Contributing to Open Access

Today marks the first in our next series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, these from Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort. 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.

My name is Peter Susanszky. I am currently a third-year student in the Philosophy Ph.D. program, where my main area is logic in all its forms. I also like photography. And cats.

Though I was always interested in the world of open source and open access, the topic never really crossed my mind when I started teaching at Baruch College. I didn’t really have any previous experience with teaching—suddenly I had to write my own syllabus, prepare lecture materials, and on top of it all, I had to do it in the middle of a pandemic, online, from another country! 

However, as things were getting back to normal, I started feeling less and less satisfied with the textbook I was using for my course. And it wasn’t only the content that bothered me, but the lack of access that students had to it. I was surprised when many of them asked me the first week where they could buy the book I assigned. I don’t think textbooks are a good investment—at least not in my field, philosophy—and I didn’t intend for them to buy the book. As far as I can remember, buying a textbook would have been practically unheard of during my undergraduate years. Granted, I am from Europe. 


At any rate, I was glad when I saw that the library was offering another round of Open Knowledge Fellowships.  I applied immediately. And I got in! 

Things didn’t go as planned. As I was searching for open access materials for my Introduction to Critical Thinking course, I got an email from my department head that I could finally teach a course I had always wanted to teach, Introduction to Logic. Moreover, the course I was to teach already had its own textbook, developed by members of the Baruch faculty and available online for free, under a Creative Commons license. In fact, the materials included far more than just a text. The faculty had already developed a whole interactive course site for students, with practice questions and graded exercises.  

I did identify one thing that I thought was missing. Though the course had its own textbook, it was only available on the website in plain text, or pasted into a Google doc. As someone who appreciates visual learning and good formatting in general, I would have found the presentation distracting.  

Thankfully, over the course of my academic career, I had managed to pick up a few skills in LaTeX, a document preparation system that allows you to produce nicely formatted PDF documents, and especially ones with special logical formulas. However, to typeset a whole book in LaTeX is no trivial matter, since it is not like the usual “What You See Is What You Get” text editors like Word. Instead, one has to include certain special commands in a source document, along with the actual text to be shown, and then compile it, much like a computer program. If no errors were made in the code, the output is shown with the document appearance as determined by the specific commands used. One can also define their own commands, based on already available ones, in order to automate certain aspects of the process. 

In the end, all this took a lot longer than expected. It was especially challenging to come up with a way to typeset the various informal and formal logical proofs that appear in the book in a more or less automated way (meaning I did not have to write the same commands over and over again more than 100 times).  Figuring out a way to automate numbering the examples in a way consistent with the authors’ intentions also took some time.  

And then I realized: What is a good textbook without a good cover? Though I can’t say I am very skilled at producing vector graphics, with the help of my graphic designer friend, I managed to make a cover that I think fulfills its function. The resulting document, remixed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license, will serve years of students to come.  Moreover, following the open source ethos, both the LaTeX source file and the vector graphics will be provided along with the PDF, so that people may compile the document themselves, with whatever changes they would like to implement.  

All in all, I am glad I had this opportunity to learn about Open Educational Resources and contribute to a project, even if in this limited way. Given our widespread access to technological resources, one can now produce a textbook that is professional both in content and in appearance. What once was the privilege of large publishers can now be done by anyone, with the output provided free of charge to students and the public. In the future, I am planning to continue the project that I started with a second part to the textbook that could serve as an upper-level logic textbook. And the possibilities are endless. 

Photo by Fox キヨ via Flickr, shared under CC2.0 license.

About the Author

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