Towards a Collective Pursuit of Knowledge

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.

Thuy Anh (T.A.) is a faith leader; editor of Science for the People; award-winning scholar of social movements, political repression, and political violence; and award-winning adjunct professor of political science at Baruch College. They have organized with grassroots electoral campaigns, the Fight for 15, Philippines human rights defenders, CUNY workers, hospitality workers, and more.

Towards a Collective Pursuit of Knowledge by Thuy Anh (T.A.)

During winter break, I began a training on inclusive pedagogy which completely revolutionized my teaching. When an announcement about the Open Knowledge Fellowship appeared in my inbox, I knew this would be the perfect complement to my inclusive pedagogy practice.  The training deeply resonated with my commitment to political organizing and pushed me to identify more areas of teaching and community involvement where I could apply the socially transformative principles. At its heart, inclusive pedagogy seeks to nurture students’ sense of belonging and agency, and make space for their diverse abundance of knowledge, life experiences, ancestral histories, and learning capacities.

The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is similarly attractive to me because I recognize the punitive and unjust financial burdens placed upon working-class students, having spent my own fair share of college hours in professors’ offices hand-copying information from very expensive textbooks that I could not afford. The benefits of OER design is especially magnified for students from non-dominant backgrounds, not only because of intersecting economic precarity, but also because they can benefit from a wider array of readings and perspectives, including from authors with identities and positionalities closer to theirs than any political science textbook on the market.

Ultimately, the process to convert a course to OER was more time-consuming than I expected: my capacity to take on this additional work depended on the support of the Open Knowledge Fellowship. The toughest obstacles I encountered in OER conversion were the lack of a single repository for OER materials; having to let go of my own attachments to certain copyrighted readings that have no OER parallel; and my unfamiliarity with the literature I wanted to assign (literary fiction, science fiction, film—but for a politics course!). Additionally, the fact that such literature tends to be under copyright, lock-and-key. If I were more inclined toward assigning traditional political science readings, I believe I would have far less of a problem finding OER materials.

I believe that OER-based curriculum model a different way of acquiring and producing knowledge—one that is more democratic and equitable because it is relatively unencumbered from the profit motive. OER divests power from the big publishers and other powerful players, and diverts knowledge back into the hands of ordinary people. Knowledge therefore becomes a collective striving, rather than an alienating, hyperindividualistic, competitive enterprise normal to the neoliberal university system. OER also honors the unique and complex needs of the student body at CUNY: how diverse students are in their identities, heritage, class backgrounds, and much else. We can hereby offer learning materials that capture a wider array of perspectives and experiences that are more intimately relatable to them than what is traditionally assigned in college classrooms.

For all of their virtues, Open Educational Resources are not a simple panacea either. The movement operates within a neoliberal institutional and structural terrain, which sets the parameters. Forced to contend with the norms and standard operating procedures of the corporatized university and the monopolistic publishers, OER are limited in what issues they can address. We have to consider the goals of equity, diversity, inclusion, and access, alongside the larger context in which OER operate.

The above concern leads to me ask, how can the power of the big publishers be eroded while the commons is empowered? I feel called to contribute to the efforts begun by others to expand OER, beyond my individual classroom. I am exploring ways to advocate for OER to my colleagues and the department heads at my teaching college, and to integrate calls for OER into union organizing (e.g., can a commitment to expanding OER be bargained into the PSC-CUNY contract?).

After completing my PhD, I aim to apply to work at policy think tanks, towards expanding government funding for OER and fighting the monopolistic and extractive power of the big publishers. In short, my engagements with OER will not stop at the end of the Open Knowledge Fellowship – truly, the movement has become an ethos, an organizing orientation, and a career commitment that I will pursue beyond CUNY.

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.