Imagining An Open Philosophy: Why Is It Important and What Needs to Be Done?

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.

Yingshihan Zhu is a PhD student in Philosophy at the Graduate Center. Her research interests include Social/Political Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, Epistemology (Social, Feminist, and Decolonial), and Ethics. Shihan is a graduate teaching fellow at Baruch College where she teaches Ethics and Critical Thinking as well as Global Ethics.



When I asked my students whether they had purchased the textbook on the first day of my class, no one raised their hands. I was confused at first, but I soon realized that many of them were simply waiting to see whether the textbook will truly be used. Many of them also approached me after class, asking if there are cheaper versions of the textbook. 

The majority of my students and the general student population in the CUNY system are first-generation college students coming from low-income and underserved communities. Expensive textbooks undoubtedly add more financial burden to them and their family. 

As a previous first-generation college student and now a first-generation graduate student myself, I share my students’ worries. When I first entered college, I was shocked by the price of the textbooks and online course packages, but I simply normalized it myself and thought this was what college should look like. It was eye-opening when I discovered the concept of open educational resources (OER), so I immediately applied for the Open Knowledge Fellowship when I saw the call for applications. 

Over the course of the Fellowship, I was able to convert my Ethics and Critical Thinking course into OER. While I appreciate the fact that there are already some high-quality open resources in Philosophy, particularly in Ethics and Critical thinking, there are still gaps to be filled. For one, most OER textbooks have good summaries of philosophers’ positions, but there is limited open primary literature. In Philosophy, we want students to read primary texts because that’s how they learn to tease out arguments. 

The second gap is the lack of justice oriented OER work in Philosophy. Here I’m not focusing on whether or not the content is about justice issues. Instead, I’m talking about whether or not the way in which the information is presented in a justice-oriented manner. For example, when I teach my students what is usually called the “straw man fallacy” in many OER logic textbooks, I introduce it as the “straw person fallacy.” This difference may seem trivial, but it is these small steps that will gradually change the norms around gender in our society. 

The aforementioned second gap demonstrates that there are many problems that cannot be solved by OER alone, despite the fact that OER can be a useful tool to ease students’ financial burden and make knowledge more accessible to the general population. Another similar problem is that OER doesn’t necessarily decolonize the production of knowledge either. It’s possible to write up OER textbooks without including or citing any articles produced by non-Anglophone/eurocentric philosophers or written on non-Anglophone/eurocentric topics. 

To produce good open resources in Philosophy, we need to focus not only on open licenses, but also on making the knowledge production process as inclusive as possible. Hopefully, as more and more philosophers come to see the value of producing good open educational resources and using them in their teaching, less and less instructors will need to ask their students whether they have purchased their textbooks ten years down the road. Only through collective effort can we cultivate an open philosophy. 

About the Author

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