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The Problem With Diversity Questions

We would do well to replace them with more tangible queries about teaching and mentoring, argues Alex Small.

July 23, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Igor Zakowski

“Can you describe experiences you’ve had that would be relevant to working with people from diverse backgrounds?” So goes the diversity question that is increasingly a staple of faculty job interviews. It springs from good intentions: we want professors who will have compassion toward students from different backgrounds, many of them disadvantaged.

But the question contains premises that are equal parts 1) condescending and 2) mismatched to actual goals. The condescension is the notion that students from other cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds are so fundamentally different that we need to have specialized skills in order to interact with them, rather than just basic human decency. The mismatch arises from the fact that diversity and disadvantage are not synonymous concepts (though they certainly do intersect). We would do well to replace the diversity question with more tangible queries about teaching and mentoring.

The good intentions draw upon a few kernels of truth: respectful, productive interactions across cultural lines aren’t always easy; all of us have made mistakes in interacting with people from different backgrounds, and as we have gained experience, we have (hopefully) erred less frequently. Typical responses to the diversity question reflect those facts. Most faculty candidates had graduate school classmates from around the world, and most have taught students from a variety of backgrounds. Consequently, they can and do write diversity statements about how they have lived and learned with people from around the world and, along the way, were the teaching assistant for a discussion section that had a memorable student from some underrepresented background. Such experiences have taught them to avoid stereotype-driven assumptions, treating everyone with respect.

What’s the point of reading these trite stories? Yes, some people don’t even clear the hurdle of basic decency and understanding set forth in such essays. But we are hardly in a position to fact-check by calling grad school classmates to ask if cross-cultural interactions were as enlightening as claimed. We could ask about lessons learned, but do we honestly expect to hear some secret recipe for intercultural understanding? Hoping for anything beyond “sustained discussion and listening” implies that other people are so exotic and yet so simple that something akin to a “life hack” can unlock feats of understanding inaccessible via basic human interaction. Is that really an equitable or inclusive attitude?

Such issues arise from a mismatch between stated and actual desires: we claim to seek diversity, but we really want to address disadvantage and underrepresentation. A research group with people from more than a dozen countries is inarguably diverse, and “diversity” was in the writing prompt, so people write generic essays about collaborating in a multicultural team. But if that research team doesn’t include people from groups that are disproportionately disadvantaged in this country, then it isn’t relevant to one of the issues many policy makers and educators want colleges and universities to address.

This mismatch of goals is fixable if we allow ourselves to leave diversity out of the question: ask faculty candidates what they have done and want to do going forward in order to help struggling, underprepared students. The outlines of a good answer are easy enough -- lots of office hours and other help outside class, well-structured assignments, grading formulas that forgive a bad midterm if the final performance is good and so forth. The specifics of a good answer can lead to an enjoyable conversation about teaching our subjects and working with students -- topics about which interviewees are hopefully passionate.

Still, many faculty members and administrators are reluctant to leave diversity entirely out of the discussion, as underpreparation and related issues intersect with race, ethnicity and other facets of identity, causing many fields to lack diversity by those measures. That is true, but consider an experiment: start with whatever you consider to be a reasonable statement about helping struggling students to succeed and then insert identity markers into it. Some faculty members can do this deftly, but I venture that many will produce something that, at a minimum, elicits shudders. Now imagine asking an interviewee to explain how students from underrepresented groups have unique learning needs. I’ve seen that unfold, and it’s the second-most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever experienced on a university campus. (The most uncomfortable was an epic medical issue during grad school.)

When I do hear nonhorrifying explanations of how teaching through a diversity lens is distinct from -- though related to -- addressing underpreparation, they come with considerable political and ideological baggage. They require a particular view of both contemporary social issues and timeless philosophical questions (e.g., the individual versus society). As former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier has argued, asking for these sorts of statements subjects faculty members to political tests that are antithetical to intellectual diversity. One might reasonably require social scientists to be able to discuss complex social issues from multiple perspectives, but maybe we should just ask the mathematicians how they help underprepared students catch up in math.

Even worse, these rhetorical demands fall short on their own terms: Is there any evidence that people who can discuss equity in favored jargon are actually better at helping students learn? Does knowing how to properly snort at the word “meritocracy” (true story) actually correlate with compassion? I can name professors who display unparalleled mastery of equity and inclusion jargon, who love to hold forth on the importance of hiring people committed to teaching our underprivileged students, but who use every imaginable trick to get out of teaching. Conversely, I know professors who have worked blue-collar jobs during college and who help large crowds of students during their busy office hours, and they have no patience for such rhetoric. Anecdotes, to be sure, but I’m hardly the first to note the frequent mismatch between talk and actions concerning disadvantage.

Of course, some aspiring professors take an entirely different approach to the diversity question: the personal tale of disadvantage. Such a tale supposedly assures interviewers that the interviewee has experienced pain, has accordingly learned compassion and will leverage that compassion to help diversify academe. However, such a response only works for people whose social views match the narratives preferred by interviewers. The aforementioned blue-collar faculty member would not fare well if they said that they don’t think students like their younger self needed extrasensitive treatment. There are reasonable objections to offer against such a stance, but it is hypocritical to eschew such blue-collar academics in the name of “inclusion.”

In addition, the diversity question largely addresses diversity of identities, but some people prefer not to offer suitably identity-based personal stories. Some have enjoyed largely positive experiences in an increasingly diverse society and lack potent anecdotes that neatly fit interviewers’ preferred narrative. Others would simply rather not expose wounds. We shouldn’t push job applicants to perform the emotional labor of dressing their scars in straitjackets of acceptable opinion and parading them in public.

In short, the diversity question asks people to take a task that we value -- working productively with students -- and relate it to larger social issues. At best, this framing distracts from what we really want, causing applicants to write about international research collaborations. Often we get into controversial social issues rather than the concrete task of helping students. These failure modes are inherent to the question itself, and none of them leads to productive action. Let’s refocus the conversation on something we hopefully can all value: teaching students.

Bio

Alex Small is a professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He blogs at physicistatlarge.blogspot.com.

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