I joined the faculty book club at work this week, and the first book we’re reading is Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization by Cia Verschelden. We don’t meet until the middle of the month, but I was eager to dig into it and found myself reading Part One today in between course approvals and answering Moodle support tickets.
The premise of the book is pretty straightforward: the pressures placed on marginalized students limit their ability to learn. Part One of the book lays out the case of the premise itself — I didn’t need to be sold on this idea, but Verschelden does a good job of laying out the evidence that a brain under constant cortical steroid flooding from the stresses of poverty, chronic health issues, racist threat, etc. is not able to perform to the best of its ability. She backs up the claim with a concise overview of research into social determinants of health and draws analogies to experiences of being drawn to thin across multiple commitments and how hard it is to focus on any one thing.
She also uses the idea of multitasking here, and how what we’re really doing when we multitask is switching quickly between tasks. We pay an energy penalty every time we switch tasks. (Even I, someone whose creativity and insight really thrives in environments where I am able to move freely between tasks, know I pay a penalty for this focus-shifting in overall energy levels.) Verschelden asks us to think about what that looks like for a student sitting in a lecture hall who is simultaneously parsing a slur she heard in the hallway and wondering if she’ll get the extra shift she needs to cover rent this month: how much of her best cognitive capability can possibly be in the classroom?
As I say, I didn’t need to be sold on this. These are some truths I hold to be self-evident. But I get that she needs to outline the case before she moves on to solutions — that’s the part I’m eager to dig in to, hopefully starting in the next part.
But there’s one part of the argument I loathe, though I recognize the utility of it: the human capital argument. I find the concept of human capital — that our worth is inherent to our productivity and our contributions to the economy — repulsive. I understand that there is an audience for whom it is a persuasive argument that we should empower students because they are the future engines of our economy; I am not that audience. The inherent humanity of our students, not their human capital, is what demands we attend to things like this concept of bandwidth recovery.
Anyway, all in all it’s a good read so far. It’s very accessible and the research is carefully explained. I’m looking forward to the discussion later this month.