Opening Up

This is the fourth in our current 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.

Natasha Ochshorn (she/her) is a Graduate Worker in English in her third year at the Graduate Center. She is working on a dissertation about loss and fantasy literature. Her course site can be found here: English 1012: Speculative Fiction and “Society”



There is a kind of workand this is in no way limited to academic work—that feels close, tight. It’s the kind of task where you begin thinking that perhaps you’re in a straight hallway, and realize, some hours later, that it was instead a nautilus you entered. You find that a full movie has elapsed in the background, and you haven’t watched it, but you haven’t made much headway on your work either. It’s a certain flow that emerges, when the job you need to do turns out to be infinitely more complicated than it seemed initially (different than a job you know will be difficult going in), often because the work is highly specific or insular, in a way that means you don’t know the questions you should have asked until you realize what they were later, in a kind of cascading series of whoops and damns and ohs. Realizing these questions, the necessity of their answers to your work and the realization that answering them may bring more questions and complications, brings you again further into the nautilus. 

A lot of the work I did for the Open Knowledge Fellowship felt like this. My understanding of a very specific area of academic publishing, pedagogy, and librarianship broadened very quickly in a way that felt—not easy—but at ease and accessible. But when I stepped inside, trying to put together an open version of the Freshman Composition class that I teach most often, that narrowing spiral began, as I realized how much nuance there was to pay attention to (there were ethical and legal distinctions to keep in mind), and how much I’ve been relying on resources for students that were free and accessible but still shadowy, still closed behind paywalls or legality. Opening this syllabus required me to focus on finicky details—course design! web design! copyright!—that make me feel claustrophobic and sweaty. There is both too much and too little out there. So many composition textbooks, and so little fiction. So many journals, and so few articles pertaining to my little corner of speculative fiction. So many possibilities, and so many restrictions. Your horizon widens, and your specific granular needs for your own little class begin to feel more and more closed off. 

It’s such an intimate process; something I didn’t think about until I realized that the results—incomplete, messy, and hopefully not error riddled—were going to be shared widely. Knowing this made me queasy. Although all the syllabi I’ve ever written have been shared, submitted to the English Department at Brooklyn College or distributed amongst my students, it isn’t usually displayed the way it is being displayed here as representative of something (even if all it represents is work that I did over five weeks). This anxiety of being seen, I realized, is an anxiety of openness. 

To move so suddenly is a shock, but I think that it is this deliberate movement of opening that has struck me most, coming out of this Fellowship. The closed nature of the work is part of what makes the opening so frightful. I spend so much time moping over the assumption that no one will ever see most of what I labor over that I hadn’t thought much about the other side of it. That there is safety not only in obscurity but in the walled-off quality that so much academic work has. Now my real belief in open publishing is being tested by my anxieties and insecurities. I’m being asked to open. From my disciplinary, hyperspecific, detail-laden nitpicking out into the open eyes and webs and searchability. What if I missed something? Endless other concerns. 

I’ve gotten used to negotiating this tension between privacy and transparency, alongside a desire to share on Twitter, and I think that the questions raised in this Fellowship—how, when, and why to be open—are fundamental ones to ask not just for academic work, but for being people connected to the internet. We are somewhat doomed, and quite lucky, to live so openly. My friend Stefanie Wess recently texted me that “after one considers ethics, one should tell the truth and accept that feedback will occur.” This is a good rule for many things, but an especially good one to remember for people like us, who spend so much time working coiled up inside our little shells, when we inch our unprotected heads outwards towards the sunlight. 

Snail shell_Z7326” by Ennor is shared under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

About the Author

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