Does poverty matter more than race and gender?

From Mary Hermes writing in the Spring 2005 issue of Critical Inquiry, I note her analysis that “poverty and socioeconomic oppression are larger day-to-day factors in students’ ability to concentrate and succeed in school than are the differences between Native American and white cultures.” Hermes wrote about secondary level Native-American kids and their white instructors. This idea that poverty dominates over other identities reminded me of Studs Terkel quipped that Hyde Park was the one neighborhood in Chicago where Black and White lived united against the poor. I’m also put in mind of Sancho Panza’s pithy counsel to Don Quijote that hunger is the best sauce in the world, making all foods tasty. Trained in the analytical trinity of history (race, class, gender), my response to these insights are less scholarly and more visceral. If a student is hungry, what matters their race or gender? How that student experiences hunger may be situated in identity, but poverty seems the greater uniter than the divider of human cultural constructions.  Mulling that one today. 

Safe home. 


I’m a big all over the map right now, but mostly it’s all small ball.

I know I’m behind in my project, especially in talking with folks about suggestions. I got 0 comments on my last post, leading me to think I’ve either a hidden-setting blocking comments, or this blog is read even less than I thought (hard to conceive as I can see the single-digit stats). 

Still, as much as this blog records process, I should note that I’ve been reading both poverty and digital history works lately. Bejamin Levin has perhaps the best quote of the week in his article an Educational Responses to Poverty” from the Spring ’95 Canadian Journal of Education. He wrote “Schools cannot solve problems of poverty, and should say so publicly.” Writing about K-12 education, Levin nonetheless reminds me that any attempt to address poverty in education is a question of percentages, not totalities. For Normandale, I’d like to see our Pell-eligible students succeed at the same rate as our non-Pell-eligible students. That’s not a cure, more of a palliative measure, but way better than a placebo.  

Better than a medical reference, I think a better symbolic representation of an anti-poverty pedagogy  is what’s called small ball in baseball. Small ball in baseballs trying to get runners on base, and then driving them in with base hits. Small ball is not swinging-for-the-fences heroics. It is knowing that a ball hit between 1st and 2nd has a better chance of scoring a runner on third base. Small ball isn’t sexy and it can make the game slow, but it works for many situations. Community College is one of those situations. We aren’t looking to place as many students as possible at an Ivy League school (while then neglecting everyone else). We aren’t looking for glory, MVP awards, or titles. What we want is for the students to score, to get their degrees, transfer, and get “home.” So, what I’m looking for are little things that advance my students, consistently. The Gates Foundation is the epitome of a home-run education philosophy, one big idea that can reform higher ed. My aims are much smaller, but also with less risk for my students. 

Safe home

And now it’s your turn: help fix my course.

So, I’ve been talking with many about what I could do to help my poor students succeed in my courses. I’m at the point that I want broad feedback, so this post invites all to offer suggestions for how to improve my courses.

[Addition] You can leave a comment, or use the hashtag #fixmycourse on Twitter with your suggestions.

Before you click on “Leave a reply” to offer a suggestion, please read both what I already do and what I can’t do.

Things I already do:

  • Highlight resources at Normandale poor students might use, such as our food shelf.
  • Keep food and toiletries in my office for any student who needs a snack or mess kit.
  • Maintain a small lending library of textbooks for short loans, free of charge.
  • Put copies of all books I use on reserve in the library.
  • Use only free software or websites when assigning digital history work.

Things I can’t do:

  • Offer students any significant resources (snacks I can manage, paying for tuition I can’t).
  • Offer poor students options that differ from the rest of the class. For example, poor students can’t get extra time to work on projects.
  • Lower academic standards.
  • Restructure the institution at which I work or the funding received from the state. I can structure my class: that’s it. I don’t get to hire, fire, build, fund, or defund.

What I’m looking for are endings to the following statements from poor students:

I wish my professor would have done X, that would have allowed me to succeed in this course.
I wish I had known X about college or this course before I started.

All of the things I do already were suggested by students. In keeping with Freire’s notion that any good pedagogy should be with its students, I’m emailing as many of my former students as possible. Comments will be moderated, but I will post all that aren’t spam or vulgar.

Give me your best ideas. If I ever write up anything beyond this blog, I’ll credit everyone who posts with their legal names. One student in Spring 2013 gave me one idea about loaner textbooks and that idea directly helped a student pass my course this semester.

Poverty is not easy.

My recent work has been away from the tech parts of my project, focussing instead on the literature on poverty and teaching. Surprising to me, most work on how to address poverty in the classroom comes out of k-12 research. For example, Paul Gorski’s approach in this article comes closest to the “get it done now and in the classroom” approach that I’m advocating.

Most of the research on poverty in higher ed focusses on student aid (restructuring Pell Grants, for example), support services (early intervention instruments) or psychological interventions to bolster student confidence. All approaches are worthy, though not exactly what I’m doing.

I did reach out to Sara Goldrick-Rab to ask if she’d heard of anyone else working on something like my anti-poverty pedagogy course design principles. Kindly, she responded quickly, noting she wasn’t familiar with any similar projects and offering her encouragement and possible assistance down the line. The kindness of strangers . . . .

I did find one though-provoking model of a course-design document titled ” Check List for Class Bias and Some Recommended Books” (referenced in Gorski’s article above). Published in 1982, the document betrays much of the early culture wars, seeking to root out rather than unpack racist, classist, and sexist texts. Still, the list is structured as a series of open-ended questions, which I like, rather than a bulleted “did you do this” check list. So, if I put my course principles in this format, they’d read something like:

1. What steps have you taken to ensure your electronic resources are available to poor students with uneven access to high-speed internet?

And then I could link examples of responses to this issue. It feels more respectful of the reader to ask a question than to offer an imperative, especially as I won’t be able to test if my ideas work until after I’ve published the course principles. I realized after communicating with Goldrick-Rab that I should be thinking about testing these anti-poverty course design principles, otherwise I’m just working for self-validation, rather than my students’ success. The idea that my education ideas could be tested (and found wanting!), well, that bedevils me emotionally. Still, if what I do doesn’t work, but to fail fast and move on.

As for poverty and ease, well, there’s a special little hell for rich people who read and work on poverty while slurping $4 coffees. Real poverty is harder, I’m not comparing, only pointing out the incongruity I face sometimes. Still, I suppose my analogous life is the one I want my student to have the opportunity to live.

Safe home.


I’m not trying to raise your consciousness. . .

I was reading this recent article from Science Magazine (abstract in link) and feeling wildly unprepared to apply the most recent scholarship from behavioral economics or from psychology to creating my anti-poverty course design principles. Not that the principles couldn’t benefit from such insights. For example, in the linked article above, the authors argue that “poverty may favor behaviors that make it more difficult to escape poverty,” such as privileging short term gains over long term returns (what academics call the discount rate) or avoiding risk (risk aversion). The negative feedback loop identified in the article is that poverty creates certain mentalities which then influence poor people’s decisions making capabilities in ways that only serve to reinforce actions that keep those same poor people poor.

Some might see this feedback loop as crushing, but I (and the authors), see the possibility for psychological interventions that break the risk aversion and time discounting behavior at strategic points in people’s lives. A little bit of help can go a long way. I’m reminded of an ongoing assessment project our psychology dept. is doing in coordination with a professor from the University of Minnesota. In short, there is some evidence that short interventions can reduce students overall stress rates. Watch a 15 minute video, report lower stress at the end of the semester (I’m way oversimplyfying). Put another way, well-placed mental and emotional windows that give students the view and breathing space they need to continue through what seems like a dark tunnel. 

As I considered the options for interventions, and reviewed recent tweets from other professors working on poverty, I realize there is one thing this project is not: consciousness raising. I’m not trying to get people to pay attention to poor people or to rethink what it means to be poor in MN. I start from the premise that we have poor students who need better classes, and everything organizes teleologically behind that implicit goal. I keep seeing statistics about the number of kids in poverty (approximately 1 in 5) or the growing inequality between the top 20% and the bottom 20%. And those numbers matter, but I’m not trying to make a case for the poor. I’m not working from some a priori logic that if I can get people to notice poverty, they’ll want to do something about it. 

I don’t know if the architects who built wheel-chair ramps and 36″ wide doorways (both important innovations in Universal Design) went around trying to convince people of the importance of treating disabled individuals as full human beings. Or if the architects just built what would allow everyone to have access to buildings, and let the consciousness rise as it would. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Still, there aren’t going to be protest songs, placards, or satirical cartoons coming out of this project to jar academics to recognize poverty in some new way. New thinking would be great, but also great would be just new action; a faculty member who looks at my list of things to do to help poor students and says “Yeah, that’s easy, I can do those.”  

How to teach Digital History at the introductory level.

One of the aims of my course design is to introduce digital history tools at the introductory level. At Normandale Community College, these are our 1000 courses. Let’s dispense with the nonsense about digital natives being better with technology than digital immigrants. I fall squarely in the middle of these groups, graduating from my undergraduate in 1997, and I know retired folks with strong tech skills and teenagers for whom the world wide web is very small world. I like to say that all students have uneven penetrations of technological knowledge, which means teaching a class of 30-45 involves significant differentiation of instructions, both in content delivery and skill development.

I’ve taught my students to research, write, and record podcasts for 6 years or so. The research and writing is pretty standard stuff for history courses, but the recording requires a small degree of technical confidence, if not technical skill. From my podcast lesson plan, I’ve come to appreciate the need for scaffolding assignments both based on content and on skills.

One person who scaffolds digital history lesson plans beautifully is Michelle Moravec. Her lesson plan on data mining a text (known as distant reading) is a picture of clarity. In two months I will have a distant reading lesson plan that looks remarkably like this one (with attribution of course). I’m thinking the work of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a 16th c. ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Sultan, would be brilliant for this sort of thing.

Speaking of attributions, I finally bothered to figure out how to use Getty Images for free. You need to hover over you chosen image, which brings up a </> tag in the lower right that allows you to embed with appropriate attribution. Posting historical images is now crazy cheap (free). Thanks Getty!


Walking before I run: a basic outline of tools for my course.

I’ve decided on the categories of tools around which I’ll build my course. I’m trying to think like a student, so I’ve put everything into simple terms. In eight, two week lesson plans we’ll cover:

  1. History bootcamp: what are primary and secondary sources, how do historians use evidence and language. 
  2. Words: Analyzing texts with both close and distant reading (Voyant, Ngrams).
  3. Pictures: How to locate, evaluate, and analyze images on the web.
  4. Timelines: How to build robust, explanatory web-timelines (Timeline JS, Dipity)
  5. Exhibits: How to curate an web-exhibit (wordpress or omeka)
  6. Numbers: How to work with numbers to understand the past (IPUMS, Gapminder, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database)
  7. Conversations: How does social media shape how understanding of the past?
  8. Maps: Using GIS to plot the past (MapStory or Harvard’s Worldmap project). 

Likely not in that order. 

Going down the GIS rabbit hole. . . with data viz on the side.

I decided to go with MapStory over Google’s MapsEngine for teaching introductory GIS to my students. Maps Engine is stupid-easy to use, but lacks the MapStory’s change over time features. The disadvantage of MapStory is that I need to learn QGIS and possibly teach it to my students for them to get the most benefit from it. 

MapStory facilitates learning QGIS with strong links to lesson plans scattered about the web on using QGIS. Still, as I’m already on the hook to teach myself R and statistics with SwirlStats, I jump into yet another subject matter with some trepidation. 

On a non-digital note, I just got The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge by Manuel Lima out of Hennepin County Library. As I think about how to train my students in visualizing the past, it’s useful for me to look to those more expert than me in the visual world. I’ve only played with the book, but can already draw some preliminary conclusions, none of which I suspect are original but are nonetheless necessary to developing future lesson plans: 

  • Representing data in visual formats that explain or enhance our understanding of the past depends on the quality of the data. For example, most of the trees in this book are from Europe or the U.S., great but insufficient for a full understanding of how tree visualizations have been used in world history. The graphics of the trees are stunning with even medieval manuscripts in HD picture quality. Still, I’ll need to be clear to students that the seductive beauty of data visualizations shouldn’t be taken as enhanced accuracy. Pretty isn’t better, necessarily. 
  • Much of understanding historical data visualizations relies on an understanding of symbolism. Everyone can understand a family tree is not literally a tree. Yet, moving beyond that minor example to how the symbolism of data visualizations constrains and illustrates causal relationships will require some thought. Data, even prettily displayed in familiar metaphorical representations still requires a robust understanding of what we often associate with more literature-based concepts: metaphor, simile, and allegory.
  • Data visualization holds the promise of showing historical connections heretofore buried in spreadsheets or narrative notes. We can actually understand the past in a fundamentally different way now. How to convey the idea to students that what we know about the past may radically shift as we apply digital tools to history requires further thought. 

Safe home.