Meet Your ATI Ambassadors: Dr. Sarah Parrish and the Open Textbook of Contemporary Art 

At Plymouth State University, Dr. Sarah Parrish is preparing to remove the barriers around contemporary art by having students author an open textbook on the subject.


Dr. Parrish, a professor of Art History, is one of PSU’s Ambassadors from the 2018 Academic Technology Institute. Her project goal as an ATI Ambassador is to develop a digital, open textbook on contemporary art for her Art History courses.

Open textbooks are created under open copyright licenses and are available to the public at little to no cost. Often digital, these textbooks are easy to edit and redistribute. In an educational setting, this can be invaluable because an open textbook can be tailored to a course’s needs.

Dr. Parrish hopes that her open textbook will help diversify the traditional course structures that tend to rely on static textbooks for direction and content.

“A traditional textbook is, by definition, linear. Many professors will express frustration that art textbooks have a thematic form, which include an introduction and small sections of artists who relate to that theme. Sometimes, though, we want to organize our lectures using themes not included in a textbook, or we want to use one artist, but not the other. So instead, why not assign a digital textbook where you can decide what themes to teach, and mix and match the artists to use?”

The remixability of open educational resources is just a small part of what drew Dr. Parrish to open education. Initially, it was a presentation by Dr. Robin DeRosa on the benefits of open education for the public good that brought her attention to the open movement.

“In Robin DeRosa’s presentation on open education, the statistics she gave were compelling and resonated with the student populations I had worked with in the past. It was like all of the problems I’d seen as a teacher clicked into place, and open was the thing connecting them all together.”

Dr. DeRosa, PSU’s Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, is known for being a proponent of open both for the pedagogical advantages it provides, and for its ability to help address social justice issues relating to the financial accessibility of higher education.

For her open textbook, Dr. Parrish wants more than to create a resource that is simply free; she wants to create a work that is linguistically accessible to anyone interested in contemporary art.

“I want to make scholarship more accessible with language, and that fits really naturally into work that is accessible in terms of cost.”

Everyone, Dr. Parrish says, should feel entitled to know more about what she calls “the art of our time”:

“I think a lot of people feel left out of contemporary art, like they are alienated by it, or that it’s something they aren’t entitled to have an opinion on. But if anything, people should feel more entitled to have an opinion on it because it is the art of our time. Contemporary art is responding to our culture, and we should all have the power to say whether or not it resonates with us.”

One aspect of Dr. Parrish’s textbook that will aid in its accessibility is the inclusion of student writing. Dr. Parrish says that she plans to have her students help write the book. She even plans to update the textbook year after year as new students write contributions to the open resource.

“Open is the best marriage of accessibility to information and affordability of cost, and I love the idea of students helping with the textbook. I plan on having students coauthor the thematic introductions and write the artist entries. Students write about a single author for the course anyways, so why not have them write something that the next round of students can use as well? That way we can see new metaphors and new narratives.”

This won’t be the first time Dr. Parrish has her students write in the open. Last year, her coursework included the use of Plymouth Create websites to publish posts in a blog-style format.

For many students, writing for a public audience is a huge step away from submitting assignments in a closed system like Moodle. Dr. Parrish stresses, however, that is it important to have students write in a mix of ways so they can learn to adapt their writing for the platform they are submitting to. She even likens this writing fluidity to the study of contemporary art.

“That’s the challenge of working with contemporary art– we are teaching students to analyze art that hasn’t been made yet. You need to give them the tools so that when new art comes out, art that you haven’t even seen yet, that they can go and analyze it. I think it’s exactly the same with writing genres; for example, when I went to school, Twitter didn’t exist. But now if I’m going to write a tweet, I would have to think: how did my education prepare me to do that? In some ways, we are preparing students to teach and write in genres that don’t yet exist, or genres we haven’t specialized in. The only thing we can really do is teach them to master the idea of genres, and to be flexible so that they can translate their writing to where they need it to be.”

The integration of students into the publishing process may not even stop at the writing. Dr. Parrish says that she is also considering including student artwork in the textbook as examples to study.

“This is really kind of radical, and I’m not sure if I’ll do it, but I’m thinking about using student works. New art is coming out every day, so I’m less interested in teaching them the artists than I am about teaching students the ways of looking at contemporary art. You can just as easily do that with student artists. In some ways they are the most recent, so it’s almost better to do it with emerging artists. Students are really excited about the idea of writing on each other’s work.”

Dr. Parrish will begin her open textbook project with her students in the upcoming academic year. For more information on open educational resources, or to begin developing or adopting an open textbook, contact Academic Technology through the ITS Help Desk by emailing


by Ryan French, ITS Student Technologist