Open Pedagogy and Social Work Education

Following is the tenth 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.

Austin Oswald (he/they) is a PhD candidate in Social Welfare at the CUNY Graduate Center committed to research and education for queer, disability, and racial liberation across the life course. Their dissertation research applies queer gerontology and intersectionality theories to critically examine the “age-friendliness” of NYC alongside a coalition of queer elders of color. Austin teaches research methods at Hunter College and works with students to build knowledge that is accessible and inclusive of multiple perspectives.

My decision to apply to the Open Pedagogy Fellowship at the Graduate Center was thoughtful and deliberate. I’m deeply committed to public-facing research and education; in fact, this is why I enrolled in the Social Welfare PhD Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Since arriving, I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities to grow into a scholar who works with differently positioned people on projects that promote equity and inclusion among those most impacted by social injustice. 

En route to my PhD, I completed the required coursework for certificates in critical theory and demography and learned how to access public datasets and analyze them in R open-source statistical software using critical methods to uncover inequities and counternarratives. I’ve also been fortunate to work closely with Dr. Michelle Fine at the CUNY Public Science Project on a Participatory Action Research (PAR) study designed by/for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and two-spirit plus (LGBTQIA2+) youth from across the United States designed to lift up their experiences and dreams, What’s Your Issue? Through this project and my various coursework, I developed skills and competencies to work with other people on research that is committed to the goals of social justice and public science. My dissertation research explores the “age-friendliness” of New York City alongside a coalition of LGBTQIA2+ older adults of color.  

As an adjunct professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, I have the privilege of teaching Research Methods to social work students who are driven not only to learn about research, but to challenge structural oppression. The students that I’ve encountered in my classes are aware of epistemic injustices within the academy like paywalls that restrict access to knowledge and research jargon that only serves to confuse people. They are also able to clearly articulate the myriad problems with traditional approaches to research and demand that we do better by building knowledge that is accessible and inclusive of multiple perspectives. When a student in one of my classes commented on how higher education is beginning to feel like a “pyramid scheme,” I had to stop and wonder how I was complicit. 

I want to develop the knowledge and skills to respond intelligently (and with intent) when students push me to disrupt the classist education system by incorporating open pedagogical approaches. Dr. Sherry Deckman, one of the presenters at the Open Knowledge series event on the emerging field of black girlhood(s), astutely notes that open pedagogy is a philosophy of teaching that is grounded in social justice that has resonance beyond the classroom. As a soon-to-be PhD in Social Welfare, I want social justice to always be the driving force shaping my research and teaching. I’ve learned a lot about open science and a little about open pedagogy, that is, until now. 

I was inspired by Dr. Deckman’s innovative and decolonizing approach to open pedagogy. I appreciate how she intentionally disrupts hierarchies within the education system by learning with her students about how to build open knowledge, which resulted in a number of provocative websites (the example of student websites from her course on black girlhood(s) are so impressive!). I couldn’t help but bring this experience back to the classroom with me. I shared the various example websites with the students in my class, and we deliberated how we might do something similar in our class. We explored the CUNY Academic Commons, and I invited students to work together on designing a website for a final project. A small group of interested students agreed, and we worked collaboratively to produce a digital archive and online resources for social work students on the experience of being a student during the Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and rising inequality. The group project turned out to be such a meaningful learning opportunity—for me and the students—and something that will live in our memories and online long after the course ends. I’m proud of what we created together, check out our website!

In sum, the Open Pedagogy Fellowship provided me with the tools and hands-on experience to respond to my personal shortcomings by teaching me how to craft a completely open, zero-cost syllabus and make it available as an interactive website in CUNY Academic Commons (see my work-in-progress course site). Prior to this experience, I had never created a website (it’s actually a lot of fun!); I mindlessly published my research in journals without considering if they are open access (I won’t do that anymore); and I knew very little about copyright laws. The Fellowship has prompted me to be deliberate and contentious while publishing research, sharing educational resources, and designing courses in ways that are accessible to people beyond university walls. 

Looking forward, I hope to always make my research and teaching openly accessible. I also hope that programs like the Open Pedagogy Fellowship persist, especially at public institutions like CUNY, and continue to train generations of researchers and educators dedicated to building and sharing open knowledge.

Image by Jon Tyson via Unsplash, shared under the Unsplash license.

About the Author

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