What Counts as Knowledge…and Who Is It For?

This is the latest in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. 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.

Katie Williams is an English PhD student and Open Knowledge Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center, focusing on spiritual and somatic communion in the Victorian Novel. Her research examines the intersection of disability studies, feminist theory, religion and care. Her work has been published in Dickens Studies Annual and is forthcoming in MLA. Katie has served as the editorial assistant for Clues: A Journal of Detection and teaches English Composition and Nineteenth Century Literature at Brooklyn College. She is a recipient of the Graduate Center 2023 Teaching Citation Award.


“In order for us to ethically engage the question of “accessibility” we must be conscious of the bodies whose movements have, throughout the history of rhetoric and composition, been rendered immobile under the weight of discourse and inaccessible spaces.”

—Cody Jackson, “How Does it Mean to Move

Last spring, I taught a composition course at Brooklyn College, centered around disability and illness. It was exciting and rewarding, particularly as a first-time instructor. But it also left me with questions. Multiple times throughout the semester, I noticed how difficult my students, specifically my neurodivergent students, found Blackboard. I used the platform to house my syllabus, required reading materials and weekly posting, so it was an inseparable part of my course. My students’ anxiety around this infrastructure prompted deeper reflection on the extent to which my classroom was advancing my pedagogical commitment to openness. Where was I complicit in creating inaccessible space? I needed a platform that would more authentically promote the value of all bodyminds. And instead of retrofitting a site for accommodations, it was imperative to begin from a place that better centered and anticipated the diverse learning needs of my students. I decided to pursue the Open Knowledge Fellowship to build more digitally inclusive infrastructure for my classroom, and to develop a more flexible and open syllabus for this class. 

Through the fellowship, I spent a semester building out a WordPress site through CUNY Commons. The OER Accessibility Toolkit was a particularly helpful resource, which I recommend for anyone designing a course site or converting their materials for the first time. I focused on creating a site with a minimalist design and high color contrast, to meet the needs of low-vision and/or color blind students. WordPress allows you to easily add alternative text to images, so they become understandable in multiple ways. I integrated meaningful weblinks, ensured PDFs and word documents were tagged for accessibility, and relied on headers to hierarchically structure information for screen readers. In terms of my course material itself, Librivox also proved a rich resource for audio versions of my required texts. My new design is easily navigable and makes materials easy to locate (a welcome change from Blackboard.) 

My efforts to make this course open in terms of content, also yielded specific challenges and interesting results. While some of my required articles were published under a creative commons license (all of Disability Studies Quarterly is – wonderfully – open access), one of the hurdles I encountered in converting my materials was the copyright restrictions on contemporary memoirs. Making sure lived experience continued to take center stage in my syllabus took patchwork solutions. But it also fostered a more creative lesson plan. For example, instead of assigning all of Ellen Forney’s memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Mania, I decided to assign a section, permissible under copyright, and pair it with a captioned TEDx talk the graphic artist gave in 2020. Hearing Forney speak about her writing process and illustrations adds invaluable insight when reading her memoir. 

Other adaptations to my syllabus included a multimedia resource on the social and medical model of disability, instead of a paywalled academic article, and a Great Writers Inspire resource on the history of Virginia Woolf, instead of a dubious, rogue PDF. While I am still figuring out gaps, my material overall has become more diverse and multi-modal. 

This process of creating a more open course has not only allowed me to focus on the question of who – who I am including, valuing and centering through my site’s new design and infrastructure; who does this course open space for – but also what counts as knowledge. As instructors, the act of placing materials on a syllabus is such an important one; it validates the material’s worth, usefulness and potential in scholarly conversation, and validates its creator. Integrating materials like videos, graphics and interactive lessons modules, particularly from independent scholars and activist organizations, has the power to not only enrich a curriculum, but also to vitally expand the meaning of knowledge and who makes it.

About the Author

Ingrid Conley-Abrams is an Adjunct Reference Librarian at the Mina Rees Library.