There Has to Be a Better Way

Must mandatory diversity and antiharassment trainings consistently conjure up dread, sarcasm and contempt? Deborah J. Cohan suggests some improvements.

August 21, 2019
 
 
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I have been teaching and writing about issues of diversity and abuses of power since the 1990s. Long before that, I cared deeply about those issues. I can trace my curiosity and concern about matters of social justice and human rights back to when I was a small child.

It was not until I arrived at my university, however, that I had to attend mandatory diversity and antiharassment trainings arranged by the state system of which we are a part. And after enduring these trainings for years, I am left to believe there has to be a better way.

I am reminded of the book by Robert Fulghum from years back, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I think I had a better introduction to, and exploration of, how to build bridges of dialogue across differences as a kid growing up than through these trainings now. I am offering this article to open up the conversation to more creative and innovative ways to do this crucial work.

During the last academic year, the administration emailed announcements -- and then many reminders -- that it was shifting its training from an in-person session to a completely online one. We were instructed to allow two to four hours to complete the required training and then were told about optional and recommended modules as well. Quickly, remarks among friends and colleagues turned to complaints about this much longer version with questions like, “What are you going to try to get done during the training?”

I knew the training was programmed to make it impossible to check other websites or work on a Word document at the same time, as it paused the training. So I specifically set aside time to do this on a day where I could manage to accomplish anything and everything possible without needing a computer. It was wonderfully productive to simultaneously bake four dozen cookies, do two loads of laundry, write cards, pay bills and clean the house.

But the real truth is that I came out of completing it feeling thoroughly empty, alienated, sad, exhausted, demoralized and angry about how the overwhelmingly hard justice work that has mattered to me is actually handled and processed on institutional levels. As a sociologist, oppression, power, privilege and abuses of power and privilege intrigue and trouble me on individual, relational and structural levels.

In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Nicole Truesdell wrote, “Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So, the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?”

Diversity and antiharassment trainings have turned into necessary evils, regarded as such unruly topics that perhaps they are best left to contained, manageable boxes that institutions can check off -- with employees isolated behind screens so nothing can get too complicated. By doing this, the very core of being human that is the centerpiece of these issues is obliterated. This is the bureaucratization and commercialization of diversity and antiharassment at work. When conducted online, these trainings become even more one-dimensional, efficient, formulaic, trackable and easy. One need only start a module, let it run, do another task, jiggle the mouse occasionally so the program perceives you’re still there and return to answer questions with predictable responses.

As with anything so thoroughly saturated in bureaucratic tactics and strategies, such trainings are far more outcome driven than process oriented. We faculty members and other employees receive certificates of completion. In this configuration, diversity is regarded as a consumable objective and measurable outcome for universities. And the actual process is riddled with thought control. In order to move on to the next module, one has to get the answers right to previous questions. So even if you see nuanced subtleties and paradoxes that could be unpacked and discussed, it does not matter anyway, because all that really counts is getting the answer right so you can proceed. For example, I might have benefited from talking with colleagues about the video clip featuring a male professor shutting the door without asking the female student who came to see him to report an incident of abuse.

One of the troubling aspects of the training was one very brief slide about the importance of being “politically correct” with no follow-up or examination of the concept -- especially when the term is commonly used as a form of mockery to suggest that certain phrases and policies are excessive and unnecessary. Without a doubt, it is an unusually loaded term that is used and manipulated as ammunition among and between the left and right, so the complete absence of dialogue about it in a mandatory training is problematic at best. While I am on the left, I am at least sensitive to more conservative faculty and staff members on campuses who already complain about feeling marginalized for their views. Slides like that only fuel the fire and keep views more entrenched.

The irony of the training dictating what is politically correct is not lost, either, when, for example, slides about religion mention that institutions can consider allowing employees to have nonproselytizing decorations in their offices yet make no effort to include language about those who identify as atheist and agnostic. Online trainings like these still contain implicit bias and reproduce structures of domination by defining reality in hegemonic ways.

Slow Diversity

I don’t need to be convinced of the necessity of teaching and learning about these hard subjects, as they shape the very narrative of my professional and personal life. But for the vast majority of people who do not routinely deal with these concepts and terms -- let alone the personal disclosures students often painfully share in assignments and office hours -- the very delivery of the trainings undermines what we are really doing in our classrooms.

Ultimately, certain things simply do not translate well or have real, rich meaning when done online. In the same way that I believe the edgiest, most sensitive and complicated material is not appropriate for online classes, I do not think that diversity and harassment training designed to take up close to a half day of work is appropriate for the online environment.

Must such mandatory trainings so consistently conjure up dread, sarcasm and contempt? Might they be reconceptualized in ways that are less insipid and implemented in a manner that is not perceived as punishment?

These are especially salient questions given the tense sociopolitical climate in which we find ourselves, with its accompanying escalated incidents of racism, anti-Semitism and the like. Times like this call for new ways of teaching and learning about these issues with compassion. As long as institutions are handling the training about them in ways that more often inhibit dialogue rather than encourage it, we would be well advised to consider alternatives -- alternatives that, if we are lucky, will have a productive trickle-down effect when working with our students.

Diversity and antiharassment training would benefit a great deal by borrowing from the slow movement. Cornerstones of what I am calling “slow diversity” would include the following:

  • Recognition that discussions of diversity and antiharassment benefit chiefly from a sense of community, and that the ultimate aim is a sense of trustworthy, beloved community. This comes from the understanding that experiences of oppression, abuse and violence disconnect us from our core and from what we hold dear. They drive a wedge into relationships and communities, contributing to feelings of isolation. So learning about how people are negatively affected by these, we must hold real space -- not cyberspace -- to be present and listen.
  • Awareness that isolation is a primary tool wielded by oppressors to threaten and control victims, and so the form, methodology and process by which education is delivered around these very issues is significant. Resistance to isolation as the dominant paradigm involves education done in conversation and community -- not behind private screens.
  • Understanding that a campus is a place ripe for dynamic, generative, facilitative and reflective discussions and that space needs to be preserved for grappling with the gray areas of tough topics -- that we must have the ability to ask questions and explore ambiguity and paradox.
  • Acknowledgment that learning how to create more inclusive environments involves vulnerability, risk taking, asking questions and dealing with fears of saying the “wrong” thing. It also means realizing that canned measures and methods do not work with organic topics like this.
  • Consciousness of the importance of truly building allies. Such allies are created in and through community, difficult dialogue, the recognition of anger, the risk of failure and actual failure, accountability, trust, and a renewed energy for creating a robust community.

We must encourage our institutions to consider such cornerstones in developing and implementing diversity and antiharassment training so that training can be truly effective. How we as faculty members deal with these raw, tender issues of identity and community will reveal a great deal about how we then tend to them with our students.

What those of us who already teach these issues need more than anything is support for when we deal with the fallout in and out of the classroom -- in class when we bring up the cultural, historical and contemporary manifestations of discrimination, as well as in our offices when students make sensitive disclosures about harassment and sexual abuse. Universities that demand we sit through these trainings need to have our backs when we need it most. Otherwise, such exercises will continue to be experienced as no more than a charade.

Bio

Deborah J. Cohan is associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the author of the forthcoming book Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving and Redemption (Rutgers University Press, 2020).

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