06 June 2014

The Diversity Question

"You're a white instructor seeking employment at an institution of higher education where the enrollment of white students and the employment of white instructors over-represents the proportion of white people in the population. We recognize that these numbers are a problem for our institution, and though we may well will hire more white people for this job, we want to make sure that those white people we hire see it as a problem, too. So, what steps might we expect you take in the classroom to compensate for the fact that your sheer presence in no way (you're probably cis and lacking a visible disability) contributes to the diversity of our campus?" 

That's not the question that gets asked in interviews. For examples of questions that do get asked when college teaching staff is getting hired, you can google "interview questions about diversity in the classroom"--but at many institutions, they amount to the one I asked above.

[Yes, people who aren't white get asked the Diversity Question, too, and sometimes people doing the asking aren't white. Some institutions have multiracial and multiethnic communities of both teachers and learners. Things are different in those cases. If there were enough of those situations to make everything I say here invalid, then we would be living in a different world and this post would not get written.]

Explaining how one avoids teaching like a racist jerk structuring the class exclusively around the needs of the students who look like you showcases neither one's sensitivity nor one's pedagogical acumen. Particularly bad answers may keep particularly bad teachers out of the classroom, but the best good teachers can do is throw up a great deal of froth in the course of floundering, aided by the inner dialogue of self-correction:
"Oh, you encourage student participation and use Methods X, Y, and Z to draw out quiet students...of whatever race and ethnicity? Congratulations--but that's exactly what you'd do in an all-white classroom. Let's answer the question, shall we? You added a Latina author and a black author to the syllabus? You really believe a book here and there by a nonwhite author is enough? Right then, you've got an excellent assignment that allows non-native-speakers to shine. Good job there, reducing the question of "diversity" to one subpopulation of the students, mostly the international ones. What about your African-American students? Uh-huh, you're talking about "poorly prepared students" now--so you look at your black students and automatically see the products of substandard inner-city schools presenting specific kinds of challenges to your pedagogy. Got any less reductive ways of thinking about "diversity"? Okay, you had that one particular student whose difficult racially tinged life circumstances you accommodated--you want a cookie for that? Ah, you try to teach to the individuality of each student. We'd ask you what that means in terms of actual classroom practices, but we have to move on to the next question... "
The most self-critical, historically nuanced, and thoughtful inquiry into one's own white complicity with systems of oppression does not transpose gracefully into an answer to a question that invites respondents to lump everyone who doesn't look like them into a single category and to turn specific problems of justice into vague claims about "diversity."

The well-intentioned Diversity Question may be an awkward inevitability, one that will help bring about a world where the Diversity Question is no longer necessary.  In the meantime, though, it seems mostly to ask white interviewees to flounder awkwardly so that the white people inside and outside the interview room can sit comfortably with the fact that more white teachers are being hired to teach more white students.

1 comment :

  1. There is something snobbishly condescending about the recent spate of blogs available via Inside Higher Ed in which a white person chastises other white people for their insufficient awareness of the privilege of their whiteness. The assumption here is that one cannot be a good teacher by treating all students the same, because one can only then treat all students as if they were a replica of oneself. One must treat them differently based on the color of their skin. And the authors of the blogs are quite certain that most other white people are not as good at this as they are.