Open Pedagogy Fellows

Where We Are Now and Where We’ve Been: Open Access and AIDS Activism

By Jaime Shearn Coan

In her influential 1991 essay, “Theorizing Deviant Historiography,” scholar Jennifer Terry wrote: “the new archivist is on the street, in the thick of things, occupying a mobile subject position” (286). For some, this image may feel incongruous. For others however, the conjuncture of activism and archives is a familiar and necessary one. Polly Thistlethwaite, the Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, an ACT UP alumni, and a fierce advocate of open access, fully embodies Terry’s ideal.

On January 10, 2019, the first day of Open Educational Resources (OER) Bootcamp, Thistlethwaite delivered a talk, complete with personal photos, titled, “How We Got to Open Access: An Activist’s Tale.” Right away, she made clear that origin narratives are contradictory and often dangerous, and offered up her version within the context of more dominant takes on how OA has come to be what it is today.

“SBC9 Follow Elmer Holmes Bobst Library” by SBC9 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 1986, Thistlethwaite held the dual positions of being librarian at an academic institution and a member of ACT UP. Access to medical information published by journals that could only be accessed by institutions with subscriptions was being sought by activists and PLWA’s [People Living with AIDS] in order to save their own and others’ lives. It was at this time that Thistlethwaite saw clearly that “access to medical, government, and scholarly communication is a human right.” At that time, the latest medical studies could only be accessed in terminals at the library; the consequent emergence of electronic resources, she explained, although seemingly a step in the right direction, did not actually increase access for those unaffiliated with academic institutions due to the prohibitive costs of subscription fees and paywalls.

“ACT UP logo” by ACT UP New York

Making the link between the early years of the AIDS Crisis and our contemporary moment (a link that not all early AIDS activists have been able to make), Thistlethwaite stressed that the emphasis should be not only on the origins of Open Access, but also about “where we are now.” And where we are, she argues, thanks to publisher profiteering, is a time in which “readers are in emergency.”

Although much of my own work takes place at the intersection of AIDS, archives, activism, and performance, Thistlethwaite’s presentation helped me to comprehend the stakes at play– historically and presently–when it comes to advocating for open access. Now that I have more awareness of the political thrulines of this work, I feel committed to working towards making my own scholarship and teaching materials public, and to seeking out opportunities for exchange, advocacy, and skill-building over the course of my academic career.

This semester, with guidance from the amazing librarians and technicians who led the OER Bootcamp, I have built a modest course site for my “Writing About Performance” class at Queens College. It’s not quite OER yet, as many of my readings are copyright-protected, and therefore password-protected, but it does allow for an unfolding of the course to take place in the public sphere in real time. The syllabus and course schedule are posted, students post blog entries every week, and I have invited two students a week to post “reviews” of the class so that a sense of the class as an event can be accessed by anyone. I haven’t talked about ACT UP with my students (yet), or about contemporary social justice movements, but I hope that the course’s content and form not only reflects, but also produces, resistant and visionary modes of knowledge. Even if the initiating factors of the practices we carry with us aren’t always visible, they are doing work that we can’t yet measure, here in “the thick of things” which is our now.

References and Further Reading

Bibliography: Women, AIDS, & Activism,” (1990). By Polly Thistlethwaite, CUNY Graduate Center. Via CUNY Academic Works. Full book available on HathiTrust. Accessed Feb 28, 2019. 

Jaime Shearn Coan in conversation with Mariana Valencia,” Critical Correspondence, September 23, 2016.

Crucial Circulations: VHS and Queer AIDS Archives,” The Center for the Humanities Blog, August 10, 2018.

Jaime Shearn Coan is a writer and PhD candidate in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and a Digital Publics Fellow at The Center for the Humanities. His critical writing on performance has appeared in publications including TDR: The Drama Review, Critical Correspondence, Drain Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Bodies of Evidence, and Women & Performance. He is the co-editor of the 2016 Danspace Project Platform catalogue: Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now.

Open Pedagogy Fellows

Innovation and Burnout: Perspectives on Open Pedagogy from an Adjunct

By Adashima Oyo

If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”

― Paulo Freire

Over the last decade, student enrollment at City University of New York (CUNY) has significantly increased. As the largest urban university in the United States, CUNY enrolls more than 500,000 (degree and non-degree) students each year across its 25 campuses. CUNY employs a significant number of first-time and repeat adjuncts to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in various disciplines. Many of these adjuncts are PhD students from the CUNY Graduate Center. Several adjuncts who are teaching across CUNY campuses are balancing their own doctoral course load, working full-time or part-time positions off campus, and navigating college level teaching positions for the first time. New adjuncts may struggle and face barriers as they balance multiple demands from teaching students while being a student themselves.

That said, research indicates students taught by adjunct faculty report greater engagement in coursework, learn more in introductory courses, and are more inclined to take additional advanced courses after instruction from an adjunct, regardless of the subject (Figlio, Schapiro, & Soter, 2015). This finding is not particularly surprising, since many adjuncts work hard to ensure that students enrolled in their class have the best possible learning experience. This is a good thing. After all, given that adjunct faculty teach greater than three-quarters of college courses, they have considerable influence over the learning environments and outcomes of students.

 Many adjuncts employ creative methods to keep students engaged with critical pedagogy and the use of Open Educational Resources (OER). Each semester, students enrolled in my class at Brooklyn College are shocked and happy to discover that there is no assigned textbook. This doesn’t mean there are no assigned readings. Rather, students are provided with resources from peer-reviewed journals, TEDTalks, news articles, documentaries, and many other resources that can offer the same ideas that are found in an over-priced textbook. For example, during our class discussion about great public health achievements, I show students images from the 1950s of medical doctors endorsing cigarettes, and ask students to reflect on the process that needed to occur for there to be a recognition that tobacco use is a health hazard.

In addition to there being no textbook, some students feel performance anxiety upon learning there is also no midterm or final exam for the class. While it is far easier on me to simply create a multiple choice exam that can be quickly graded, students are instead tasked with writing “reaction papers” that critique the ideas we discuss in class and facilitating teach backs to the class. In these presentations, students talk about the social determinants of health. They discuss the impact of housing, racism, transportation, education and many other factors that contribute to healthcare and health status. The idea for these assignments are that students are experts, too. There doesn’t have to be 100% reliance and acceptance of the ideas that are written by the “scholars.”

Often times, students share their ideas with each other through group discussions and think-pair-share activities. Some of my peers, who are also adjuncts and PhD students, have shared their experiences with letting students design parts of the syllabus, having students develop the final exam or encouraging students to use their smartphones and laptops during the class. Certainly, all of these methods don’t work for all subjects. When done right, many of these methods require extensive preparation and planning for the adjunct.

Further, considering that some colleges staff adjuncts at the last minute (days before a class is slated to start) or the fact that many adjuncts are teaching more than one course at multiple CUNY colleges, doing the research to incorporate OER materials or utilizing critical pedagogy can be a struggle. This can cause adjuncts to feel burned out. While doctoral students from the CUNY Graduate Center have access to the Teaching and Learning Center, many adjuncts require additional support and guidance from the academic departments of the schools where they instruct.

As previously stated, new adjuncts may struggle and face barriers as they balance multiple demands from teaching students while being a student themselves. This may result in feelings of dissatisfaction with their teaching position, which may translate to the classroom and learning experiences of their undergraduate and graduate students who attend CUNY. It is of critical importance that adjuncts receive the support and encouragement to use OER materials and critical pedagogies in the classroom, but they must also have the support and courage for self-care outside of the classroom. This is no easy balance.


Figlio, D. N., Schapiro, M. O., & Soter, K. B. (2015). Are tenure track professors better teachers?. Review of Economics and Statistics, 97(4), 715-724.

Adashima Oyo is a PhD student in the Social Welfare program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She earned both a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Brooklyn College, CUNY. Her research interests explore the impact of the “minority-majority” demographic shift on health disparities. Adashima is also interested in examining the impact of the glaring lack of racial diversity among doctoral students, faculty and executive-level leadership in higher education. In addition to working as the Director of HASTAC Scholars, she is part of the adjunct faculty at New York University (NYU) and Brooklyn College, CUNY where she teaches courses about healthcare and developing research papers to undergraduate students. Adashima is also a Futures Initiative Fellow and Silberman Doctoral Fellow. #BlackScholarsMatter

Open Pedagogy Fellows

Teaching Classics with Open Educational Resources

By Mary Jean McNamara

This spring will be my second semester teaching “Tyranny, Democracy, and Empire,” at Brooklyn College. The course introduces students to both ancient and modern texts that examine human rights and political participation, and the selection of readings includes excerpts from Homer, Sophocles, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill. After finishing the course last semester, I felt students had an understanding of the main points of the respective works but I felt there was a gap between what I thought the students took away from the texts, and what they actually took away from the texts.  Looking for ways to make the texts more accessible, I applied to the Library’s Open Pedagogy Fellowship program.

When I told one of my advisors that I was taking a course in ‘open pedagogy,’ she asked, “What is that?” Her confusion about the openness of resources is understandable. The teaching of Classics and the idea of open anything is marred by a long history of exclusivity. Going back to 92 BCE when the Roman quaestors closed a school that offered training in rhetoric for students with no knowledge of Greek, access to the Greek and Roman authors has been linked to privilege.

Restricting access is at odds with the themes and issues explored in the early texts of Greece and Rome. For instance, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex has continued to enjoy universal appeal. Going back to the initial production of the play, it was originally performed in Athens as part of an annual festival which all citizens were expected to attend. Theater in ancient Athens served as a common platform where the citizen and the occasional non-citizen would engage in the important questions of their day. The theater provided both a stage and a forum where performance and participation mingled side by side.

Like the theater in Athens, I am hoping that my students can use the course website as if it was their version of the Athenian theater. My hope is that interacting on the website will yield more engaged participation in the political environment that goes beyond the confines of the classroom.  In an article that appeared in The Guardian, Edith Hall, professor of Classics at King’s College, argues for the relevance of reading texts such as the Iliad or Oedipus Rex in an era in which more and more students enroll in math and science courses. Hall’s argument for expanded access to Classics rests on her belief that the Greeks were unique in their ability to form questions based on their experience. Likewise, I am hoping that the OER-based platform will encourage students to form questions based on their experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Mary Jean McNamara is a second-year doctoral student in Classics. Her interests include early Greek citizenship, political organization in archaic Greece, and the reception of Athenian democracy. She is currently teaching a course at Brooklyn College entitled “Tyranny, Democracy, and Empire” and is grateful for the opportunity to learn about new ways of connecting students with the study of ancient Greek political theory.

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