Committing to OER

This piece is part of a series by participants in the Spring 2024 Open Knowledge Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will 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.

Nicole Walker (she/her) is a Ph.D. student in English (Composition & Rhetoric) at the Graduate Center. Her research interests include writing pedagogy and critical university studies. She is particularly interested in how writing instruction intersects with critical pedagogy, metacognition, and the use of technology. Nicole currently teaches composition at Lehman College.

Committing to OER by Nicole Walker

I applied to the Mina Rees Library’s Open Knowledge Fellowship because I was intrigued by what the open access movement seemed to represent. Freed from profit motives, open access sources are less vulnerable to reactionary political forces. As someone who once worked in educational publishing, I knew just how much damage politicians have caused since the No Child Left Behind Act shifted focus to high-stakes testing. In fact, I left the industry out of concern around my own complicity: as the country has grown more politically polarized, censorship efforts have increased, and given that Texas and Florida are two of the industry’s largest markets, textbook content is often determined by the radical right. Having spent years trying to circumvent and subvert these various power structures, I found the idea of a movement that eschewed traditional publishing venues very enticing. Though I had only the vaguest sense of what the OER movement had already accomplished, I knew I wanted to be involved.

Before the Fellowship, I had already spent considerable time exploring open educational resources, building a CUNY Academic Commons website for the Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy certificate. While I had found a few useful sources, the process had been frustratingly inefficient. Without guidance, the world of open access can be difficult to navigate. It is easy to become overwhelmed, particularly because not all forums that host this material have managed to sort and catalog it. 

The problem of ensuring the use of diverse materials felt unresolved; I teach in the English department, and limited amounts of English-language literature by BIPIC authors have passed into the public domain. While the goal was always to use open resources as much as possible, I needed copyrighted material in order to introduce important discussions. I couldn’t omit it, but neither did I know how to link to it in an ethical way. 

The Fellowship provided solutions to both problems. First, the librarians introduced us to OER repositories that were easier to navigate than those I’d previously explored. The course material I found did not replicate the materials on my old syllabus exactly, but forced me to conceive new avenues of approach—a process I found unexpectedly generative. Perhaps because paper costs more than megabytes, my field’s digital textbooks tended to be longer and more detailed than the textbooks I already owned. They afforded more choice, and their licenses allowed me to tailor them, using only what would interest my students or spark needed conversations. As someone who has bought many a textbook for the sake of only a few passages, I appreciated the opportunity to minimize waste.

Image by J. S. Clingman from Pixabay (

The Fellowship could not fix the fact that not much American literature by BIPOC authors is open access (with the obvious exception of works completed early in the Harlem Renaissance), but it taught me how to use copyrighted material ethically. Previously, I had separated this material from the rest of the course’s content, either emailing it to students directly or guiltily distributing printouts during class time. The Fellowship showed me how to post copyrighted material on the course website, placed behind password protection. This improvement to my ethical use and attribution practices seemed particularly important given that I’m a scholar in composition and rhetoric, a field intimately concerned with the politics surrounding language use and knowledge-creation. My classrooms’ conversations tend to focus on language bias, unjust gatekeeping practices, and epistemological violence, and arguably, these conversations are incomplete when they don’t attend to issues around copyright and licensing. Post-Fellowship, I feel better equipped to guide those conversations and to model best practices. 

I don’t think I’m unique in having had few conversations about academic publishing prior to the OER Fellowship. For all its impact on our careers, we don’t often talk about the publishing system in which we participate. But the truth is that when I left educational publishing for academia, I exchanged my role in one corrupt publishing system with a dependency on another. As librarian Jill Cirasella reminded the fellows when she came to speak to our cohort, Elsevier, the company behind most peer-review journals, has elevated their prices to such an extent that school libraries have been forced to limit book purchases along with journal subscriptions. However, open access scholarship provides alternative formats, and I was happy to learn how to find these journals and confirm their validity. 

In future, I aim to publish in open access venues, and I will continue to refine the course site I built on the commons. The Fellowship only increased my enthusiasm for OER’s potential. No longer am I only intrigued; I am committed.

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is currently the Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library. They're also proud to serve on the University LGBTQ Council, and as a board member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies.