In reading We Make the Road by Walking, I am struck by the magnitude of Myles Horton’s work. His educational and organizational efforts were targeted at (among other things) improving literacy in order to help people secure their right to vote. This is so obviously important and world-altering that I was having a hard time relating to it. How could I hope to learn anything from what he was saying when I don’t have that type of motivational tool, either for my audience or myself.

I do not, on a daily basis, lift people from illiteracy to building their own schools in an effort to end historical oppression. I never worked with Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr or the thousands of others that Horton influenced. And, it occurred to me today, in a rare moment of humility, that I need to stop trying to compare myself to Myles Horton. That is a path to feelings of deep inadequacy.

However, my motivation to promote “Open” publication, research, pedagogy, etc. comes from a similar, if more approachable place. I think everyone has the right to share in both the use and creation of human knowledge.

Open access publication is usually the starting point in my conversations about open. Those faculty not yet onboard are at least aware of the concept. Conversations that start with affordability of open textbooks can quickly morph into the absurdity of having to purchase research articles that were written, reviewed, and usually edited by researchers who are not-compensated from the revenue generated by the article. The more “radical challenge” is to help them see that locking articles behind paywalls creates a divide between academics with rich libraries and those without, and between academia and the rest of the world. We should not be “neutral” about allowing the knowledge that we create to be withheld from the vast majority of people.

Open review seems like a much newer concept. Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities is making great use of GitHub and the MLA Commons to integrate open review into their workflow. After an initial open review by the small circle of editors on GitHub, each article goes up for public review by anyone who visits the site. This feels novel and disruptive, but every reader, in every medium critiques and analyzes the text as they go. This simply gives the reader a chance to contribute their feedback into the refinement and improvement of the work.

And yet, open review is not an entirely novel invention of the digital world. In a graduate course I took on academic publishing, the professor, Ronald Schleifer, told us that he signs his peer-reviews for monographs and journals. He explained, “It forces me to make my review as constructive as possible so that even when — especially when — I recommend rejection of an essay, I demonstrate the seriousness of my concerns with constructive suggestions. In these reviews, in part because I know the author will know it is I who am writing it, I do everything I can to suggest how an author can make it publishable. This policy, I find, forces me to assume the point of view of an author and ask myself what would make the argument I am encountering the strongest it might be. Occasionally over the years I have even received thank-yous from people whose work I recommended against.” What Ron’s saying here goes to the larger point that open communication and cooperation in the writing and refinement of knowledge accelerates advancement and should be a goal in and of itself.

Taking this a step further then, I have been advocating for open research, or perhaps more precisely open notes, with my work on a project called Situating Chemistry. While having access to the printed work of my fellow historians of science is great, what about all of the notes and research that never gets printed. Pooling together our hard-won facts about historical figures, transcriptions of rare documents, and bibliographies of resources is allowing us to build a web of information that will both accelerate our individual research and open new questions for comparative and collaborative projects.


While I haven’t seen the phrase open pedagogy in We Make the Road by Walking, Google n-grams suggests that the term was in use in the late 80s. Nonetheless, the conceptualization and multiplication of Citizenship Schools offer an operational definition of open pedagogy. Both Horton and Freire noted that theory is a guide, but you have to meet students where they are and understand why they want to learn before you can start educating. In many ways my day-to-day job is to help faculty understand student-centered education and the negotiation of  learning goals for both the individual and the class.

Myles story about meeting a woman in Mississippi who had so internalized the concept of the Citizenship Schools that she thought she had invented them demonstrated both the promise of open pedagogy and the humility needed on the part of instructors. Rather than feeling that he had somehow lost ownership over intellectual property, Myles was excited about this success.

As Horton says in chapter three, there is a difference between organizing and education. My activist instinct is to tell people the answers and push them into open practice. I would love to tear down the institutions of academic publishing and replace them with open, online technologies. But I am an educator and not an organizer. I will help people to understand the technologies and philosophy behind open while still respecting their concerns about challenging the long-standing system. I can “challenge the weakness of the culture,” but ultimately I must leave it up to those I work with and educate to decide for themselves whether to pursue open paths or remain “neutral” about the status quo.