Cultivating a Philosophy of Open Pedagogy

Following is the fourteenth 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.

Michael L. J. Greer (she/her) is in the third year of the Ph.D. program in Philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and is an Ethics Fellow at Mount Sinai Hospital. Michael works in feminist epistemology and ethics, critical phenomenology, philosophy of language, bioethics, and fat studies. Her dissertation will investigate the concept of allyship between differentially privileged, situated, and subordinated social groups.

 What is the point of a Philosophy 101 class? Indeed, which texts, topics, and writers ought to be included in a “survey” philosophy course? As Ph.D. fellows who craft and teach survey philosophy courses, my peers and I frequently grapple with these questions.

Some argue that the point of a class like this, where the majority of one’s students will not major in philosophy, is to foster critical-thinking skills, and therefore one must select syllabus content that is appropriately skill-oriented. Here, people advocate for choosing texts with which they may easily teach logical fallacies and the structure of arguments. Others argue that the point of a class like this is to broaden students’ intellectual horizons so that they may graduate with some basic knowledge of the figures that make up the central constellations of Western intellectual thought. In this context, one might emphasize the importance of key figures in the Western canon (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Mill, etc.) or branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, value theory). Others still argue that the point is to get more students interested in philosophy, to spark that same joy in questioning and reflection that was sparked in us, their instructors, when we ourselves were undergraduate students. These concerns shape our syllabi construction, as do conversations that problematize received understandings of canons, skills, and philosophy itself, such as conversations around the diversification and decolonization of syllabi. And, of course, we want to teach material we are interested in, material we like, which comes down to personal taste and experience.

These debates were floating in the back of my mind when I sat down to create my end project for the Mina Rees Library’s Open Pedagogy Fellowship: an open-access syllabus and course website for a Philosophy 101 class, hosted for free on the CUNY Academic Commons. The fellowship strengthened and informed my standing commitment to open access. For instance, learning about the predatory practices of publishing companies, and the costly impact these have on university resources, made me vividly aware of the harms caused by copyright systems. Furthermore, discussing how open knowledge is not simply about having access to knowledge, but also about opening up the processes and mechanisms of knowledge production to input from marginalized knowers, helped me conceptually connect the open-access movement with projects of epistemic decoloniality. I applied to be an Open Pedagogy Fellow because of my commitment to working towards an academia without epistemic gatekeeping, where students don’t need to pay to access texts assigned in class and vital to their intellectual, social, and political wellbeing. An open-access syllabus and course website means that students may freely, legally, and easily share the texts they read and discuss in class with those in their communities who do not have the privilege of attending university. The fellowship helped me realize that even the relatively quotidian pedagogical process of assembling a syllabus can be a point of resistance against the corporatization and commodification of knowledge. In enriching and encouraging my imagination for a social-justice-oriented, open academia, the fellowship did not disappoint.

However, I did find that the experience of actually locating open resources in my discipline to include on my website conflicted with some of the other legitimate concerns that I have when constructing syllabi. I don’t point this out to diminish the importance of open access. Rather, I want to highlight the work that must be done before my discipline can become fully accessible. 

For instance, as an academic discipline with rigid canons, philosophy is infamous for being white-, cis-, straight-, and male-centric. Under-represented folks in the field have historically faced significant structural barriers to getting into academic philosophical spaces, including esteemed journals. For instance, in their 2016 “Op-Ed: Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite,” philosophers Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel note how, at the time of publication, Black scholars made up only 0.5% of authors in the field’s most prominent journals. The pool of syllabus-appropriate articles is, just by virtue of the numbers, overwhelmingly white, cis-, straight, and male. Open-access concerns narrow the pool even further, since very few peer-reviewed journals are open access (Ergo is a rare example). Further, those that are hybrid open access, like Hypatia, typically require the payment of an expensive publication fee, presenting material barriers for philosophers who wish to both publish open access and also add publications in top journals to their CVs. This situation can leave someone attempting to build an entirely open-access syllabus who also thinks it’s imperative to include the voices of contemporary under-represented philosophers with few journal articles to choose from.

For the person who is convinced that both concerns I’ve just raised are legitimate, one potential response to this set of issues can be to assign free alternative media (podcasts, encyclopedia entries, YouTube videos, blog posts, op-eds, etc.) that are about an under-represented author’s work or about an under-represented philosophical topic, perhaps like this encyclopedia entry on Ifeanyia A. Menkiti’s “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought” which foregrounds an African metaphysics of personhood, the original of which is not open access. While free alternative media gets around the open-access issue, it comes with its own set of problems. Of course, alternative media can be entirely appropriate to use to teach undergraduate students, and I love including a diverse array of media in my classes. However, from speaking with CUNY philosophy undergraduate alumni, I’ve learned our students can feel underestimated when their professors try to teach “to their level” with alternative media instead of using the longer, often more challenging, original text. There is something to be said for sitting with hard, ambitious readings. Although alternative media articles are often open access, it seems like relying too heavily on them can undermine other important pedagogical priorities.

So, let’s say I refuse to budge on a commitment to teaching a course that is 50% original text. This puts me in a sticky situation. Copyright-eligible works are protected for 70 years after the death of their author. There are therefore no open-access versions of Iris Marion Young’s  “Five Faces of Oppression,” Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Susan Brison’s work on the ways that trauma can undo the self, or even a good translation of Plato. One workaround I did find is that there are sometimes YouTube videos (which are by definition open access) of people reading original texts aloud (like this video of Farhana Yamin reading Audre Lorde’s non-open-access “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” or this dramatization of Plato’s Symposium).

The experience of coming up against paywall after paywall, as I was crafting my syllabus, impressed upon me the full extent of my discipline’s inaccessibility and the disturbing fact that choices regarding open access and making knowledge (in)accessible have already been made by the time a philosophy class begins. I like the syllabus and course website I came up with. It assigns a good breadth of Western philosophical thought, is dynamic in medium, and reflects my own philosophical positions on the debates outlined at the beginning of this blogpost. But I made compromises. I’m not teaching some texts that are important and beautiful and potentially liberatory—because they are not open access. I wasn’t able to include as many texts as I’d wanted on topics that are not mainstream in Western philosophy, because there is a dearth of open-access philosophy resources from the global south, which is a situation that stems from global inequities in educational infrastructure and resources.

Teachers of philosophy in this way face a tragic, unspoken (perhaps often unnoticed) dilemma, wherein they must either prioritize open access (therein potentially compromising some pedagogical concerns) or require that students buy texts (therein honoring other pedagogical concerns, but feeding an elitist and colonial epistemic system that corporatizes and commodifies knowledge). This fellowship has ensured that I will never again be able to ignore that this choice must be made.

This blog post was shaped by conversations with and the editing labor of teachers and colleagues in my academic communities. Thank you to those who run the Open Pedagogy Fellowship at the Mina Rees Library for their expertise, time, and care. Thank you to the folks who belong to the CUNY-GC Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) chapter, Maria Victoria Salazar, Patricia Elena Cipollitti, and Andrea Actis.




About the Author

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