The hard realities of reduced “bandwidth”

There’s a good chance you have been feeling overwhelmed by the mounting stresses of COVID-19, the uncertainties of the next academic year, and the social unrest in the U.S. over the past few weeks. Perhaps you have said to yourself or to others, “I just don’t have the bandwidth for this.”

Cia Verschelden, author of Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization, turned her attention last week to the fact that many of our colleagues across the country are “not OK.”

Verschelden wrote:

Our black and brown colleagues need our support right now. We are all struggling with many bandwidth stealers, including working at home with kids who need both our attention and our computer, illness and death in our families, anxiety about our jobs and how we can keep them and do them well, the welfare of our students and their capacity to cope in the remote learning environment, etc. Our black and brown colleagues have all that on their minds, plus the soul-wringing reality that we live in a country where it is acceptable to treat people who look like them with disregard and violence.

Cia Verschelden, “The Bandwidth Cost of ‘Not OK’,” AACU blog, June 4, 2020.

If you are not familiar with the concept of “mental bandwidth,” it refers to the cognitive and emotional resources needed for learning, making good decisions, caring for family, having healthy relationships, etc. Psychologist Eldar Shafir and behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan explored the idea of bandwidth and its connection to poverty in their 2013 book, Scarcity: Why having too little means so much (Times Books). To learn more about the psychology of scarcity, here is an interview with Eldar Shafir and here is an NPR piece about the stress of scarcity and how it can undermine a person’s ability to function day to day.

In her book Bandwidth Recovery, Cia Verschelden applied these insights to the realities of many of our students, and discusses effective interventions that help recover bandwidth so that students can be in a better position to learn and succeed. Here is an interview with her about the book.

Here is a short video in which Cia Vershelden introduces the idea of bandwidth:

But her attention last week was not exclusively on students but also her hurting colleagues. Verschelden wrote,

Underlying all of the bandwidth stealers related to poverty, racism, etc. is uncertainty. Both the pandemic and social violence increase levels of uncertainty for citizens in direct proportion to their place in the hierarchy of income, wealth, and health. We know that black and brown people have been more likely to get sick from this coronavirus and more likely to die from it than white people. We know that black and brown people are much more likely to be targets of police violence and far more likely to be imprisoned than white people. Our students and our faculty/staff colleagues in these groups experience the bandwidth-stealing effects of these realities every day.

Cia Verschelden, “The Bandwidth Cost of ‘Not OK’,” AACU blog, June 4, 2020.

She offers some immediate and practical things we can do to support black and brown colleagues:

We can acknowledge the bandwidth cost of being black or brown in a racist country.

We can express concern and empathy while avoiding “I know how you feel” (because, really, most of us don’t).

We can offer support. Ask, “How can I be helpful? Are you and your family ok? Do you want to talk? Could I sub for you at a meeting today so you can have a moment?” And then just listen.

We can examine every rule and regulation and procedure that we require of students (and employees), and ask, “Is this how we want them to be spending their precious bandwidth?” If not, simplify or get rid of it.

In general, we can remove barriers, communicate unconditional support, and increase certainty where we can.

Cia Verschelden, “The Bandwidth Cost of ‘Not OK’,” AACU blog, June 4, 2020.

And she delivers a sharp admonition of what NOT to say. If you find yourself saying, “let’s get back to normal,” stop and consider the fact that “the ‘normal’ state of affairs in this country was not working well for millions of people.” Verschelden concludes, “Why would we want to get back to a normal that undermines the basic education and, therefore, the life chances, of millions of our neighbors? What can we learn from the multiple awful events of 2020 that we can use to fashion a new normal in which we can all survive and thrive?”

Here is a link to some readings related to the idea of bandwidth recovery (Source: DePaul University Teaching Commons).

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