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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Diversity and the Pipeline Problem

In my experience as editor of a cultishly popular humor website, seeking diversity was a key to improving quality.

November 15, 2018
 
 

I will admit, my familiarity with hiring in academic circles is largely secondhand. I’ve never sat on a hiring committee and barely ever applied for a tenure track job. 

But one of the things I hear when people talk about the difficulty of bringing more diversity to the professorate is the “pipeline problem,” that there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates to achieve those diversity goals.

While I have no intimate familiarity with pipelines in academia, I’m highly experienced with pipelines in a different field: comedy writing.

During a recent panel discussion with four executive producers for late-night television shows, the subject of diversity in writing staffs – a longstanding issue in the industry – came up. 

While all agreed that things are improving, it was posited that the difficulties in achieving diversity were not because of discrimination, but because there was a “lack of candidates.”

The places where those candidates were to be found – Second City, the Groundlings – had very few women members, for example, and sometimes, not a single woman would apply for open positions. If someone doesn’t apply, they can’t be hired.

In other words, the industry had a pipeline problem.

From 2003 to 2008, I helmed McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a far more humble comedy enterprise than a network late-night show, but like those shows, we had an insatiable need for humorous content from funny writers.

Because I was working as a college instructor in Virginia and then South Carolina, I had no existing pipeline to places like the Harvard Lampoon – a consistent feeder to late-night TV – or high profile improv groups.

I had an email inbox.

In the earliest days, it was sometimes tough to find material I considered good enough to publish. I leaned on some past contributors pretty heavily, but as our audience increased, so did the traffic to the submissions inbox.

I noticed a few things.

1.  At the start, men counted for between 70 and 80 percent of the submissions. 

2. Upon receiving a rejection, men were much more inclined to follow up with another submission, sometimes almost immediately.[1]

3. While women were a much smaller percentage of the total submissions, they had a much higher likelihood of acceptance.

4. Women who had received a rejection were much less likely to resubmit right away, and sometimes would not resubmit at all.

On the surface, unlike the more prominent (and actually paying) comedy entities, we had an egalitarian pipeline. I didn’t care what your background was, who you’d interned for, or where you took improv classes, I was starved for content. But even that egalitarian pipeline wasn’t doing the job by itself.

Please recognize, I am not championing myself as some contender for gold in the woke Olympics. I had no explicit goal to achieve diversity on the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency pages. I only wanted to ease my own burden over having to relentlessly seek out funny content. Women were an underutilized source of that content.

I did one small thing. While all rejections were prompt, polite, and personal, reflecting on the lower rates of resubmission among women, I started writing short (and I mean short) bits of encouragement to those writers who really had gotten close, but not quite over the top. At the same time, I – let’s just go with “hounded” – our existing female contributors for more material.

Over time, the percentage of submissions by women increased. Many writers who had been rejected initially ultimately landed material on the site and subsequently became consistent contributors.[2]

Since my ceding the helm to Chris Monks just over ten years ago, that trend has only increased, aided significantly by him taking the site to new heights of audience, while also retaining that egalitarian pipeline.[3]

I now get to read the site for pleasure, rather than ocupationally, and no offense to the fellas, the women are dominating.[4]

I do not know what all of the women I listed in the footnote below do for a living, but if anyone is looking for people who can write funny and feel they would benefit from more women on their staffs, they are an excellent place to start.

One of the unspoken assumptions of the pipeline problem that must be challenged is not just who is getting into the pipeline at the start, but the nature of the “standards” which govern the flow through the pipeline. In comedy, for years, the assumption was that there just weren’t enough women who were up to snuff as measured against the dominant white guy, one-time member of the Harvard Lampoon staffing ethos that predominated in the elite outlets.

When the default goes unquestioned, undoubtedly some people who merit inclusion will be judged as falling short simply because of their differences from that default.

Put another way, what you think you’re looking for may not be what you really need. As higher education institutions change, this problem seems particularly acute, given that faculty positions and searches seem to follow a model codified during very different times. I’m particularly mystified when I see ads for institutions well below the handful of elite schools on the ladder of prestige that sound identical to those elite schools with the exception of doubling (or more) the teaching load.

Bottom line, lack of diversity was a quality problem, one that could be relatively easily remedied (at least for us) with only a small amount of intentionality. Chris Monks has taken the whole thing to a new level, expanding the intentionality of diversity beyond just gender.

There’s nothing inconsistent between this desire for diversity and quality. In fact, for the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website, they’re explicitly intertwined. Readership has steadily increased, while also becoming increasingly more female. In fact, based on the available data, a majority of the site’s readers are now women. These things happening in tandem is not accidental.

The new thing will inevitably be somewhat different than the old thing, but in my experience, the new thing is far better. McSweeney's has grown into something that can now pay its contributors and sustain itself, not an easy proposition in today's digital publishing landscape.

If the standards reinforce a replication of the existing structures (as the late-night shows relying on existing pipelines did), some superior alternative may be overlooked.

There’s lots of pipelines out there, but it does require one to go looking for them. I wouldn’t have known this until I stumbled on that reality through circumstance, but I feel it could be as true in academia as it was for me in publishing comedy.

What say you?

 

[1]Because I prided myself on a quick turnaround, sometimes within hours, but no longer than a week, I had to learn who had another in barrel ready to go and occasionally delay a response by a day or two, just to prevent a deluge. The rapid-fire submitters also rarely seemed to hit the target.

[2]Perhaps my proudest “discovery” was Ellie Kemper, who has gone on to great success on The Officeand as star of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She submitted several times before breaking through on the site, all well in advance of her much larger breakthrough as a sought after comedic performer. It took no special skill on my part to recognize obvious talent, but if we hadn’t had an open pipeline, we never would’ve had the chance to publish her work. 

[3]Chris works in a soundproof, windowless dungeon just outside Boston, with only an internet connection to the outside world, so he’s even less tapped into the existing comedy pipelines than I was. 

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