Building the Otherwise

Following is the sixth in a series by participants in the Winter 2022 Open Pedagogy Fellowship (which will be known, going forward, as the Open Knowledge Fellowship), 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. 

Photo of author Britt Munro Britt Munro (she/her) is an international Ph.D. student in English (Cultural Studies) at The Graduate Center. She teaches first-year composition at Lehman College, where she currently teaches a course exploring the different meanings of resistance. Her own research focuses on the historic entanglement of whiteness, capitalism, and the idea of freedom-as-self-possession in the settler colony, with a comparative focus on Australia and the U.S.

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.

These words are taken from the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” co-written by Aaron Swartz in 2008. Swartz was a major advocate of open access, who helped design Creative Commons licensing at the age of 14 and then went on to co-found Reddit and liberate tons of government data. In 2012, after downloading millions of articles from JSTOR through a guest university account, Swartz was arrested by MIT police and federally prosecuted. Threatened with 35 years’ imprisonment and over $1 million in fines, Swartz took his own life. Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of his death. 

Swartz’s death is a reminder of the powerful forces arrayed behind U.S. copyright laws and the deeply structured inequity of the world that we find ourselves in. As academics, we are expected to donate our research to a publishing system that has been aptly described as an “exploitative, wasteful, disrespectful pyramid scheme.” If we want to save our students from spending money on textbooks, we must navigate what appears to be a shadowy terrain of copyright loopholes, or risk blurring the lines of legality.

At least, this is how things appeared to me before taking part in the Open Pedagogy workshop this spring at the Mina Rees Library. While my picture of academic publishing has not gotten any rosier, and my commitment to a free syllabus has not changed, my understanding of what to do about it has. Whereas before, I saw myself as tunneling away individually through the wall of traditional publishing (or, let’s be honest, often acquiescing to its demands), I now see an array of alternative projects taking place beyond, alongside, and out of earshot of the wall–projects that seek to collectively “imagine otherwise.” By using tools such as Directory of Open Access Books and CUNY Academic Works to fill my syllabus with open-access materials; making my own teaching materials open access, through platforms such as CUNY Academic Commons and WordPress; and by prioritizing open-access journals when it comes to publishing my own work, I can play a part in actively building this “otherwise.” The more people who choose to do the same, the more we will gradually wrest power away from the private corporations that own our knowledgeand the universities we rely on for access to them.

It’s far from the revolution that we need, and it’s far from perfect. Sometimes I will still choose to submit my work to hybrid or closed journals, because they are the options available to me; sometimes I will include something on my syllabus that does not have a Creative Commons license (including the right to remix as well as reproduce). Part of the reason for this is that Open Educational Resources (OER) are just one element of Open Pedagogy and knowledge, and sometimes we will have to weigh different elements against each other. For example, I might have a resource that I am licensed to remix and redistribute, but that locks my students out in other ways. Is the language too academic, arcane, or inaccessible? Is it openly licensed, but without subtitles for students who need them? Is it premised on assumptions of whiteness that undermine my students’ ways of knowing and lived realities?* What if I find an example of minoritized knowledge published without open licensing, but which embodies a different kind of openness? In these cases and many more, I may have to make tough decisions about which forms of openness to prioritize. Similarly, I will make decisions about how I embody openness in my teaching through student-centered, anti-racist, and trauma-informed practices (ungrading, grading contracts, peer review, flipped classroom, collaboration, etc.). These will take place alongside, and in conversation with, an underlying commitment to OER.

Discussions around these latter forms of openness are not new at CUNY. When we teach at CUNY, we step into the legacy of incredible activists who sought to reimagine openness in the university long before OER was in the news. Over 50 years ago, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde and others were experimenting in CUNY classrooms with multimodal, inclusive pedagogies and using their courses to collaboratively author publicly available texts. These activist/thinkers each understood open pedagogy as necessarily tied to anti-racist praxis. The movement for open and free admissions at CUNY in the late 1960s reimagined the openness of the university, not simply as a matter of what goes on inside the classroom, but of who makes it to the classroom to begin with. Adrienne Rich, teaching at City College during this period, envisaged teaching as part of a “movement for social change,” the goal of which was “to break down false barriers of class and color and make education truly open to all people who want it” (Savonick, 194). The struggle for a Free CUNY continues that legacy today. 

Interestingly, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year many of the pedagogical practices encouraged by Bambara, Lorde, Jordan, and Rich saw a sudden renaissance, appearing across teaching blogs and panels under the rubric of “trauma-informed care”. Strategies like multimodal learning, collaborative classrooms, ungrading or contract grading, peer review and OER were encouraged as ways of evening out the effects of a pandemic that disproportionately impacted those already economically and socially vulnerable. This shift coincided with a wave of openness across academic publishing platforms, with dozens of major publishers making Covid-19 related research free to the public out of the need to foster collaboration during a public health crisis.  

Now that the effects of the pandemic are becoming increasingly invisible(ized), those catalogs are closing back up, traditional top-down grading is making a return to the classroom, and the concern for accessibility and no-cost resources is taking a backseat. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

If there’s one thing I learned during the Open Pedagogy workshop, it is that there are already amazing communities of practice out thereand individuals within them, seeking to change the way things work. And we can, if we wish, choose to join themto “reimagine openness,” and “imagine otherwise.”

* As scholars working from the Global South such as Dennis Massaka and Papia Sengupta have noted, the proliferation of open educational resources globally can and has reproduced dangerous forms of neocolonialism. Without addressing the deep, historical and structural inequities that shape who is able to produce and publish academic knowledge—indeed, whose knowledge qualifies as academic knowledge to begin with—open access can risk producing just another kind of free market, whose not-so-invisible hand re-creates the same inequities it springs from. These considerations have led Dennis Massaka (2018) to propose that “open production of knowledge” must, necessarily, precede open access.

Photo by Cam Klose (2020), reproduced under CC4.0 ShareAlike license.

About the Author

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