Performing History with OER

This is the ninth 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.

Taylor Culbert is a Ph.D. candidate in theatre and performance at the Graduate Center. Her dissertation focuses on early modern European animal entertainments, querying how humans and non-human animals responded to and collaborated with one another, while considering animals as active agents in shaping theatre and performance history. 

With the teaching of complex historical narratives coming under attack in many states across the United States, it seems vitally important to make rigorous and well-researched historical information as accessible and available as possible, and to teach students not only the what of history, but also to give them the tools to consider how historical narratives come to be. How is history produced? Where do historical narratives come from? What evidence do we actually have for those narratives, and perhaps most importantly, what evidence do we not have, and how might that limit the narratives available to us? 

Theatre and performance is a rich subject for historical thought as its live and ephemeral nature leaves few lingering traces and makes it a challenge to study in the archive. The Open Knowledge Fellowship seemed like a great opportunity to take practical steps towards making historical information more widely available by putting my World Theatre History III course information (which I teach at Brooklyn College) up on a public platform where others can use and share the information, and by shifting the materials in my course to rely more on Open Access (OA) and Open Educational Resources (OER) so that anyone interested can refer to the materials regardless of university affiliation or research library access.

My first task, to start converting my World Theatre History III syllabus (still a work in progress) to prioritize more OER and OA source material, immediately presented a challenge. I structure my course into units around theoretical concepts, and it quickly became clear that many of the theory texts I consider foundational to the field were unavailable as OER or OA resources. Many of the secondary texts I had taught in the past were also unavailable in such a form. This required a significant rethinking of my course.

Luckily, through the Open Knowledge fellowship, I learned about the vast extent of digital archives that are made available by libraries around the world, and this became the cornerstone for how I am rethinking this course. While my syllabus is still a work in progress, the first unit of my course will focus on working with primary materials, and some of the challenges and questions that historians face when they go into the archive (digital or otherwise). Beginning with a focus on primary materials will give students the opportunity to think about the work of producing historical narratives and their own academic and artistic agency in such endeavors.

The subsequent two units, each based around a particular theoretical approach, will draw on the knowledge students have gained about using primary sources, and will expand on this through further work with digitized archival materials. By the end of the semester, students will have considerable experience using primary materials and thinking about how historical narratives are constructed from those materials.

For their final projects, students will choose a topic within theatre and performance history from the course’s time period (such as a particular performance, performer, theatre or theatre company, etc.) to present on to the class. Drawing on their knowledge of digital archival resources, they will conduct primary research on this topic and present their findings to the class, highlighting not only what can be learned from the materials they found, but also showing an awareness of the gaps in the archive and the information that is not readily available.

One of the problems I am still reckoning with, of course, is that I am still trying to figure out how to give my students access to some essential theory works and secondary sources. Some of these are not only unavailable as OER or OA resources, but they are not even available in digitized form through the Brooklyn College library. This ongoing problem underscores for me how important it is to continue expanding the availability of OA and OER materials in the humanities in particular.

With so much knowledge and information hidden behind paywalls, the vital cultural work that humanities scholars do will struggle to have a significant impact on the world beyond the walls of academia. As a scholar and researcher myself, this has opened my eyes to the importance of making my own published work open access or publicly available in some form. I believe that this also holds true for teaching. By making my course syllabus publicly available, I can contribute to an exchange of educational models and ideas for how to teach and structure content in a frequently-taught course sequence such as World Theatre History.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Walter L. Main 3 ring trained wild animal shows circus poster.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 19, 2022. 

About the Author

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