Slowness, Limits, and Open Play

This is the fifth 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.

Sharanya Dutta is a fourth-year English Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research focuses on contemporary Anglophone South Asian novels—specifically nostalgia and dissent, states of emergency and exception, and the relationship between theory, language and the novel form. Her work exists at the intersection of postcolonial studies, transnational and world literatures, theories of the global south, and affect theory. She teaches First-Year Writing and Great Books at Baruch College.

I read a playful and cheeky article called “Fifty shades of open” (scrappily formatted, Gutenberg-style) before I wrote this piece. The authors mull over the various iterations of “openness” before arriving at an important distinction in the realm of “free” and “open”: ““free as in free speech,” rather than gratis, which means “free as in beer” (Pomerantz and Peek). The question is one of liberty, not value. The authors also clarify that “openwashing” can often hinge heavily on rhetoric and it is in fact often the databases and the organizing principles that are open, and not necessarily the content housed within them (which are still very much under copyright). They think, however, that “openwashing” and the fuzziness around openness is an overall positive. “As the term is used more — sometimes loosely or even inaccurately — communities of interest develop stricter criteria for what it means for a resource to be open. . . . we are currently seeing the term “open” undergoing speciation, as it is applied in new niches.” 

This was very reassuring to read, because I admit to being quite overwhelmed when I first began the Fellowship (which had changed from “Open Pedagogy” to “Open Knowledge”). My own research focuses on South Asian novels, postcolonial literature and theory, theories of the global south, and affect theory. What most frustrated me in my initial searches in OER databases was how few OER texts there existed for postcolonial/global south literatures and how archaic and racist their internal categorization were. I came up against the limits of what counts as “canon” (which is such a valid but dated critique in postcolonial theory that it felt strange to encounter it in real time). Particularly telling was searching “India” on the Project Gutenberg website only to find that it conflates Indians from South Asia and indigenous people in North America (Indians à la Christopher Columbus). In my own research, I am particularly interested in questions of method and process—how do certain theories actually work? This gap between theory and praxis is, to my mind, central to the Open Knowledge Fellowship. My courses have been zero-cost to the students since I first started teaching at Baruch College in 2018, but they had not—as I learned quickly—been technically “open”. 

I am very conscious of my own methods of text selection in both my first-year writing and “Great Books” courses, and I include postcolonial texts and perspectives from the global south in classrooms where those theoretical categorizations are entirely unknown to my students. I am also careful not to choose texts for diversity’s sake—for example, creating an anti-racist syllabus is as much a question of methodology as representation, in my view (a smattering of black authors does not an anti-racist syllabus make). When I first joined the fellowship, I was looking to build a more robust understanding of “open” resources and to more clearly identify the sites and archives where I might find them.

While we discussed the various nuances of “openness” with lucid presentations and helpful and strategic repetition, what came up again and again were the material inequities built into access to open resources (an institutional library login is required, for one example). Who bears the cost in this move towards openness? Is it faculty that create OER resources for their classrooms? How well are they compensated? Libraries pay exorbitant amounts to purchase access to databases and ebooks so students don’t have to, but who makes money from Article Processing Charges that are mandated by major publishers? What are the other costs in terms of loss of rigorous quality control and peer-review of OER resources? We had animated conversations about the politics of copyright in different countries, and I shared how entire cohorts in my undergraduate and postgraduate institutions in India used an essentially stolen JSTOR login from some obscure high school in the U.S. There is undoubtedly a real, palpable inequity in “open” resources and their access, based on larger geopolitical and material conditions. 

At Baruch (where I teach), the price of any textbook that I might assign ($75-$100) is low compared to certain STEM/business textbooks. It may not seem exorbitant compared to tuition, for example, but I have found it is a margin students often cannot afford. I also strongly believe that it is pedagogically useful to have students co-create the syllabus (especially for my “Great Books” course) so they can name/identify what kinds of texts interest them and why. Transparency about method of text selection and the ethos of open educational resources is always very well-received by students, who then excitedly look for more “free”/”open” texts to read online.

I think the most valuable thing I learned during this fellowship is slowness. I found myself following the breadcrumbs (online and otherwise) of all the labor that had gone into creating OER resources—the heavily-hyperlinked library guides on various institutional websites (that often generously reference each other), the occasional list created by kind stranger-scholars online, and the aesthetically pleasing CUNY Manifold projects and ebooks. What really stood out to me was the level of attention and meticulous care with which these collections were put together—such a big part of OER work is careful curating, cataloging and archiving for intuitive use; some of the most future-facing work I have ever encountered.

When I originally created the (technically zero-cost) syllabus, the process was a flurry of internet searches (exactly the kind of Googling I warn my students against doing) leading to sketchily formatted blogs and rogue PDFs on websites such as During the fellowship—and especially while I built my course site (for which I owe Samuel Teeple and his fantastic website much gratitude)—I found myself slowing down. The labor of building just one syllabus+website with legitimate OER materials forced this slowness. 

This slow search clarified for me the limits of the OER project when it came to my own field of research, but it also helped me identify the cost of curating these online spaces. For example, Google Arts and Culture’s curation of “Black Histories, Black Futures” is visually compelling, but I cannot fathom the financial investment in that project when compared to the many, many library databases and study guides created by precariously funded institutions such as ours. Finding the actual OER versions of texts I wanted to teach was nitpicky, but it allowed me to slowly browse the master websites that potentially contained these texts. It was dizzying. Some of websites that I found incredibly useful were:

CUNY-specific sites:

While gaining actual access to information and material resources is certainly the point of the Open Knowledge Fellowship, I think the methodologies and ethics involved in creating open educational resources is invaluable. The slow labor, finagling with CUNY Academic Commons, choosing the perfect representative image, anticipating the imaginary future audience for these resources (students, future teachers, scholars), the curation, the careful and intuitive organization, the lack of jargon, the focus on the public-facing output, the freely given advice and time and feedback, the commoning—that is the true value of this work.

“Whale Watching in Sri Lanka” by the author is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

About the Author

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