Black Studies carries the burden of its beginning. It was not invited into the curricula of colleges and universities because it was thought to have something new and vital to offer the humanistic body of knowledge. Indeed, it was not invited into curricula at all. It fought its way in through demonstrations in the sixties and seventies. Black Studies was born because a man named King was assassinated.
In the wake of the civil rights revolution, Black students entered predominantly white institutions to find almost entirely white faculties and a curriculum that ignored and erased Black histories, cultures, and experiences. They responded by striking and shutting down campuses across the country to demand Black Studies departments and Black professors. The only senior public college in the Bronx, Lehman College, was also a predominantly white institution when free tuition and an open admissions policy guaranteeing public high school graduates a place at CUNY brought growing numbers of Black and Puerto Rican students to campus. These new students also realized that access and affordability meant little without a revolution in the curriculum, and they demanded “oversight on course content, input into faculty hiring, and mandatory courses on ethnicity and intergroup relations for education majors.”1 After months of stalling by the administration, the students escalated their demands to include the creation of Departments of Black and Puerto Rican studies. In 1969, after Lehman students staged a walkout and chained building entrances shut, CUNY finally agreed to create those departments.
In the decades since and despite many budget crises, the Black (now Africana) Studies department has not only endured but also thrived, offering a wide array of courses to an undergraduate population that is now 31 percent African American and 53 percent Hispanic.2 As the nation’s largest urban public university, CUNY is once again at the center of a divided nation’s struggles over access and affordability. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders’s (and later Hillary Clinton’s) free tuition platform resonated with public anger over crippling tuition costs and racial and class disparities in education.3 These calls for free tuition reintroduced the idea of opening access to higher education as providing a “public good,” offering an avenue for twenty-first-century economic success.4 In January 2017, at a press conference attended by Senator Sanders, New York governor Andrew Cuomo used this language when announcing the establishment of the Excelsior Scholarship to provide free tuition at the state’s public university systems (CUNY and the State University of New York) to students from households with incomes less than $125,000: “A college education is not a luxury—it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility.”5 Responding to criticisms of his plan as the state prepared for an influx of lower-income students for whom the “add-on” costs of an education such as textbooks and transportation could be prohibitive, the governor subsequently announced an $8 million grant to be shared by CUNY and the State University of New York to develop open educational resources (OER) or educational materials that are freely accessible, in the public domain, or introduced with an open license. A few months before Governor Cuomo’s announcement, I received a grant from Lehman’s Leonard Lief Library to develop OER materials for an African American literature course, one that fulfills a requirement for Africana majors and is a popular distribution course for non-majors; several sections run each semester. This chapter shares the rewards, challenges, and cautions of my experience with integrating Africana materials into an OER culture focused on progress toward a degree.
Initially, I had very mixed feelings about retiring a textbook, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, that my students and I had loved for years. Ten years in the making and 2,665 pages long when first published in 1997, the bestselling Norton represented a monumental achievement of recovery, preservation, and dissemination by editors seeking to establish “the canon of African American literature in the larger American society.”6 When it was still in a single-volume hardback format, I used to hold the book a few inches above my desk and let it drop, explaining to my students that the ensuing thud represented the weight of a history absent from my own undergraduate classes and from virtually every class at Lehman College in the years before 1969. Over the last few years, however, I realized that most of the texts I used from Volume I were available in online archives and collections, as were some, but not most, of the texts from Volume II that I assigned to students. In addition, for my students in the Bronx, still the poorest county in New York State, finding $89.00 to buy the Norton might mean struggling that month to pay rent or bus fare, or even to buy groceries.
When I began this project, my primary concern was that creating a course from materials available online and for free would create a new “digital divide,” whereby my students would be deprived of texts available to those in more privileged spaces. In addition, offering the “gift” of a zero-textbook course would mean eliminating copyrighted material that had been on my syllabus for years, and I worried about the shape of the course that would result. Given the historical struggles of African American writers, I also worried about removing support for their work. To my delight, as I worked on my syllabus last spring, I found a wealth of available material, including magazine excerpts from two texts published after the latest edition of Norton that had become indispensable to my class: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2015) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). In addition, Rankine’s website has a library of “situation” videos created with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, that are reproduced as scripts in Citizen. The Schomburg Center and the Library of Congress offered exciting ways to encounter the literature of the nineteenth century and the Great Migration, including recordings of formerly enslaved people by WPA oral historians. Poetry sites allowed access to some of the very best African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to the present. Seminal works such as Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden” could be found online (in Walker’s case through Ms. magazine’s archives). Not only was it possible to build an acceptable syllabus from online materials but doing so also opened up pedagogical possibilities I had previously neglected, particularly in terms of digital humanities. For example, Emory University’s Voyages database afforded interactive visualization techniques of the voyage of Venture Smith on the Charming Susannah in 1739, an account given in Smith’s narrative in Project Gutenberg. A radio podcast describing the exhumation of Smith’s grave in Connecticut brought this history into the twenty-first century.
I most fully realized the power of digital resources when I pioneered my OER syllabus without the internet. In addition to my work at Lehman, I teach classes for Mercy College at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Shortly after developing the syllabus, I was asked to teach a course during the summer to enable several men to graduate on time. Unfortunately, the program had no African American literature textbook approved by the facility, but I was able to get my syllabus cleared in time to offer the course. Because there is no internet access in New York correctional facilities, I had to print out and photocopy the OER materials, which meant choosing what I could photocopy and carry into the prison each day—which is only a fraction of what my Lehman students have available at their fingertips to choose and use as they will, particularly in the digital presentations each shares with the class. (The introduction of tablets and closed internet systems in correctional facilities in several states, including two pilot programs through New York’s Department of Corrections, nevertheless offers intriguing possibilities for future applications of OER.)
On the whole, despite my initial concern of creating a course below the standards of those offered to more wealthy students, I believe that, although it is different from a class taught from the Norton, my OER African American Literature class provides a valuable experience— particularly for the many students who enrolled because of the “zero textbook” designation, only to find themselves captivated and moved by the materials we are studying. My worries about the limitations imposed by OER materials have largely dissipated as the center of the course shifts from my presentation of texts to the students’ discoveries in their journeys through the digital archive, thereby affording a wider context for and deeper understanding of the literature. The students and I enjoy not having to lug books around, and for commuters like us, the ability to access material while on the train or waiting in line is a blessing. In addition, CUNY’s dedicated OER librarian Ann Fidler and librarians at Lehman like Stacy Katz and Madeline Cohen are available to assist with answering questions about copyright and curation. Despite some drawbacks—the need to resort to library-licensed content for copyright-protected material, the ephemerality of hyperlinks and their occasional incompatibility with Blackboard, and my dependence on certain material that remains online on magazine or artist websites—I am looking forward to teaching a “zero-textbook” class again.
Yet my enthusiasm remains tempered by significant reservations about the long-term promise of OER for Africana studies. In the first place, development of the course proved extremely time consuming. Going through my library’s long list of OER links, as well as others found as I scoured the web, there was only one—Merlot II, a free peer-reviewed collection of online teaching and learning materials maintained by the California State University System—in which Africana studies had any meaningful presence, and I found nothing useful there for my course. Open Textbook collections such as Openstax, Open Textbook Library, and SUNY Open Textbooks offer few humanities textbooks and none in Africana studies. In a 2016 report funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Pearson, the Babson Survey Research Group identified the lack of availability and difficulty in finding suitable resources as “the most significant” barriers to adopting OER.7 Philanthropies like the Hewlett Foundation have been “at the forefront of the OER movement since its inception,” thereby complicating and potentially undermining critical OER praxis as they “promote wide scale policy reform and design grant programs . . . , often driven by quantifiable outcomes.”8 As for-profit providers begin to vie for contracts to bundle learning-management platforms for large-scale OER initiatives, the risk grows that content with perceived economic utility will be privileged over oppositional forms of knowledge.9
The emphasis on developing OER at CUNY has been on providing financial relief while improving student performance and class completion and graduation rates. In addition to the colleges that have received the governor’s OER funding (which, unlike the grant I received, targets high enrollment courses with many sections, often in STEM and the social sciences), three community colleges at CUNY are currently taking part in a thirty-month pilot funded by the Achieving the Dream Foundation to develop zero-textbook degree programs in areas like business and criminal justice. As far as I know, none of the planned general education offerings include Africana studies courses. At this moment of opening access and emphasizing affordability, we owe it to our students to ensure that marginalized students do not find their histories, cultures, and lives again excluded from the curriculum. As Kim Gallon points out, “discussions about digital tools and processes” often pay no attention to race and are in practice “based on whiteness as an unmarked category.”10 In a recent webinar, Francesca Carpenter, the associate director of Achieving the Dream Foundation’s OER Initiative, characterized OER content as having a “white American male slant” and identified as significant problems the lack of “diverse content creators” and of readily available “culturally relevant OER content.”11
In introducing OER onto campuses, “the faculty champions behind them can prove vital to the success of the program” and influence the course offerings.12 It is therefore incumbent on us as Africana studies teachers and scholars to insist that Black voices, histories, and knowledges are part of this movement. Ideally, there would be the political will to fund creation and curation of a single discovery platform for OER Africana resources worldwide to address what is a nearly universal lack in OER repositories. Until then, we should work to create more offerings and increase the visibility of Black diaspora materials. New York State Education Law (Section 6201) defines CUNY as an “independent system of higher education” committed to “academic excellence and to the provision of equal access and opportunity for students, faculty, and staff from all ethnic and racial groups, and from both sexes.” Demands to live up to CUNY’s historic goals of access and excellence propelled the emergence of Black Studies across campuses at CUNY and, indeed, throughout the nation, as students insisted on the inclusion of Black diaspora knowledges as a precondition for academic excellence. In the drive for greater access and affordability assisted by technology, it is imperative that we increase available Africana OER resources, develop more Africana OER courses, and demand inclusion of these courses in the curriculum. Black Studies had to fight its way into the curriculum from the moment of its birth in the civil rights era, and we must vigilantly maintain this struggle so that the “opening” of the university through technology does not reproduce structures that enclosed us in the past.
Morgan-Cato, “Black Studies in the Whirlwind,” 54.
Lehman College Factbook 2016.
Supiano, “Racial Disparities in Higher Education.”
Cottom, “Why Free College Is Necessary,” 116–17.
Friedman, “Why New York’s ‘Tuition-Free’ College Is Not Exactly Free.”
Gates, “The Booklist Interview: Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” 972.
Allen and Seaman, “Opening the Textbook,” 31.
Cooney, “How Do Open Educational Resources (OERs) Impact Students?” 5.
Rhoads et al., “The Open Courseware Movement in Higher Education,” 92.
Gallon, “Making a Case for Black Digital Humanities,” 46.
Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.
Salem, “Open Pathways to Student Success,” 36.
Allen, Elaine I., and Jeff Seaman. “Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in Higher Education, 2015–2016.” Accessed January 24, 2020, http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/openingthetextbook2017.pdf.
Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. Webinar: How OER Can Support Student Equity and Diversity. November 15, 2017, https://www.cccoer.org/webinar/nov-15-how-oer-can-support-student-equity-and-diversity/.
Cooney, Cailean. “How Do Open Educational Resources (OERs) Impact Students? A Qualitative Study at New York City College of Technology, CUNY.” CUNY Academic Works. Accessed January 24, 2020, http://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/1347.
Cottom, Tressie McMillan. “Why Free College Is Necessary.” Dissent 62, no. 4 (2015): 115–17.
Friedman, Zack. “Why New York’s ‘Tuition-Free’ College Is Not Exactly Free.” Forbes. Last modified February 6, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2017/02/06/college-free-no-student-loan/2/#276415013a73.
Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 42–49. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2016.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Booklist Interview: Henry Louis Gates Jr.” Booklist, February 15, 1997, p. 972.
Lehman College Factbook 2016. Accessed October 24, 2017, www.lehman.edu/institutional-research/fact-book.php.
Lester, Julius. “Growing Down.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 11, no. 7 (1979): 34.
Morgan-Cato, Charlotte. “Black Studies in the Whirlwind: A Retrospective View.” In A Companion to African-American Studies, edited by Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis Gordon, 51–58. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
Rhoads, Robert A., Jennifer Berdan, and Brit Toven-Lindsey. “The Open Courseware Movement in Higher Education: Unmasking Power and Raising Questions about the Movement’s Democratic Potential.” Educational Theory, 63. no 1 (2013): 87–109.
Salem, Joseph A., Jr. “Open Pathways to Student Success: Academic Library Partnerships for Open Educational Resource and Affordable Course Content Creation and Adoption.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 43, no. 1 (2017): 34–38.
Supiano, Becky. “Racial Disparities in Higher Education: An Overview.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Last modified November 1, 2015, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Racial-Disparities-in-Higher/234129.