A Reflection on Knowledge, Skill, and Pedagogy

Following is the second in a series by participants in the Winter 2022 Open Pedagogy Fellowship (which will be known as the Open Knowledge Fellowship going forward), coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY. 

Evan Rothman is a doctoral student in History at the Graduate Center and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, where he teaches world history. Evan holds an advanced certificate in Labor Studies from CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. His research focuses on teacher unionism, K-12 education reform, and neoliberalism in 1970s and ’80s New York City.


Take a second to read the following line, and guess when it was written: “​​In the United States today teachers are under attack… Vocal and visible minorities are engaging in intensive efforts to discredit teachers as a group, and to demean public education in general.”

You’d be forgiven if you thought the writer was describing the recent moral panic about Critical Race Theory in public schools, or if the anti-teacher union/pro-school privatization fervor of the mid-aughts came to mind. In fact, these lines about “teachers under attack” are from a 1973 teacher union proposal for better professional development. And those “vocal and visible minorities”? Well, that’s a dog-whistle for the Black and brown Americans who stood up in the late 1960s and early 1970s to demand community control over their schools.

If it isn’t already clear, I spend a lot of time thinking about the history of education and labor, and education history as labor history. What you quickly realize, studying this history, is that school-related protest belongs to no particular party. Groups who see their rights and/or status threatened focus their discontent on public schools. We might judge the stated reasons for these protests to be genuine, like unequal learning conditions, or paranoid, like the teaching of advanced legal theory to children. Either way, their focus on schools makes sense: along with policing, education is the most visible function of the state, and in U.S. political discourse a good education, however one defines that, is frequently framed as the key to personal prosperity

The City University of New York (CUNY) has its own legacy of protest. The Black and Puerto Rican Studies departments that dot the CUNY-verse are the tangible, hard-won accomplishments of students’ heroic Civil Rights-era struggles to see themselves reflected in both enrollment demographics and the knowledge produced within the university. Beyond institutional footholds,  the integration of CUNY has been a wild success in socioeconomic terms. Even after decades of austerity, according to one index, CUNY colleges make up seven of the top 20 most successful institutions in the U.S. for student social mobility—in other words, those that come closest to fulfilling the promise of education as a pathway to the middle class. 

This is a remarkable accomplishment, and yet to accept it as the limit of CUNY’s potential would be a betrayal of the movements that made it possible. Those of us who work and study here need to ask ourselves if a neoliberal conception of the university, as a place where rational individuals maximize their human capital to successfully compete in the labor market, is the most this place is capable of. Not only that, but what costs do we and our students incur by having to operate under these neoliberal conditions?

My own research considers this question in the context of New York City’s public schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But until the Open Knowledge Fellowship, I had no occasion to reflect on my own teaching practice and the conditions that structure it. Over a number of weeks, my fellow participants and I gained valuable tools for “opening” up our classes. We learned about the different models of open access, no-fee publishing, online repositories to find primary sources, and how to use these tools to rebuild our syllabi from the ground up. As a result, our students will be able to take our courses at zero additional cost. 

Important as these lessons were, the fellowship’s more philosophical discussions resonated most with me. To be sure, zero cost is a prerequisite for open knowledge, but cost alone doesn’t define openness. Our discussions about culturally responsive teaching and learning materials challenged me to rethink course design further. My course encompasses the last 500 years of world history, but was I intentional enough about the range of perspectives my students are exposed to? Was I treating my students too much like empty vessels, and not equal participants who I can learn from, as much as they can from me? 

Upon reflection, these weren’t altogether unfamiliar questions. Similar questions confronted the teachers’ union quoted at the beginning of this post. But in that particular historical moment, 50-odd years ago, the union saw calls for community involvement and culturally responsive pedagogy as an attack on teacher skill and professionalism, rather than an invitation to strengthen public education. This was a grievous mistake, I believe, but one that reveals the stakes of open knowledge today. 

How educators think of ourselves, and our work today, will help determine the contours of our institutions for decades to come. At risk of being reductive, I would posit a stark choice between an orthodox vision of education work as the exclusive domain of credentialed experts, whose main job is to transfer remunerative skills, and a liberatory vision that treats teaching as a facilitated, collaborative process for students’ self-discovery. 

Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds nice in theory” or “when do I have time for this between the four classes I adjunct?” Truth be told, I don’t have a panacea, beyond creating more spaces (with stipends!) like the Open Knowledge Fellowship where educators, and maybe students too, can have deep conversations around a liberatory vision of their work. I’ve rebuilt certain aspects of my history course—I’m proud of the new group project in which my students represent different interest groups in contemporary Puerto Rican society, and then give historically-informed testimony to a mock United Nations hearing on the political status of the island. The idea is that by inhabiting a particular standpoint, the students interrogate which kinds of knowledge grab different audiences—why the chamber of commerce might use economic indicators, while cultural organizations prefer a humanistic vocabulary. But other aspects of the course, like regular lectures, remain stubbornly unchanged. 

We find ourselves in a moment of great promise and peril. At CUNY, students, faculty, staff, and community allies have forged an unprecedented coalition to demand that the university live up to its mission to educate the “children of the whole people.” At the same time, the progressive degradation of working conditions threatens to drain student learning conditions of all vitality. I’ve come away from the fellowship convinced that we must embrace the genuine critiques of the university—and our own pedagogy—to fulfill this promise. 

Photo by Ryan Smithright, shared on Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license 

About the Author

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