Why “Poverty & Humanities”?

Many non-humanities courses include content related to basic needs and resources (e.g., housing, nutrition, budgeting, statistics, caregiving)—content which can be enhanced through the inclusion of carefully chosen humanities texts. Many humanities courses, on the other hand, do not offer readings that focus on experiences of poverty. The Institute intends to be a place where a philosophy professor can create a poverty-focused unit for their lesson on epistemology, and a nursing professor can find a short story to bring home the experience of being a patient without health insurance. The purpose of the Institute is to help us develop a framework for selecting particularly high-impact texts that can be introduced into both non-humanities and humanities courses and thereby transform the learning in our community college classrooms.

Our project seeks to answer two equally important questions about poverty and the humanities. First, we believe that engaging with the complex ideas about poverty as a human experience is crucial for our students, around half of whom experience food and housing insecurity. Our students’ experiences and voices, brought to bear on the topic of poverty, can generate new knowledge about our society. In humanities courses such as philosophy, literature, and art history, it is often the case that poverty is not directly addressed as part of the human experience. What happens if we change this and include a poverty-focused unit in Philosophy 100, or English 101? 

Second, we know that humanities texts and objects can be powerful motivators for learning about any subject. Many of us do not teach within the humanities, and many of our students take only a handful of humanities courses, and yet we’ve all seen the way a short story, a song, or an engaging historical document can crystalize ideas, motivate learning, and give new dimensions to the skills and theories we teach—whether in health science, business, psychology, or economics. What happens if we include a poverty-focused poem, film, or historical essay when we are teaching on topics of basic needs, scarcity, and equity?

Whether through classroom activities or participation in school-wide events, when students see the epistemic value of their own experiences, they can begin to generate their own educational goals and research questions, and become better prepared for life in the 21st century.

The humanities offer a wide range of approaches to poverty and inequity. Critically-engaged personal writing, film, or music about homelessness, hunger, and the longing for security can become powerful anchors that bring theory to life. Just as importantly, though, writings by historians and philosophers can help identify the questionable assumptions that often float around the edges of poverty-talk. Poverty can be a sensitive topic, given the unjustified shame that surrounds it. Works must be carefully chosen and lessons carefully crafted so that they awaken curiosity rather than reinforce myth.

How is the Institute structured?

Because of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Institute is fully online. Poverty & Humanities Faculty fellows will meet twice weekly (on Tuesdays and Fridays) via zoom for half-days over five weeks, starting July 6, 2021. Our Tuesday meetings will be devoted to discussing materials and working on curricular development, while our Friday meetings will feature talks and round-table discussions with guest scholars and community leaders who will provide multiple critical perspectives for grappling with and better understanding poverty.

For an (always-in-progress) list of readings and materials click here, and for the schedule of activities, click here.

Who is it for?

The Poverty and Humanities Institute was designed for BMCC and CUNY community college faculty from all disciplines (e.g., social sciences, science, mathematics, business, and humanities). It is meant to root faculty in a humanistic grasp of poverty and to create teaching tools for eliciting reflections on poverty from our students.

Who are the participants?

We are a five-person project team, joined by 20 Faculty Fellows from BMCC and other CUNY Community Colleges, and over a dozen guest speakers. Learn about us here!

What comes next?

The institute is the springboard for an array of activities and interventions that will be available for study and reflection on this website in due course. In the semesters after the institute, the project team and Faculty Fellows will be trying out curricular changes that reflect the goals of the institute. With 25 faculty across CUNY’s community colleges—and given the numbers of classes most of us regularly teach (around 8 per year)—we expect to be engaging in complex and empowering interdisciplinary conversations about poverty in literally hundreds of classrooms, directly engaging as many as 10,000 students in the first two years of this project.