Blog #8 | Practical Steps to Advocate for Poverty Class College Students

On Monday, Seminar on Scholar-Activism had the joy of meeting Karma Chávez. Karma said many profound things. What has stuck with me most, though, was her narrative on wearing jeans in class. She wears jeans and other casual clothing not just because they are comfortable, but also because of “class politics.” In particular, she said that casual clothing can make students from lower class backgrounds feel more comfortable in class. “They probably don’t own a pair of dress pants,” she said. Karma’s thoughtfulness heartens me. She inspired me to write a list of practical steps college faculty can take to be an effective advocate for poverty-class undergraduate students. My hope is that faculty from any class background can glean insight from the list. With that said, I recognize that each poverty class college student has a different experience. I do not speak for this entire population and I welcome feedback from other (current and former) people within it.

+Wear unassuming clothes. I am completely on board with Karma Chávez, here. Expensive dress pants and jackets and shoes can send the message to poverty class students that your classroom is a strict hierarchical space where you are the powerful one whom they should fear and obey. Casual clothing can alleviate this feeling.

+Hold firm that “It’s not who you know; it’s what you know.” The “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” model disproportionately disadvantages poverty class students because they are the least likely to know high-profile people. Resist the urge to recruit a student as a TA, research assistant, or even babysitter just because you know their parents or you are from the same upper middle class town or you have some other allegiance to them that is inextricable from social capital. People usually are inclined to have a bias in favor of students with a lot of high-profile connections. Consciously work against that bias. Put these students under more, not less, scrutiny when you look for someone to work with you in any capacity.

+Talk to students in an intimate setting. If you teach small classes, mandate 1:1 meetings with all of your students. Poverty class students often do not feel comfortable approaching instructors (see chapters 8–12 of Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau). For this reason, saying, “I am very happy to meet with any of you, so please stop by my office” often is not effective. Of course, it is in students’ best interest to learn how to approach people with institutional authority. However, chances are that they will have to learn this skill in 95% of their classes. They will benefit from having an initial mentor who reaches out to them, and this is probably especially true for first-year students.

+Require the cheapest textbooks you can. Remember that a lot of financial aid packages do not sufficiently cover expenses like books! Anything that can be read in PDF form should be done so. As it probably goes without saying, (1) learning is compromised when students cannot afford their required reading, and (2) poverty class students are the most likely population to face this challenge. Your goal should be to have a list of required texts that totals $0.

+Talk about class. Whether you grew up poor, middle class, or in “The 1%,” poverty class students almost always appreciate it when faculty members give at least a brief, thoughtful reflection on their class background and/or current class positionality. Students notice when a potential advocate has done their homework, looked inward, and taken the risk of making their reflections public. I promise that you can find a way to make class relevant, regardless of your field. You don’t need to adorn every biology lesson with a discussion of your class positionality. One or two short reflections throughout the term sufficiently demonstrates that class is a welcome topic of discussion with you. For many poverty class students, class is always a point of conversation outside of the classroom, so seeing it brought up inside the classroom even briefly can be encouraging.

+Value all dialects. Remember that language is arbitrary and no one way of speaking is superior to another. In general, the ways that upper class people speak are seen as more intelligent than the ways that poor people speak. If you teach classes that entail oral presentations or a “participation” grade, it is especially important to avoid this perspective. If a student says “Correlation ain’t good enough to prove causality” in a presentation, certainly she has used language more characteristic of the poverty class than the upper class and certainly this language is less prestigious. However, the fundamental idea she was expressing is correct, and in her dialect the way she expressed it is probably perfectly clear. This student should receive as much credit as a student who says “Correlation does not prove causality.” I concede that this issue is murky because prestigious language is a tool and educators want to equip students with the tools to thrive in professional and academic settings. A happy medium would be to inform this hypothetical student that her language was not the language of power, tell her she can choose to do with that information as she wishes, and not dock her points for her dialect. The student may be seeking to learn the language of power in order to be equipped with that tool, in which case your information is helpful. Do not, however, tell students that their language is “wrong” or “incorrect.” Ideas can be wrong. Ideas can be incorrect. Language cannot.

+Do something. If there is an organization on campus for poor or working class students, ask them if they are working on any causes and, if so, ask what they are and if you can help. Keeping in mind that academic achievement in high school is a predictor of college persistence, get involved in local/state/national K-12 education politics and lobby for the policies that are most conducive to the academic success of poor students. Get in touch with your college’s diversity office and see if they are working on any class-related initiatives with which you could help. Do something to change school, community, state, and/or nationwide structures.