reviewed by Valerie Polakow & Katja Robinson - March 25, 2019
How does one begin to analyze the lived reality of poverty and its consequences? In terms of developmental damage? Diminished social and intellectual capital? Emotional distress and family instability? Educational underachievement? Opportunities lost, diminished, and denied? Or as an existential and policy crisis as well as a grave violation of human rights? For author Cia Verschelden, such fundamental violations of human rights and the all-pervasive toxicity of poverty are reduced to a vocabulary of extra cost(s) and a depleted mental bandwidth (p. 7).
Verscheldens book, Bandwidth Recovery, is an attempt to explain the challenges facing low-income college students and the damaging effects of poverty, racism, and discrimination. She also aims to provide concrete, practice-based interventions to promote educational equity. While this is a laudable goal and the author clearly espouses a strong commitment to educational equity, the book is a hodge-podge of citations and trendy terminology, and lacks a serious theoretical analysis of systemic poverty, inequality, and institutionalized discrimination. Merely focusing on cognitive bandwidth and interventions to promote an educational recovery seems reductive and misplaced. The intractable problems that poor children, youth, and adult students face in the United States are deeply embedded in systemic inequalities and a lack of fundamental social and economic rights that cannot be encapsulated by the notion of bandwidth, a term originating in the work of Mullainathan and Shafir (2013).
Mullainathan and Shafir argue that scarcity in general captures our mind (p. 34), leading to a bandwidth tax (p. 14) and that juggling multiple responsibilities has behavioral consequences impacting our decision-making process. But bandwidth tax is hardly a new argument; it is merely a reframing of what many sociologists of poverty, such as Lister (2004), have argued, namely that income poverty is a reductive measure. Any complex analysis of povertys far-reaching consequences must attend to the social-psychological dimensions of poverty, analyzing both human capacity and human capability (Sen, 1999; Nussbaum, 2011). Yet Verschelden seems to make bandwidth loss and recovery the central focus of her book, applying this concept to low-income and minority students in higher education. She states that students routinely have to spend some of their bandwidth on working to make money as well as worrying about not having enough. Because of poverty, some of their bandwidth is now Xed out, no longer available for learning (p. 26). Clearly the struggles and demands of marginalized students impact their capability to be the students they want to be. Verschelden, however, seems to make the sweeping claim that poverty and racism, in general, actually deplete students cognitive function, seemingly contradicting her posited strengths-based perspective (see p. xiv). Further, there is very little account of the remarkable resilience demonstrated by low-income students, particularly students of color, who have persisted and succeeded in post-secondary education.
Relating the scarcity argument to diminished cognitive resources ignores how the capability to make decisions is always contextualized within ones lifeworld possibilities and constraints. For example, an undergraduate single parent determined to obtain a postsecondary degree that will benefit her familys future also needs child care. But, due to the lack of quality child care for low-income children in the U.S., she must sacrifice quality child care in the name of affordability. The absence of any discussion about non-traditional students, particularly low-income single mothers, is a glaring deficit in the book, especially given that this non-traditional student population continues to increase. Student parents with dependent children now make up about 22% of all 17 million U.S. undergraduate students. Almost half of them (45%) have their children in paid child care and over 50% work more than 40 hours a week (McFarland, et al., 2018; NCES, 2016). Obstacles and challenges for student parents range from missed classes, poor grades, delayed degree completion, health and financial concerns, constant stress, and childrens behavioral problems (Jones-DeWeever & Gault, 2006; Polakow, Robinson, & Ziefert, 2014). However, student parents lived realities remain invisible and are not addressed by Verschelden.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the book is the astonishingly bad organization. It reads like a series of educational leadership in-service presentations. How chapters of one and a half pages, disjointed categories, missing references, and haphazard structure passed an editor at Stylus is mystifying. For example, a chapter on physical health is followed by a three-page chapter on mental health. Why not combine the two into an integrated discussion of health? Similarly, Chapters Five, Six and Seven, which focus on microaggressions, stereotype threat, and disidentification, are all short chapters (chapter seven is one and a half pages!) that could be combined into a more substantial discussion of microaggressions and marginalization.
The author references double-consciousness, citing the classic work of Du Bois, yet seems unaware of recent ethnographic studies that focus on the voices of students and their hyphenated selves (Sirin & Fine, 2007) or the use of counter-stories and the remarkable persistence of vulnerable undocumented students (Muñoz & Maldonado, 2012). At times the citations read like a review of literature for a term paper, and the odd assortment of authors, news magazines, documentaries, and presentations do not give theoretical weight to the arguments advanced by the author. A discussion of marginalization, for example, omits key theorists such as Goffman (1963) and his classic analysis of stigma and marginalization. Social and cultural capital are part of the authors personal narrative as she reports how she succeeded in higher education. However, low-income students lives and their struggles to access social and cultural capital are not discussed in any depth, even though more than a quarter of African American students and almost 40% of Latinx students navigating the corridors of post-secondary institutions are first in their families to attend college (NCES, 2016). There is little analysis of the intersectionality of identities, deficit theory, school, and social class, and how students in poverty, specifically students of color, have been variously constructed as deficient, language-impaired, and culturally disadvantaged from an early age. A discussion of Critical Race Theory is also absent, yet pertinent to an understanding of the marginalization of African American students and other students of color.
In the concluding section of the book, Verschelden provides a toolkit of relevant interventions, ranging from values affirmation to exercises about unpacking privilege that are intended to reduce stereotype threat, develop a growth mindset, and increase feelings of belonging. She often illustrates her own pedagogical practice, giving the reader a brief glimpse of the lifeworlds of her students. Why not discuss their voices in depth to show the reader how this type of pedagogy has made a difference in their lives? It is unclear who constitutes the intended audience for Bandwidth Recovery. Clearly some of the interventions may be helpful for novice higher education instructors and perhaps for counselors and student services personnel. But there is so much that misses the mark and recycles common pedagogical theories and practices. The absence of a critical analysis of systemic challenges and obstacles, coupled with the missing voices of key stakeholders (namely, students), make the book a very thin read. The application of trendy terminology derived from a digital paradigm to the existential complexity of students experiences is ultimately reductive. Bandwidth depletion is hardly a novel phenomenon; rather, it is part of a deeply embedded, malign campus climate.
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. London, England: Penguin.
Jones-DeWeever, A., & Gault, B. (2006). Resilient and reaching for more. Challenges and benefits of higher education for welfare participants and their children (No. D466). Washington, DC: Institute for Womens Policy Research. Retrieved from https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/iwpr-export/publications/D466.pdf
Lister, R. (2004). Poverty. Cambridge, England: Polity.
McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Wang, K., Rathbun, A., Barmer, A., Forest Cataldi, E. & Bullock Mann, F. (2018). The Condition of Education 2018 (NCES 2018-144). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo. asp?pubid=2018144.
Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much (1st ed.). New York, NY: Times Books.
Muñoz, S. M., & Maldonado, M. M. (2012). Counter stories of college persistence by undocumented Mexicana students: Navigating race, class, gender, and legal status. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 25(3), 293315.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2016). National postsecondary student aid study: 2016 undergraduates. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/npsas/
Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
OECD (2019). Poverty rate (indicator). Retrieved from https://data.oecd.org/inequality/poverty-rate.htm
Polakow, V., Robinson, K., & Ziefert, M. (2014). Student parents in the shadows: The academic and personal costs of unmet child care needs. Retrieved from https://www.emich.edu/wcen/documents/child_care_needs_study_report.pdf
Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, NY: Knopf.
Sirin, S. R., & Fine, M. (2007). Hyphenated selves: Muslim American youth negotiating identities on the fault lines of global conflict. Applied Developmental Science, 11(3), 151163.