself, but all the various ways we skirt, bypass, dig under, scale, burrow, catapult over, tunnel through, and slip back and forth across the wall. Even through the often stultifying, eye-frying and brain-draining boxes of Zoom, the desire in the room between the adjuncts and librarians who had gathered there together was palpable; radials of a shared desire streaming out in countless directions, a desire to share.

Going into the Fellowship, I didn’t really have an image of what Open Access or Open Educational Resources meant. What quickly emerged through our conversations was an acknowledgment of how every single one of those words: open, access, education, resources, have been—and still are—used by entrenched institutions as a rhetorical veneer in order to expropriate and extract people, land, knowledge, culture for their own possession and use. These terms and concepts come from specific epistemological conditions, they carry with them long and contested histories of their various uses and definitions. We decided it was important for us to take the time to struggle over these terms, because if we were going to use them and try to ask them to do something else, it was crucial to know where they came from and how they came to be. As scholar Jorge Gonzalez puts it, “The way we organize ourselves to produce knowledge will determine the knowledge we produce.”

While I don’t have the chops or the space here to go into the history of OA and OER here, one particular point surfaced for us again and again, something that CUNY faculty, staff, but especially students confront every day: no knowledge is free. There is always a cost, especially when it comes to knowledge generated within the space of a university. The cost could be financial: Who has access to the technology required to enjoy OA/OER materials, which are almost exclusively digital at this point? Many CUNY students don’t have reliable access to a computer or internet, an access that is often assumed when we speak of “open” education. But the cost can also be psychic, affective, somatic. It can hurt to enter the classroom. Brooklyn College is surrounded by a giant wrought-iron fence, the elevators are very slow or not infrequently broken, there’s no soap in the bathrooms, CUNY has only gotten more expensive since it decided to start charging tuition in 1976, the first year Black and brown students formed the majority of the student bodies at our campuses, and Muslim students have been surveilled at Brooklyn College by undercover police officers.

So what can making a course “open” do amidst these pernicious and brutal infrastructural antagonisms that present themselves to us as if they’re doing us favors? As if they built the walls for our benefit and our protection — while any Brooklyn College student can tell you the study is just as good on Flatbush or Nostrand as it is in James Hall. A professor I love once said to us, every class should be about (the) class. And to me, this is the great potentiality of “open” access and OER; it provides an opening to have conversations with students (and co-workers) about the ongoing (far from inevitable, always contested) historical material conditions that form the academic spaces we inhabit. As one of our rad librarians pointed out, one benefit of the push for “open” access is making felt the constraints of copyright, paywalls, and all sorts of other institutional carceral knowledge forms, because as CUNY adjuncts, staff, and students, we don’t simply inhabit these spaces, we make them anew everyday. “It’s almost as if,” a student said to me last semester as I explained the difficulty I was having trying to find a copy of an essay to share with the class, “they don’t want us to read this stuff together!” And so, to echo a sentiment from The Undercommons, one that’s all too common, “How come we can’t be together and think together in a way that feels good, the way it should?”

OA and OER are a good that’s not good enough; but we can use them as tools to foreground again and again the vital fact that we are forming all kinds of new relationships right here in the present. “Open” access or OER isn’t one thing, it’s one tactic among many we can use to alter our relationship to time, to space, to each other as we teach, study, and learn as another professor once put it to me, in the “future perfect.” What will have been, how can we use “open” education not simply as a way to reform the classroom, but to deform and unform it? To share with one another in total defiance of the idea of “one” or “another”?

Because sharing isn’t going to stop. Surreptitious scans, unauthorized links, bootlegs and dubious sources of all kinds are (allegedly!) passed around all the time. We know how to escape and elide the walls; sharing has been going on long before the walls ever came up. The question is, will the infrastructure keep up? What if it can’t? Or won’t? How can we unbuild walls? More than once during the Fellowship the question came up, is OA and OER designed to save students money, or the university? We can’t reform our way to new and better worlds. When I go to teach an OER composition class themed around Anarchism and Utopia next fall at Brooklyn College, we won’t only be talking about anarchist planets far far away, but Zapatistas, the Combahee River Collective, FREE CUNY, As for All, and striking graduate students. “Open” access is not one thing, but perhaps the most valuable thing it offers is an opening into conversations about limits and the cruel inadequacy of the present, and the already existing and inextinguishable desire to exceed them.

Image: Photograph by the author.

About the Author

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