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Opening Canons


I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade at colleges in the Greater Boston area and I continually ran into the uncomfortable issue of making students purchase books for their course, especially as the prices continued to rise and publishers kept spitting out new editions of textbooks that don’t need new editions. Eventually, I realized that most of my classes could (with some work) be redesigned with OER content. After all, I teach a lot of literature courses, much of which is in the public domain. Shifting to OER, I found that my course could be improved in a profound way.

My American Literature 1 course covers Columbus to the Civil War and for many students (myself included), it is dryer material than what is in the second part. However, now that I could literally assign anything I could find in the public domain, it meant that I wasn’t restricted to only that which was in the over-priced tissue-paper anthology. In redesigning the course, I allowed students to choose from a wide selection of readings to cover that week’s focus. They were no longer relegated to what the anthology had, but now could choose among some 15-20 works, depending on what struck their interests.

But solely taking from the public domain didn’t feel good and so I thought about how I (and my students) could contribute back. Soon enough, I devised a project that students could choose to do wherein they create an audio narration of one of the course texts. This narration would be put on the website Librivox. This site is run by volunteers and turns public domain works into mp3 audiobooks for free. Thus, students are not only benefiting from OER but also contributing to it.

I have grown quite fond of this approach and have been infusing it in all of my courses. It gets a bit more challenging with American Literature 2, but I can still get about two-thirds of the material from OER resources and rely on library databases to secure the rest. In the end, I find that I am able to enrich my courses with more dynamic content while saving students money and also showing them the importance of the public domain.