Increasing Engagement via Zero Cost

This is the fourteenth 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.

Manon Hakem-Lemaire is a third-year doctoral student in comparative literature, specializing in 19th-century travel writing, at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has been teaching composition and world literature at Baruch College since Fall 2020. During the pandemic, she became one of those people who got a lockdown puppy.

See my dog’s ridiculously human face expression, up there? It seems to say “Woof? An anthology costs $70? That more than I costs each month!” When I started teaching ENG2850 “Great Works of Literature II” at Baruch College, I was instructed to teach texts from three volumes of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, which is priced at over $70. 

I had been warned about the price of textbooks in the United States, but I had never had to buy one, as a graduate student. On the one hand, I could hardly imagine that my sophomore students would buy this book. On the other hand, I thought that there was little I could do about it.

But it felt wrong, from the beginning, to require my students to find the money and spend so much on a book we would only read a few texts from, and for a course that all Baruch students have to take to fulfil their credit requirements, and for classics of literature that largely belong to the public domain, having been published mostly between the 1700s and the mid-1900s. I felt all the worse about this textbook requirement since I, as the instructor, had not spent $70. I happened to have a second-hand copy of a former edition of this anthology, which cost me only a few dollars. Of course, I advised my students to look for second-hand copies, even former editions (hell, mine was one). Unsurprisingly, not all students could find one, and so they missed some readings, and student engagement in my class was low as a result.

This graph shows that textbook costs rise at the third highest rate of all categories in the U.S. from 1998 to 2018—an inflation of about 140%, behind only hospital services and college tuition. How does it make sense that textbook prices are inflating more rapidly than child care, hourly wage, cars, and housing?

When I heard of the Open Knowledge Fellowship, I applied two years in a row, until I could get a spot. I wasn’t confident that I was going to be able to make my course cost-free. But I needed to at least learn how to make this right and allow my students to be in the best position to engage with my course materials without having to go penniless for it.

I soon realized I could indeed use OER for my course, and I felt a duty to do so. I polled my students on Zoom, and only a couple of them had actually bought the latest edition. Surprisingly, most of them weren’t even informed of how to access the Baruch bookstore (I wasn’t told how either). After this poll, and while taking the Open Knowledge Fellowship, I started to provide Project Gutenberg versions of the classics we were reading. If my students weren’t going to buy the expensive anthology anyway, why continue to require it?

The only issue I encountered in getting rid of the textbook for the Fall 2022 was finding a replacement for the editor notes and introductory texts that accompanied the classics I taught. This proved an easy fix. Elvis Bakaitis, the librarian who organizes the Open Knowledge Fellowship, provided us with a wealth of OER links, and I was able to find an excellent replacement for the anthology: the Compact Anthology of World Literature from Georgia’s Virtual Library, Galileo. This anthology contains the majority of texts I am teaching, and in full, with the introductory texts that I needed to give my students a sense of the literary periods we cover. Thanks to this resource, in the Fall 2022, my course will be fully OER and cost-free for my students. I look forward to observing the change in student engagement in my virtual classroom (even if it is scheduled at 7:50 am…). I know they will appreciate not having to choose between buying another expensive textbook and missing course content, at least for my course.

I am deeply grateful for the Open Knowledge Fellowship because it has helped me create a version of my course that is reasonable for me and my students. I learned so much about OER, Open Access, and copyright laws, which, I admit, was a lot of information and often confused me. Throughout these five weeks, I kept wondering why I never had to take a course on copyright laws and open knowledge before. But then, how would that look, next to universities’ expensive textbook requirements? Can you teach students and instructors to use OER, and then ask freshmen and sophomores to spend hundreds on textbooks each year? As an academic, my writing is not compensated, but if I ever publish educational content, how will I feel about students being encouraged not to buy my book?

The fellowship also left me with these questions about where money goes in the publishing world, and the nitty-gritty of the relationships between universities and publishing houses. My instinct tells me that the cost of educational materials should be included in tuition fees, just like journal memberships are. I also wonder how these things worked when I was an undergraduate student in France and paid only 5 euros (yes, five), an administrative fee, to register at university each year. The full fees, for those without government support, were 180 euros/year, but then, there is no funding for PhDs, so here I am. 

That the cost of educational materials should be funded either by tuition fees or taxpayer money is my closest guess at a fairer university that penalizes neither students nor textbook writers. Is that naive?

Chart image from, a financial literacy website, via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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About the Author

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