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Why ‘diversity questions’ fall short

Campuses across the country are increasingly asking faculty to declare “diversity statements” as a condition of employment. But as one professor points out, those statements are both “condescending and…mismatched to actual goals.”

The diversity-related questions—such as “Can you describe experiences you’ve had that would be relevant to working with people from diverse backgrounds?”—imply 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,” writes Alex Small at Inside Higher Ed.

“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,” writes Small, a professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

These questions, Small dryly notes, have led applicants to “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.” But they hardly tell us anything meaningful:

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.

In order to help “struggling, underprepared students,” Small writes, faculty may take numerous approaches, including “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.” These approaches can help every student who needs it without getting distracted by superfluous “diversity” issues, he argues.

Read the article here.

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