Placing a Community: Demographic Contexts

Adriana Estill, Carleton College
Author Profile
This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This assignment asks students to examine several recent U.S. census tables about Hispanics and educational attainment and write a brief report that details the conclusions they reach about what information the tables offer. This is the first written assignment for an introductory class on U.S. Latino Studies.

The timing and format of the assignment are designed to help students 'place' U.S. Latinos in a temporal and situational context. It also permits them to see the importance of asking who U.S. Latinos are. I also emphasize the need to assess and interpret contemporary demographic data about Latinos in the U.S., given the politicized and, arguably, partial nature of census data gathering.

Census Data on U.S. Latinos

Learning Goals

  • to contextualize the contemporary U.S. Latino population, at the beginning of the term, with a healthy respect for and skepticism of quantitative information;
  • given the overarching goal for the class of providing students with an introduction to interdisciplinary learning, this unit was designed to give students a sense of the nature of quantitative and qualitative data and their uses;
  • to give students practice with assessing quantitative information;
  • to provide students with an opportunity to transform–through their prose and graphs–raw numbers (data tables) into narrative arguments;
  • to help students understand that the data provides several possible stories about the educational achievement of Latinos;
  • to increase student's awareness of the limitations of the data as well as their ability to indicate further needed areas for research.

Context for Use

This assignment is given at the beginning of an introductory-level course on U.S. Latino Studies at a small liberal arts college. It is intended as an introductory assignment that enables students to contextualize the current Latino population. The assignment dovetails into ongoing class discussions on the heterogeneity of the Latino population as well as on the government's influence on the production of a Hispanic identity. While the class size has been small (N=15), the resulting report's brief and fairly easily-assessed nature would make it a manageable assignment for larger (<40) classes.

The lead up to the assignment takes place during class. I introduce students to the wealth of data available at The U.S. Census Page. Then we read a brief explanation by John C. Bean on how to find the stories in data tables (from his Writing Arguments). Then, in groups, students analyzed a table of demographic data from the U.S. census and extracted stories. I encouraged them to sketch graphs that would best tell those stories. In preparation for the subsequent class, students read the U.S. Census Bureau's "We the People: Hispanics in the United States (Acrobat (PDF) 420kB Dec4 06)" [2000] as well as a contemporary newspaper article (Janny Scott, "A Census Query is Said to Skew Data on Latinos," The New York Times, 2000) that critiques the practices of and limits to the data collection.

This assignment could be used in other classes (say, an introductory American literature or history course) in order to involve students in understanding the broad, quantitatively-informed demographic context and generating their own assessment of the limits and values of that data. The availability of historical census data means that this assignment is not limited to contemporary formulations.

Description and Teaching Materials

The assignment

Examine the three tables of demographic data from the U.S. Census that are attached.

(All these tables, and more, are available here in both pdf and excel formats.)
Table 1: Hispanic Educational Attainment (Acrobat (PDF) 115kB Dec4 06)
Table 2: Hispanic Educational Attainment, more detail (Acrobat (PDF) 113kB Dec4 06)
Table 3: Relationship of Income to Educational Attainment (Acrobat (PDF) 114kB Dec4 06)

Then consider John Bean's brief explanation of how to find the stories in tables as well as our own in-class review of census tables. Now it's your job to prepare a report using these tables (which are from the more recent Census Bureau Current Population Survey (2004)). Your report should be modeled after the "We the People" Report (Acrobat (PDF) 420kB Dec4 06) that we read, in that its intent is to brief a general public about the "Hispanic" population in the U.S. Please present your analysis in narrative form with appropriate graphs; your introduction should make clear the stories that this data tells and the body should provide evidence for your interpretation and also suggest further questions for consideration. Please keep your report to 3-4 pp, double-spaced.

Here are a few questions to consider as you draft your report:
  1. What are the stories that this table presents? Where do you see these stories?
  2. What are some causal questions (or effect questions) that emerge from these stories?
  3. How could you answer these questions? Which discipline(s) might be most appropriate or useful for the required research?
  4. Are there questions you could not answer, given the confines and methodology of a particular discipline?

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have found it essential to spend time in class, in small groups, practicing how to read (decipher and analyze) tables of data. This provides students with a chance to develop the skill of finding the stories available in the tables.

I also recommend having an in-class discussion on what elements make a graph effective and how to make persuasive arguments using visual representations of data.

As I mentioned above, one of the principal goals of my class is to introduce students to interdisciplinary studies. This particular assignment reflects my intent to have students understand the relevance and applicability of quantitative data, as well as develop the skills to use that data along with other types of evidence. The assignment is placed at the beginning of the term to help students understand the usefulness of a quantitative context when studying U.S. Latinos, and later assignments ask them to 'flesh out' and complicate this initial report.


Using this rubric (Microsoft Word 36kB Dec12 06), I assess these reports with the following expectations:
  • the introductory paragraph should explain the direction and intent of the report
  • the report should provide a coherent narrative about the story or stories that the tables present
  • the report should use effective graphs and/or charts
  • the report should effectively integrate data as evidence into the narrative argument
  • the report should be written in a clear, well-structured prose
  • the report should acknowledge questions that the author cannot answer given the data that the tables offer.
In general, I have found that strong papers provide effective syntheses of the tables and are able to integrate quantitative evidence to further the argument. They recognize the gaps in the data and articulate carefully what might need to be studied further. In contrast, poor papers tend to show an inability to extract the stories from the tables, often because questions about the validity of the census as a data collection tool overwhelm their analysis and forestall a more productive discussion of what the evidence does show.