Who is Open for?

Students. That is the simple answer, unlikely to be contested by all of us who are engaged in learning about and practicing Open Pedagogy, and exploring Open Educational Resources. We are invested in this labor for the sake of giving students MORE: more access, more affordability, more agency. But all this labor, all this giving more of ourselves, our time, our cognitive resources, has costs, and the impact of those costs on individual instructors varies according to institutional status.

The Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community engaged in meaningful and vibrant collaboration today to further our work in Open. The conversations touched on many areas of excitement, concern, and contemplation, but the one that stuck with me most, and is the impetus for this post, was our discussion of failure, and the encouragement to embrace it. We even joked about having punch cards–one punch for each time we try something and it flops. Fill the card, win a prize. Failing, in this context, indicates that we stepped out of our comfort zone–that we took risks for the sake of innovation and experiment–a philosophy that aligns nicely with the sort of intellectual/interpersonal/metacognitive engagement that Open Education practitioners are asking of our students. This approach to failure is inspirational and transformative–not only for our students but for the faculty who take these risks. Such risks, however, (and by extension, such rewards) are not available to our entire community. I think it is essential to reflect on who is left out.

Approximately one-third of our seventy-strong cohort of pedagogues are not tenure-track or tenured faculty. That is, nearly thirty of us do not enjoy the privilege of experimental failure. For those of us whose teaching appointments are based on renewable contracts, many of which guarantee only one semester of employment, and none of which benefit from the protections associated with tenure, taking pedagogical risks is not a matter of earning a hole-punch on our failure cards. Instead, contingent faculty, by choosing to innovate and risk failing, are choosing to risk not being rehired. A stack of unfavorable end-of-semester student evaluations for a tenured faculty member might serve as a starting point for conversation and reflection with disciplinary leaders, but the same quality of evaluations for an adjunct professor may be cause for dismissal. These instructors with the least protection, the lowest wages, and the most to lose are those for whom failure comes at the highest costs–in these cases we are no longer talking about losing the Failure Punch Card game, but losing income, livelihood, and future employability. If this sounds overwrought or melodramatic, I invite you to engage in a little research about the financial realities of contingent faculty.

My intent in sharing these concerns is not to further exacerbate a divide between tenured and adjunct faculty, indeed, many of the former are colleagues and friends whose relationships I deeply value. I am, however, asking us as a community to be aware of structural power dynamics within our institution that might reinforce systems of oppression and further marginalize already hushed voices, and in the spirit of the revolutionary potential of Open Education, ask that we collectively examine and work to dismantle hierarchies that limit the potential of realizing our shared vision.

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