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Digital Course Design and Real World Limits

By Mounira Keghida

I started teaching courses in the history of Early Modern Europe at City Tech in the semester before my Open Pedagogy Fellowship. Originally a community college, The New York City College of Technology (also known as City Tech) has become a four-year institution and is surrounded by a rising tech district in Downtown Brooklyn. Neighbors include several start-up companies and the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Among the CUNY colleges, City Tech has a distinctly urban feel, like Hunter College, and lacks the relaxed campus atmosphere enjoyed by students at Brooklyn College, Queens College, or City College. My classrooms are filled with young people pursuing associates’ and bachelors’ degrees, almost all from the surrounding neighborhoods. About 61% of the student body reported annual household incomes lower than $30,000, according to the 2016 CUNY Student Experience Survey.

As a historian, my research field is in European colonialism and imperialism, so I always approach my courses from a global perspective. Another course-design priority, always important at a public university, is to keep costs down for the students. For my first course in Early Modern European history at City Tech, I assigned The Human Journey, a subscription Ebook that had been in the library’s collection for years. Three weeks into the semester, the students told me the Ebook had been taken offline for reasons that were unclear. As a remedy, the librarians could only suggest I leave my own print copy at the Reference Desk, where students could access it no more than two hours at a time. As I was told, they would use their phones to photograph the assigned readings. Most students were unable to afford the $40 print book, although some bought used copies. Of course, this first pitfall could have been avoided had I designed the course making use of Open Educational Resources (OER), which are unrestrained by corporate ownership or copyright limitations.

The OER workshops offered to us as part of the Open Pedagogy Fellowship would have helped me with other problems I faced that semester. It has changed how I will approach course design from now on. A major highlight for me during the OER Boot Camp at The Graduate Center was in the fourth-day session lead by Jean Amaral, BMCC librarian and early adopter of OER technology. A firm believer that OER should not only address issues of cost, Jean inspired us with new visions for teaching interactively. She pointed to an exemplary realization of this teaching philosophy by our CUNY colleague, Hollis Glaser. For those who wish to make the learning experience for their students completely interactive, Amaral recommended the professional development courses and instructions available at WikiEdu. Among content resources, I share her enthusiasm for Kanopy, a free streaming service with thousands of documentaries, classic films, and academic lectures available to us through The New York Public Library.

All this points to a growing trend, to liberate course content from the classic textbook. By the second month of my first semester, a survey revealed that my students preferred to rely on my own slideshows, class discussions, primary resources (such as maps, paintings, documents and architectural photos), and the short art videos I used to introduce new historical periods. Most accessed these resources exclusively via their cell phones.

To introduce the early Renaissance republics and the rise of an urban European society, I sent a video discussion between two art historians of the fresco panels painted in the mid-14th century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which still decorate the former city hall of Siena today. This and dozens of other  discussions of historically important artworks are made available free of charge by Khan Academy (our workshop taught us always to be aware of the terms of use). The video prepared my students to discuss concepts such as the walled city and the rights of citizens. In class, when we turned to the image of a walled Siena, which is featured prominently in the fresco, many showed trouble understanding that it was not a punishment but a relative privilege to reside within the city walls.

I explained that this tradition lives on in the ceremony of honoring someone with the “keys to the city.” Within seconds, some students had used their phones to find that hip-hop star Usher had been awarded the key to the city of New Orleans. Cell phones, the Internet and an online video allowed us to bridge 14th century Siena with the present-day realities of these young New Yorkers. In time, I plan to incorporate phones more often into classroom discussions. Via their phones, students instinctively look to the Web to answer questions. But in teaching these citizens of the click society (to coin a phrase), should we be designing our syllabi and course materials for access primarily by cell phone? To be truthful, I would prefer other alternatives. It is a question whether other options are adequately available, given the general conditions prevailing nowadays at institutions like City Tech.


Sugar, the industrial revolution and 19th century anti-imperialism are the research concerns of Mounira Keghida, doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in History at The Graduate Center. Born in Paris and raised in Algeria until the age of seven, she became a lifetime resident of Brooklyn, and a lifetime student at CUNY. She holds a B.A. in History from City College, and masters degrees in Art History from City College and in French history from Hunter College. She has taught for many years at Lander College for Women, City College,  and most recently, City Tech – and will never surrender her abiding faith and passion for public education.

Breaking Open: Open Pedagogy as Intentional Interruption

By Allison Cabana

It is not possible to fully represent the “Breaking Open” #GCOpenPedagogy Symposium in only  500 words. Hosted by the Graduate Center Library and developed by Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, the event featured scholars and activists working to interrogate academia, the role of Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources (OER), as well as insight into our practice as scholars, students, professors, and activists. Presentations included Keynote Speaker Clelia O. Rodríguez (author of Decolonizing Academia), a morning panel of Open Pedagogy Fellows Inés Vañó García, Jacob Aplaca, and Adashima Oyo and an afternoon panel with Wanett Clyde and Matt Brim. The full program may be found here, but what I hope to share is what I’ve come away with: an abundance of questions and even more inspiration.

Throughout the day, discussions all seemed to link back to keynote speaker Clelia O. Rodríguez’s imperative to seriously engage in decolonizing academia. Rodríguez’ talk provoked many questions: How can open pedagogy relate to decolonizing the academy? Does “open” necessarily mean transformative? And how must we be a part of decolonizing? Rodríguez challenged and inspired attendees to consider the conditions of the academy. She spoke to the structures of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, and imperialism, and invited scholars to interrogate our own practice. What are we teaching for? And, what are we fighting for?

As she shared her experience of the necessity of knowing one’s own history, recognizing oppression, and making visible those connections, Rodríguez challenged the audience to rethink pedagogy, and include students’ own history – “What would a curriculum with the known look like? Sounds, faces, first and last names, places where they’re from, where they belong, recipes?”

Rodríguez shared her view that, “to me, everything is a text,” and pushed for teachers to include the built environment as a legitimate academic source. In connecting open pedagogy to the wider possibilities of dismantling structural oppression, Rodríguez pushed toward the concept of ‘breaking open,’ especially, in her words, in the sense that “communal exchange of knowledge knows no borders.”

Another highlight was when Clelia Rodríguez addressed a student question about the experience of fear and struggle in this context. Rodríguez responded: “Fear is real. There is a reason why we’re angry, pissed off, emotional. We’re being killed. Think: what are the chances of me being killed today?”

Although I’d like to share everything from the Symposium, I will continue by sharing the questions raised by other presenters that directly engage with the task of how to  decolonize the academy. The presentations were interwoven with  reflections on oppression within/by the academy, open scholarship vs. ownership, who profits, and the transformative change necessary to truly decolonize the academy.

A few highlights from presenters in conversation with Clelia O. Rodríguez’s keynote address: Wanett Clyde asked us to consider intersectionality, multiple roles, and being a Black woman scholar. She interrogated the relationships between systems of oppression, and the implications for  people of color maintaining ownership over our own work.

Matt Brim asked us – what are the material conditions of our academic work, institutional history, and knowledge production?

OER Fellow Adashima Oyo asked: “Why aren’t there CUNY faculty and administrators in these rooms? They need to be hearing these as well.”

And finally, an attendee reflected: “Is it possible to decolonize the academy? Is the structure of the academy itself a function of colonialism and exclusion? What would be left?”

I don’t have an answer to the questions above. And I don’t think having an answer is the point. From using Open Educational Resources to transforming Open Pedagogy, each can be tools in what Rodríguez, the organizers, presenters, fellows, and participants were in conversation about: we must decolonize the academy. To answer the very last question of “What’s left?”, and how the work can be done  Rodríguez offered the inspiring response that we collectively create it.


Allison Cabana is a doctoral student in the Critical Social/Personality Psychology Program. Her research has utilized Participatory Action Research and collective knowledge making. Allison is currently an adjunct instructor at La Guardia Community College.

Teaching Dante on the Commons

By Stefania Porcelli

This semester I am teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy in English in a writing intensive course at Hunter College. I am teaching the Comedy for the first time and for the first time I am using the CUNY Academic Commons platform to share information, material, assignments and feedback – that is, everything but grades.

Although writing is still a primary focus, using the website for the course made me shift my attention toward the visual. For a start, I decided to continue the approach of previous iterations of this class, taught by Julie van Peteghem whose final paper assignment asks students to analyze a visual representation of the Divine Comedy produced from Renaissance to the present day. I put even more emphasis on the visual arts by asking my students to write blog posts (instead of traditional response papers) and encouraging them to include images and to comment on them in their writing.

Image by Joel Fernandez

Many of Dorè’s illustrations are available in the public domain and have been among the students’ favorites. However, in the page called Resources, I included a list of websites where students could look for additional images and commentaries on the poem. A number of digital initiatives exist, each of them with a special focus, but all include artworks related to Dante’s work. For example, Dante Worlds (University of Texas) features drawings and illustrations by Vellutello, John Flaxman and Gustave Doré, but also original artworks by Suloni Robertson. Digital Dante, a website created by scholars at Columbia University and enriched by researchers from several other institutions, has been crucial to the course. Professor Barolini’s commentary on the website has guided us through all cantos of Inferno and some parts of Purgatorio. The “image” section of Digital Dante presents Sandow Birk’s illustrations and an insightful essay about William Blake’s interpretation of Dante. Birk translated the text into visual representations of contemporary America.

I assigned a reflection post in the middle of the journey of our semester that asked students to comment on their own public writing. The students all submitted the assignment on time, and they all used tags and categories. They were free to write about any aspect of their blogging activity, but most of them assessed their use of secondary sources or images in their posts. “My first two posts contained more summary than they contained analysis,” wrote one student. “With each consecutive post following the first two, I believe I progressed in my ability to make better connections, analysis, and find a theme within the Canto.” Similarly, a second student commented: “My first four blog posts were more like summaries rather than reflective posts,” but also included a further reflection: “They all included images with a short description of them but, I mostly summarized what the canto was about. However, my blog posts five and six had more connections, comparisons, similarities and changes in style.” Reflecting specifically on the inclusion of images in the posts, a third concludes: “I think including artwork sometimes helped me understand the Cantos better and therefore respond better.” And then there was a post that had the form of a comic strip – one of the best ways to reflect on the relationship between words and image while reading Dante. Not only does teaching on the Commons add a visual quality to my course, but it also encourage students to produce creative material as a comment on the Divine Comedy.


Stefania Porcelli is a PhD candidate in the Program of Comparative Literature (Italian Specialization) at The Graduate Center. She is completing her dissertation entitled “Narrating Intensity: History and Emotions in Elsa Morante, Goliarda Sapienza and Elena Ferrante.” Porcelli teaches Italian Language, Culture and Literature at Hunter College.

Tools of Technological and Intellectual Change: OER and the Democratization of Knowledge Production

By Stefanos Milkidis

Much has been written about the production of knowledge, the validity or social value of new forms of knowledge, the public debates about the politics and/or (im)proper practices of access to knowledge, and its organization and dissemination within the academic realm. Most famously, Michel Foucault first examined the ways in which the production of knowledge within the human sciences, from the eighteenth century onwards, became bound up with dominant political interests of social control (Foucault, 1977/1995). Based on this bold assertion, the school has been seen as an apparatus that exerts and legitimizes the power and knowledge of the state, while the university has steadily become a complex web of liberties and privileges that, in my view, the majority white population takes for granted. I have no intention here of even trying to review, or unpack for that matter, the multifarious debates about power and knowledge relations within our school system by way of entering into a Foucauldian discourse analysis. The production of knowledge is most commonly understood, in the end, both as an outcome and a process of pedagogical decisions made in a context of technological and intellectual conditions.

Recognizing, however, that the recent efforts to rethink knowledge production by introducing Open Educational Resources (OER) adoption programs will help us better understand, on the one hand, how social exclusion has long been implemented in higher education in the United States, and, on the other, how these same efforts have come to undermine larger exclusionary implications in education by enabling accessibility to the teaching material. Therefore, by widening our scope beyond the value and serious significance of adopting OER in our teaching strategies, I contend that the ethos behind this movement has been to democratize the production of knowledge as a process and outcome. To put it differently, OER not only produces knowledge but also willfully rejects commercialized forms of education, generated by the steadfast permeation of capitalist relations in the U.S. educational system over the past four decades. In this respect, I further argue that OER is an ethical call for, and thus the first important step towards, democratizing education and liberating it from profit-driven conditions that continue to deny access and opportunity to socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Let me briefly consider, in the interest of clarity and insight into the capitalist fabric of higher education today, a definition of Open Educational Resources that directly foregrounds the importance of accessibility and transparency of knowledge, and its production and dissemination. According to the Hewlett Foundation, one of the largest supporters of the OER movement, “OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or repurposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.” It is precisely the lack of access that engendered the birth of the OER movement, and with it an adamant desire to extricate the production of knowledge from a capitalist venture, whereby, in its most contemptible application, students lose their scholarly signification because they are perceived either as clients, according to their socioeconomic background, or passive beneficiaries of large, long-term loans.

Bernie Sanders, Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential election, has repeatedly declared that all students deserve the opportunity to receive an affordable, quality education in all levels of K-12 and beyond. Sanders has introduced and supported the passing of Congressional Bills to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, as well as to substantially reduce student loan interest rates. While such a radical vision has been consistently and disparagingly rejected by the anti-socialist politics of corporate America, as much as it has been widely unpopular in the mainstream society for different reasons, there was a time, not so long ago, when college attendance was affordable and for that reason accessible.

According to economist Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “…about 5.5 percent of students enrolled at four-year colleges in 1997–98 were enrolled at colleges that charged more than $20,000 a year…Inasmuch as the vast majority of students attend public institutions, about three quarters of all students attending four-year institutions were paying tuition and fees of less than $8,000 a year” (Ehrenberg, 2000: 5). This description seems completely disconnected from our current reality. Indeed, since the beginning of the new millennium, the expansion of neoliberal capitalism and a greater emphasis on free trade resulted in the gradual establishment of educational corporatism. These changes—premised on neoliberalism and new processes of capital circulation—reinforced tuition increases across public institutions in the country. This also led to the commodification of educational resources, and simultaneously restricted access by individuals of lower socioeconomic classes, who had been previously able to afford them. Peter Taubman, in Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education, writes: “For the purposes of mapping the transformation of education, what is important to retain from the analyses of neoliberalism is their illuminations of the ways and extent to which corporations have penetrated into the depths of consciousness and the bodies of corporations dominate our approaches to education” (Taubman, 2009: 98). The technological revolution in information and global communication shaped new “bodies of corporation” within our colleges and universities, as much as it served as an antidote to educational corporatism with initiatives that range from small to large-scale endeavors like the OER movement.

An adjunct professor in the CUNY system since Fall 2017, I have gained a first-hand experience of educational corporatism through services that are marketed to and consumed by both instructors and students, especially when it comes to textbook selection. Notably, a publisher’s representative approached me immediately after I accepted teaching responsibilities at  Borough of Manhattan Community College, with respect to textbook options for my assigned courses. The representative informed me that students could access a digital copy of their books for $79.99 by creating an account through the publisher’s website, after which they would be required to purchase a unique access code (online or at the campus bookstore). For students who prefer a printed version, there is the option to purchase a loose-leaf copy of the textbook for an additional $20.00 fee, as long as they first register and pay the $79.99 fee for electronic access. After completing these steps, students are able to download the publisher’s application on their electronic devices, study the assigned material anytime and anywhere, set notifications on due dates, play learning games, or practice with sample tests and essay questions. Instructors, on the other hand, have access to students’ profiles, view their activities and the amount of time they spend on reading and tasks, as well as utilize features by which they can further engage students in the content. While these technological possibilities may seem somewhat remarkable or even justified in our digital age, one can hardly miss the fact that publishing companies have been able to raise their profits by designing and providing electronic resources, without minimizing the overall cost of merchandise.   

As an Open Pedagogy fellow, I am most appreciative for the opportunity to learn about methods  of evaluating, supplementing and teaching with OER, as well as the licensing and copyright for integrating zero-cost course materials. The commodification of education is not only unjust in that it corresponds to certain class and racial divisions, but is also profoundly unethical. Furthermore, it propagates the cruel and vulgar assumption that education—along with other public benefits, such as healthcare or unemployment insurance—is not a national civil right but rather an overpriced commodity, something that can either be purchased outright or paid off through a life-binding commitment. Teachers and college professors, along with visionary activists like Bernie Sanders, can and should strive for the democratization of education and knowledge production. By removing the corporate barriers around copyright and transaction costs, OER adoption offers educators the opportunity to become part of a much-needed, new turn in knowledge production. These alternatives contribute to the de-privatization of education, and help to  democratize the workings of the larger institution by allowing access to materials that students need for academic and professional success.

The goals are simple and clear, albeit ambitious, undoubtedly partisan, and responsive to wider social issues. As educators whose professional survival depends on the ethical and political determination against neoliberalism, our future is inextricably linked to student success, as well as their socioeconomic wellbeing and intellectual prosperity. The efforts made by the OER movement are a step in the right direction, but a full democratization of education, for the purpose of creating social change for both educators and students alike, is yet to be achieved. I have no doubt that OER adoption at CUNY, alongside the growing number of state-funded OER initiatives, will slowly contribute to a more equitable educational system. I choose to take this route in my teaching and explain the benefits of this model to colleagues, including its implications and/or limitations, as a way to envision a freedom from educational corporatism. From my perspective and political positionality, it is a choice that gives more credit to students; one that accepts learning as a fundamental civil right that cannot be measured or quantified through monetary inheritance. Fundamentally, the ethos behind OER promotes opportunity and seeks to lessen the impact of existing financial entitlement.  

References

Ehrenberg, Ronald G. (2000). Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1977/1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Taubman, Peter M. (2009). Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education. New York: Routledge.


Stefanos Milkidis is a New York based scholar, artist and educator, whose practice spans between research, writing, and creative production. Stefanos has an academic training in visual arts (B.A., M.A., M.F.A) and American Studies (M.A.) and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Cultural Geography in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His investigations coalesce around queer geographies, urban histories, and visual culture studies, with a particular focus on New York City. He is the founder and director of the Queer Space Studies Initiative, an online platform of research on the concept of queer space. An Adjunct Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, he teaches courses in “American Government” and “History of Western Civilization.”

Open Resources, Annotated Bibliographies, and the Age of Revolution

by Param Ajmera

As a student and teacher of revolutionary literature and history, I believe that time is always ripe to talk to about the potential, performance, and process of structural change. What have social and political revolutions looked like over time? How do they manifest? When do they end? Questions along these lines are of deep concern to me, so I strive to incorporate them into all aspects of my academic work. When it comes to my teaching, the proliferation of open resources, and especially the many digital archives now available, has given me an opportunity to stage encounters with revolutionary moments for my students. These encounters strive to cultivate a critical consciousness, while also serving the overarching learning goals of our first-year composition course.

One such encounter happened last week, when my class learned how to write an annotated bibliography about the Haitian, French, and American revolutions. During a visit to the library, during which my students learned the language of Boolean searches and became familiar with using digital repositories and databases, I planned a class session where we would explore relevant materials in openly accessible archives, such as the Digital Public Library of America, Hathi Trust, EuropeanaDigital Library of the CaribbeanNYPL Digital Collections, and Umbra Search.

Image credit: Europeana

I began class by recapping some of the major points from our library visit, to put everybody in the mental space of thinking about sources and searching. I then divided my class into three groups composed of seven or eight students each. Group 1 was assigned the American Revolution, Group 2 – the French Revolution, and Group 3 – the Haitian Revolution. Each group was provided a Google doc worksheet that included links to digital archival collections, and three guiding questions: What were some of the causes of the revolution that they were assigned, what was one prominent event that happened during this revolution, and what was one text / artistic work that emerged from this revolution. I then asked my students to use these digital archives and collectively compose an annotated bibliography of sources that addressed these questions. I tasked each group to pick a leader who would discuss their findings briefly towards the end of class.

Key to the success of this class were the sizeable collections that these digital resources made available, and the willingness of my students to enthusiastically participate in the endeavor. Within seconds, the groups were finding dozens of items of interest, and thanks to their collaborative attitude, were able to sift through this material strategically and quickly. Not only were my students astounded by the diverse array of materials that they encountered – from pamphlets and newspapers to images of statues and maps of regions – but they were also amazed (and sometimes confounded) by the similar-yet-different ways in which these repositories organized their collections and displayed objects. As we moved through the exercise, I observed how the students grasped the crucial necessity of thinking about different search keywords, how they collectively learned  advanced search functions, and practiced critical thinking, in making meaning of a centuries-old text.

The process of searching for, evaluating, and organizing materials is among the learning goals of my class: and I know that our class exercise was a success because it directly addressed this goal. That we also talked about Toussaint Louverture, Marie Antionette, and Alexander Hamilton along the way only made this journey all the more gratifying. Having gone through the exercise, I learned that among the advantages of open materials is that they present students with the opportunity to encounter a smorgasbord of genres of writing, languages, and aesthetic forms. This creates an environment where students begin to see history as a dynamic and contested field, where multiple stories and interpretations vie for legitimacy. What goes out the window is the static, dry, and deterministic understanding of history that students previously found in their high-school textbooks.

In other words, the use of open materials can make the content of our courses more interesting and appealing to our students, because it challenges them to use their wits and arrive at their own conclusions.


Param Ajmera is a PhD student studying Early American Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an Adjunct Professor at Brooklyn College. Ajmera’s research interests are in transatlantic literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black studies, colonial / postcolonial studies, and digital humanities.

“You Are Not Neutral”- Reflections on OER Boot Camp

by Inés Vañó García

“You are not neutral. Own it and go all the way.”
– Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, Head of Reference at The Graduate Center Library

I believe that the words from the title of this post perfectly summarize our Open Educational Resources (OER) Boot Camp this past January. The Boot Camp was part of the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, which was an incredible teaching and learning opportunity for many of us, as graduate students, librarians, and faculty came together (and what a great amount of combined knowledge!). This synopsis will provide an overview of the different sessions and their speakers, along with the key concepts covered during those workshops.

Recognizing this opportunity for its uniqueness, I would like to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the space itself: students from a range of disciplines such as Psychology (Educational and Critical Social/Personality), English, History, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Comparative Literature, Cultural Anthropology, Classics, Social Welfare, and Spanish Linguistics came together to learn, discuss, and share Open Pedagogy practices. This inclusive and interdisciplinary student cohort, along with the conversations and workshops exemplifies the critical potential of open pedagogy.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

We had the privilege to meet scholars in the field, and actively participate in conversations about open digital pedagogy practices within CUNY. The Boot Camp was an intensive, productive experience, and incorporated a wide variety of topics, ranging from the theoretical to the more practical elements of building a course site on the CUNY Academic Commons.

We not only had the chance to meet and talk with Polly Thistlethwaite, Chief Librarian, but learned a bit about her personal history and experience as an activist, and how it is connected to her research (reviewed in a previous post by Jaime Shearn Coan). Next, with Elvis Bakaitis and Jill Cirasella, getting our feet wet, we had the opportunity to question the meaning of the term “open.” Both of them introduced key concepts and terminology, including application of Creative Commons licenses. We also became familiar with, and took the time to examine diverse repositories in order to search for existing Open Education Resources (OER) and Open Access (OA) materials in our disciplines.

Furthermore, we got to know the multiple resources available to us and the projects currently underway with the CUNY system. Andrew McKinney, OER Coordinator, was the one who highlighted the different projects and initiatives being carried out by faculty at different CUNY campuses. In addition, Donna Davey, Adjunct Reference Librarian, brought an archival perspective by sharing with us the multiple platforms available and digital archival materials that we might integrate with our teaching and learning practices. From archives to images, Katherine Pradt, Adjunct Digital Outreach Librarian, introduced us to different sites where we can find openly-licensed visual material and images (summarized by Elizabeth Che).

From the standpoint of critical pedagogy, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, Head of Reference, led a conversation about deconstructing the most traditional concept of the syllabus. Her presentation was framed with a text by Cleila O. Rodríguez, “The #Shithole Syllabus: UnDoing Hi(Story),” published in Radical Teacher, who will be the Keynote Speaker at the upcoming Open Pedagogy Symposium in May.

Jean Amaral, the Open Knowledge librarian at BMCC, provided an inspiring presentation on how OER could promote Open Pedagogy , and reviewed on the Graduate Center Library Blog by Jacob Aplaca. We also had a valuable discussion about Critical Pedagogy with Emily Drabinski. Last but not least, since they worked with us in multiple instances during the Boot Camp, and coming from a hands-on perspective, Krystina Michael and Laurie Hurson, Open Educational Technologists, assisted us with building our courses on CUNY Academic Commons.

Photo by Louis Smit on Unsplash

With this brief overview of the Boot Camp, I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize the urgency for these pedagogical conversations, as well as for these types of creative and innovative spaces, including collaboration among students from diverse disciplines, faculty and librarians. The use of OER and Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) materials goes beyond affordability – and in fact, the cost-saving factor may be seen as the tip of the iceberg, in terms of pedagogical potential. The use of OER and ZTC materials must question traditional approaches that foresee students as knowledge consumers, and facilitate new and creative teaching strategies to encourage learning and teaching environments that promote inquiry. Innovative work in this field will center around collaboration and transparency, support student-driven approaches and conceive of students as knowledge creators.

In this spirit, I would like to conclude by sharing the culmination of an initiative I had the opportunity to be part of, led by The Teaching and Learning Center, along with the Digital Initiatives and the Graduate Center Library: Building Open Infrastructure at CUNY, a project that reflects upon work at The Graduate Center over the past year.


Inés Vañó García is a doctoral candidate in Hispanic Linguistics (Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures) at The Graduate Center. Her Spanish sociolinguistics approach adopts a critical perspective which addresses the relationship between language and politics. More specifically, this approach to sociolinguistics delves into how language representations, linguistic and social practices are inscribed within unequal social hierarchies of power. Her research focuses on the professionalization of the teaching of Spanish in the United States during the 20th century. Currently, Inés is a Mellon CUNY Humanities Alliance Graduate Teacher Fellow at LaGuardia.

Searching for Open Educational Resources

By Sophie O’Manique

When teaching a course that would not traditionally rely on a textbook, the prospect of creating a syllabus populated exclusively by Open Educational Resources can initially feel overwhelming. My syllabi are typically populated by book chapters, journal articles and media articles. In my own experience, once I got past that initial feeling of being overwhelmed, I realized that moving towards a total reliance on OER was an opportunity for creativity and a more engaging classroom experience for students. I further realized that using OER provided me with an opportunity to better incorporate my criticisms of the current university model into my teaching.

I teach in Urban Studies – a field that is transdisciplinary. Because of this, initial searches for OER resources under the banner of urban studies came up dry. So, I examined my old syllabus and made a list of the disciplines from which I had drawn resources the last time around. Broadening my scope to other disciplines with urban focused sub-fields helped me to find more openly available academic resources.

As someone passionate about my field of study, I was (and am) attached to many of the texts that I had chosen to populate my syllabi in the past. Here, I determined which scholars’ voices I was determined to continue to include in my syllabus. Some digging helped me find resources of theirs that were openly available, or instances in which a given chapter of their book had been converted into a blog post of sorts that was openly available online. In one instance, I was surprised and delighted to find that a scholar I had assigned students in the past had a blog which he had published with a Creative Commons license. The publicly available blog posts were actually a better fit for my 100-level course than his academic work in that they explained the complicated workings of municipal finance in more accessible terms. In other instances, in which I couldn’t find an openly licensed version of a given scholar’s work, I used videos of their lectures available on YouTube in which they communicated the ideas I wanted my students to grapple with.

Moving towards an entirely open syllabus has pushed the parameters of what I have typically included on a syllabus. As mentioned, blogs offer a wealth of information, often in a more concise and accessible format. Having students read materials publicly available on blogs also provided me with an opportunity to include voices in my syllabus that might not have been included before. Elsewhere, I searched for interviews with academics and activists so I could include ideas that might not otherwise be available in openly-licensed materials. In another instance, I included an openly available short story that deals with gentrification. I found that it was actually better able to capture what the stakes are of gentrification than many academic works on the topic. Finally, I have included online databases and resources for students to explore – an example is the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

To conclude, once I got past the initial feeling of being overwhelmed, I came to realize that more than anything, moving towards an open syllabus presented an opportunity to be creative, to better engage students in the classroom and to better put my principles into practice.


Sophie O’Manique is a PhD Student in Earth and Environmental Sciences (Geography Stream). Her research is focused on the implications of affordable housing policy for social reproduction in New York City and Toronto. She also teaches in the Urban Studies department at Queens College.

Sourcing Openly-Licensed Images

By Elizabeth Che

Images are wonderful for illustrating points and adding excitement to your otherwise plain presentation, but you may be worried about infringing copyright. Through the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, we created sites on the CUNY Academic Commons that relied on openly-licensed materials (intended for sharing, remixing, and re-use). This adds a new consideration to the quest for images: are they restricted by copyright, or freely available through a Creative Commons license?  

Sourcing openly-licensed images may not be as difficult as it seems. During the Open Educational Resources Bootcamp, Katherine Pradt, Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian, presented an overview of the topic. 

Exploring Open Licensing

When looking for images, we are mostly seeking openly-licensed content, or materials from the public domain. Increasingly, image search engines are including the capability to filter by Creative Commons license. Some subjects may be more difficult to find (e.g., science related charts and diagrams). This is sometimes reflected in the lack of figures in science-based courses or texts that are released as Open Educational Resources (OER).

Finding Images

Google Images provides a filter to search for openly-licensed images. After entering an initial search term, click on “tools”, select a filter (e.g., labeled for noncommercial reuse), and do a new search using the Creative Commons image filters. It may be good to check the original source as well, to make sure the image didn’t slip through Google’s filter. 

Flickr also offers a Creative Commons filter of their user uploads. After entering a search term, you can change the type of license by clicking on the dropdown menu (e.g., from “Any license” to “All Creative Commons”). 

Pixelbay, Unsplash, and Wikimedia Commons aggregate openly-licensed photos from users and the global community of photographers.

Other sources of images may come from government sources or non-profit organizations, such as WorldImages, which provides access to the California State University IMAGE Project. These are available for non-commercial use and modification with attribution, under a  CC BY NC license.

The New York Public Library Digital Collections contains over 837,000 primary sources and rare items (e.g., historical maps, vintage posters, prints, and photographs) from NYPL and private collections. Be sure to check the Rights Statement that accompanies each item, to see if it fits the parameters of your intended use. 

Attribution

If you found a suitable image, you can now add it to your course site and include its attribution. Elvis Bakaitis, Adjunct Reference Librarian shared the Open Attribution Builder with us during the OER Bootcamp, which generates a text and html-formatted attribution that you can copy and paste into your own course site, or anywhere else you need to attribute.

Attributions can be included underneath the image, at the bottom of the page where the image appears, or on an entirely separate references page for all the sources that were used. You can also include a thumbnail of the image next to its attribution, if you prefer. 


Elizabeth Che is a doctoral student in the Educational Psychology Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Elizabeth’s research interests relate to the broad areas of language development, development of effective pedagogy, and the incorporation of technology in the classroom. She is also involved in efforts to evaluate the impact of teaching with Wikipedia in Introductory Psychology, by having students contribute to biographies of distinguished scientists as part of the WikiProject: PSYCH+Feminism.

Tools for Teaching History: Open Pedagogy and Archival Resources

By Katie Uva

I’m currently teaching New York City History in two different classes; one an online class at Lehman College and one a weekly honors class at Baruch. While I’ve taught New York City History in the past, the Open Pedagogy Fellowship at the Graduate Center this past January has equipped me with new strategies to make the course more accessible. Like many, I only had a vague sense of what was “open” about Open Pedagogy before I started the Fellowship. I assumed it was equivalent to free or low-cost, and that the ability to share sources for free was the main aspect of this approach.

Something that became clear over the course of the Fellowship is that this openness in resources also supports an openness in teaching and the research process. In a course like mine that has no single textbook, the professor acts as a curator of readings and primary sources: Open Educational Resources (OER) invite the students into that process and sets them up to undertake their own research more critically and effectively. When it comes to using archival resources, open pedagogy provides an openness in terms of supplying material for students to examine but also is open in terms of promoting transparency in how the course itself is planned.

Donna Davey came to our training and offered us some pointers for how to use archival resources as an OER tool. There are currently thirty-seven primary source databases available through the Graduate Center Library, though these are zero cost but not openly-licensed. Donna noted that there is still a value to using the Graduate Center Library resources, and that depending on your pedagogical needs, OER can be a strategy employed periodically throughout the class rather than a totalizing philosophy. That being said, she also demonstrated searches through a number of interesting digital archives–the ones that I have employed in my course include DPLA, Internet Archive, The New York Public Library, and the New York City Municipal Archives.

I have found the OER archival approach to be especially useful in framing my class sessions more interactively. To give one example, I began a day about Five Points by inviting the class to engage in a visual inquiry exercise using an 1827 painting of Five Points. I asked them simply, “What do you see?” and sometimes followed up their inferences and observations with “What do you see that makes you say that?” On that basis most students offered at least one observation, and we were able to tease out numerous themes that we explored further through the readings. These included the built environment’s significance in shaping Five Points, the painter’s bias in depicting the residents, and the impact of a growing visual culture in perpetuating fascination and hostility toward this neighborhood.

This material primed students for critical inquiry into the written sources for that day, including open-access primary sources through CUNY’s own American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning. Additionally, as a follow up activity for that class I was able to enjoin students to find other visual representations of Five Points using DPLA, the New-York Historical Society, and The New York Public Library, and place the image they had found in dialogue with the original image we looked at. This was also good practice for the research project on a topic of their own choosing that they will complete later in the semester.

This particular class session is just one example of how open archival materials helped promote a student-centered, focused, critical class session and worked in concert with material from previous semesters. For me, OER has been a useful seasoning for a class that I’ve taught before, and I can envision incrementally changing it over to be a completely open course in the future.


Katie Uva is an ABD student in the History Department at the Graduate Center, where her dissertation focuses on New York’s two world’s fairs and their relationship to midcentury urbanism. She has worked at Governors Island National Monument, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and The Museum of the City of New York, and is currently teaching at Lehman and Baruch. She is also a founding member of the Public History Collective and the Peer Mentoring Program, and currently serves as Coordinator at the Gotham Center for New York City History.

Emily Drabinski’s Critical Pedagogy

By Talisa Feliciano

As part of the Open Educational Resources (OER) bootcamp, I had the pleasure to talk with and participate in a workshop led by Emily Drabinski, co-editor of the acclaimed Library Juice Press publication, Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. This discussion touched on three subjects: what defines critical pedagogy, the connection between critical pedagogy and OER, and strategies for implementing this approach in the classroom.

What is Critical Pedagogy?

One section of a required course that I teach at Brooklyn College is offered only to Education majors. Each semester I ask the students of this section to define the term pedagogy. More often than not these Education majors and budding elementary and secondary school teachers cannot define pedagogy! Pedagogy is the theory and practice of teaching. Some instructors prefer lecture-heavy classrooms with pre-determined syllabi and little to no student input; others prefer discussion-based classes with flexible syllabi and lots of student input. Whether or not instructors are actively identifying their pedagogical practices, these practices are being enacted and affecting the classroom, which brings me to critical pedagogy.

Critical pedagogy aims to dismantle hierarchies in learning environments, prioritizes accessibility (widest definition possible), and uses learners’ knowledge to understand larger processes rather than the other way around (micro-macro understanding). With Emily Drabinski’s facilitation we came up with this definition and a shortened list of elements of a critical pedagogy:

  • Transparency and the metaconversation – Educators must be transparent with learners on the Why versus the What of an assignment. Rather than focus on what a learner must write in a paper, for example, it is important for the educator to imbue the importance of why the learner should be completing the assignment and how completion will contribute to a larger conversation.
  • Valuing the student knowledge base & including diverse curriculum/voices – Students are not empty vessels, but often have their subject knowledge on various topics. In learning how to be bearers of their knowledge, they need not be inundated with texts/learning materials that are only authored by heterosexual, middle-class, cisgendered, white men. Curriculum diversity means including authors from various intersecting subject identities, from marginal communities and experiences.
  • “Yes, and” approach – I got this from social justice organizing. Rather than teach with a “no, but-” approach which fosters singular answers and feeds into a right/wrong dichotomy, “yes, and” acknowledges multiple perspectives and rewards various ways of thinking allowing for the complexity and contradiction of everyday life to exist and be valid.
  • Challenge dominant narratives/subjectivity – See above where I mention diverse curriculum/voices. Also, check out this short list on decolonizing the classroom.
  • Historicizing/contextualizing/articulating material conditions – This is so essential when teaching in a place like CUNY. Students at CUNY are often affected by their material conditions as workers, immigrants, people living in hyper-policed neighborhoods, poor and working-class students, English language learners, and first-generation college students.
  • Teaching questions, not answers – Learning often occurs in how we can ask questions and when we get our students to ask questions rather than regurgitate answers: we are teaching them to think critically. Then, they can ask their peers questions, inside and outside of the classroom.

Critical pedagogy changes depending on the context. This is probably the most important takeaway. Critical pedagogy should be thought of as an active verb rather than a fixed object or noun.

Connecting CritPed + OER

Instructing with critical pedagogy in mind while making use of open educational resources are deeply connected practices, but they are not synonymous with each other. The openness of OER most often refers to the cost for students in accessing materials. Since OERs often use web resources and technologies, they may contribute to students developing healthy relationships with technology, and simultaneously encouraging them to share their work.

One example is encouraging students to create content via social media rather than expecting them to act solely as consumers of educational content. Practices like this can transform student interactions with technology. A critical pedagogical practice can also encourage the “open” of OER to be more expansive beyond financial considerations. Are resources available in multiple languages? Is the vocabulary accessible? Can it be used with a screen reader? Are there subtitles? Both critical pedagogy and OER encourage flexibility and inclusivity with different learning styles.

What are Some Strategies Instructors Can Implement in the Classroom?

During the 2019 Open Pedagogy Bootcamp, with Emily’s facilitation, each fellow evaluated their classes, many of which were taught from different departments housed at different institutions. Still, collectively, the fellows came up with the following list of methods we use in our classrooms:

  •        Asking accessible/metacognitive questions
  •        Looking for answers together
  •        Assigning evidence-based reflections
  •        Fostering classrooms where everyone talks/create opportunities for participation
  •        Ensuring everyone knows each other’s names
  •        Distributing authority, for example, peer reviews
  •        Annotating the syllabus

This list is by no means exhaustive of all the strategies that exist but responds to the malleable nature of critical pedagogy. There are a multitude of methods that broaden learning and reduce power differentials in the classroom.

Additionally, I was able to chat with Emily for a couple of minutes after the workshop about the particularities of being an adjunct while also remaining committed to a strategy of liberated pedagogies. When I asked her about institutional or departmental pushback to critical pedagogy, the example of syllabi requirements and learning objectives was brought up. How does the fact of departmental guidelines impact power within classrooms taught by adjuncts? An adjunct does not get compensated for suggesting improvements to syllabi and course requirements. This is just one complication many adjuncts face, and as Emily stated, “How can you change the department when so much of its work is dependent on contingent labor?” The conversation about labor and OER is still developing, but Critical Pedagogy provides some guidance in opening existing models to potential changes.


Talisa Feliciano is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at Brooklyn College. She has previously taught at Hunter College and the City College of New York. Her dissertation entitled, “Dancing in the Heart of the Empire: Youth Subway Performers in New York City” explores subway dancers and the politics of public space in New York.

This blog is also posted on the GC Library Blog