by Víctor Torres Vélez, Assistant Professor, Humanities Department
and Vanessa Arce Senati, Adjunct OER Librarian, Hostos Library
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button, the main character “ages” in reverse. Born old, as the years pass he becomes younger. Our tale is similarly curious. We started an Open Educational Resource (OER) build, for LAC 108 Caribbean Society and Culture, from an old syllabus. But in the process, a new one sprung to life. It wasn’t an easy birth.
Torres-Vélez: I assumed that since many of the texts were classics in my field, they were probably available already in the public domain. And if they were not, it was just a matter of getting publishers’ permission to make them available for my OER build. Vanessa Arce Senati, the infinitely patient OER librarian tasked with helping me in this process, thought otherwise.
Arce Senati: With a quick glance at the list the professor sent me, which thoughtfully included publishing houses, I instantly knew we needed to find alternative readings to replace these (they were all under copyright). As gently as I could, I let him know they could not be used in an OER.
Torres-Vélez: Replacements? That should be easy enough
Arce Senati: Little did the professor know, it would be more challenging than he thought. While there are many OER materials available for disciplines such as Psychology, Biology, and Math, less has been published for Humanities or Caribbean Studies. Despite the difficulty of finding openly licensed academic articles to mirror the syllabus, there was a sea of relevant primary sources available. Works in the public domain are free to use and reuse so they are, for lack of a better term, “OER friendly.” With some hesitation, I suggested this new line of inquiry. Why not consider primary sources?
Torres Vélez: “I’ll tell you why not,” I thought to myself. For one, with every new roadblock to my OER build, my syllabus little-by-little was breaking apart. Not only was it hard to find readings that closely mirrored my original ones, but was I now supposed to give them up for primary sources? For me, like for many other academics, creating a course syllabus in our areas of expertise is as much intellectual labor as it is labor of love. Letting go is not easy. I was reaching a breaking point. However, as we found more and more fascinating and relevant primary texts, I realized that what was needed was a paradigm shift. Instead of mirroring my old syllabus’ readings, what I needed to do was create a new edited volume of primary materials to enhance my course!
Arce Senati: I was surprised to see that the final reading list for the OER contained mostly primary sources, particularly when we had actually located openly licensed sources that could replace the copyrighted materials in the original syllabus. By that point, however, Professor Torres-Vélez had not only taken the idea of using primary sources, he actually ran with it. This completely changed what I initially thought this OER would be.
We experienced firsthand how the process of OER creation is about much more than replacing readings or replacing a textbook; in this case it led to rethinking the way the course is taught. Ultimately, students will benefit from having access to original sources from which meaningful assignments can be developed, thus exposing them to the thrill of historical and anthropological research.
In Fitzgerald’s story, the main character, Benjamin Button, enlists in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Fitzgerald’s description of the Caribbean follows the typical myopic imperial sentiments of the U.S. at the turn of the 19th century. Sadly, such descriptions can still be found well into 2nd millennium. This is why courses offering students the chance to critically engage normative historical accounts are so important. Moreover, because of our students’ demographics, reading primary sources about the Caribbean provides them with a rectifying window into the past and their own heritage.