OA/OER is a Liberatory Political Act

This is the tenth 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.

Erin Elizabeth Lilli is a PhD candidate in Environmental Psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and an adjunct lecturer in Urban Studies at Queens College since 2016. Her current research focuses on the material conditions and experiences of gentrification had by long-term Black residents and homeowners in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Open access (OA) has been a buzz in the background of my pedagogical development over the last five years; however, it was an existential crisis in my field that finally opened me to the potential of both OA and open-education resources (OER) for preserving and advancing our small, but highly impactful and interdisciplinary corner of psychology. It was in the spirit of sharing knowledge and through working with a colleague, to organize OER for teaching of Environmental Psychology critically, that I joined the OER Fellowship.

On principle, I’ve never used commodified materials to teach my classes, nor do I use a textbook, preferring instead to curate the content myself from a variety of sources then provide them for free via course management software. I grew to realize this was not the way of OA, and to legitimately create such a course would prove trying, but an ultimately necessary trajectory both personally and politically. The New Deal for CUNY outlined ambitious, yet wholly justified demands, and some of these were won through the recently passed stated budget; free tuition was not. Making educational resources free and openly accessible is just one step in dismantling the current system of pay-to-learn education facilitated by exploited adjunct labor and egregious profiteering by academic publishers[1].

I started taking that step in this fellowship. Through both hands-on and practical engagement with OER, this fellowship provided me a foundational understanding of what constitutes OA and OER, how they differ, and best practices for finding quality open access materials and making contributions as well. Concomitant with efforts toward a liberatory education is the role of critical librarianship in “delineat[ing] the boundaries and limits of that power, to describe what it is and how it is reproduced” in the act of collecting, organizing, structuring, and disseminating knowledge[2]. As an educator, I hold a similar power in deciding what content is important to assign and how to frame it within the topics we discuss; however, an orientation toward open access affords opportunities for a more democratic and flexible learning environment for my students.

Being freed from paywalls and able to search content created through the Creative Commons places control in the hands of learners (i.e. instructors and students) and promotes the kind of transparency I strive for with my students—where I am open about my learning process, why I choose the readings I choose, and embracing the struggle to understand something new and different—grappling with the text. Important, too, is recognizing students as knowledge producers themselves; I find this especially meaningful in studying urban space—as we do in my discipline—and creating an environment where students’ knowledge of the city is acknowledged, respected, and put to use.

My experience with OA/OER is ongoing and there is no real classical canon in the discipline I teach. The variety of sources and types of material I use cut both ways from an OA standpoint. On the one hand, many of the sources are OA by default; on the other, I am not simply replacing a textbook, but a variety of articles and book chapters and have concerns over not just maintaining the quality of the content, but that I am engaging with authors that are not reproducing a heteronormative, white, male perspective. It is a work in process and progress and one of a political nature with respect to socializing education. I chose to work on a course syllabus that was in development and hadn’t been taught before and am eager to have my Commons site[3] live on as an OA repository and OER from which educators/learners can find new ways of teaching content. As I move forward with course development, I want to bring the spirit of knowledge-sharing through to my course assignments whereby my students will more actively learn from each other through their coursework and have the opportunity to share what they have learned about the world with others.

I close with a quote I feel captures the potential of OA/OER in creating critical thinkers. It is from John Dewey, a philosopher who considered education as a democratic act, saw knowledge as produced through our transaction with world around us, and valued the use of social science for collective problem solving:

“What is taken for knowledge—for fact and truth—at a given time may not be such. But everything which is assumed without question, which is taken for granted in our intercourse with one another and nature is what, at the given time, is called knowledge. Thinking on the contrary, starts, as we have seen, from doubt or uncertainty. It marks an inquiring, hunting, searching attitude, instead of one of mastery and possession. Through its critical process true knowledge is revised and extended, and our convictions as to the state of things reorganized[4]”.

[1] Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz, “The war to free science,” Vox, July 10, 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/3/18271538/open-access-elsevier-california-sci-hub-academic-paywalls

[2] Emily Drabinski, “What Is Critical About Critical Librarianship?” Art Libraries Journal44(2), 49–57 (2019). Accessed from CUNY Academic Works.

[3] https://urbst265002s22.commons.gc.cuny.edu/

[4] John Dewey, “The individual and the world” in Democracy and education (New York, Free Press, 1944), 295.

 Photo by Sarah Browning, reproduced under CC BY-NC 2.0 license.


About the Author

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