Friday, November 18, 2011

A Friday Thirsty About the Racial Diversity Question. (Flip Side Query, Though.)

Today my committee
will hunker into a tiny room,
huddled around a microscopic SKYPE camera,
to interview 6 people from around the country.

I'm an interloper on the committee.
It is not my department.

So I've been assigned a question to ask.

The card reads - and I must say it
exactly as it is written -
"How would you say you've fostered
and supported cultural and racial diversity
in your classroom?"

Q: What should I be listening for
in the answers?
How will I know if the answer my surely
surprised and nervous subjects
is good, bad, authentic, or otherwise?


  1. If they have a quick answer, there's a good chance it's pre-prepared bullshit.

    Honestly, I've heard of this being asked before, and I have no idea how I could honestly answer the question in any way other than "I haven't".

    Can anyone give me an example of an honest answer? I mean, I can imagine doing things in a way that doesn't deride or discount cultural perspectives, but how do you 'support' them?

    Bonus points if you can give a concrete example in a science class.

  2. Well, if you ask a stupid question you should expect a stupid answer. I'd ding anybody who offers up the usual platitudes about "fostering an open classroom environment where different life-perspectives are valued" and reward the ones who offer serious concrete examples of something they've done. Bonus points if they offer an example of an instance that didn't work out well but from which they learned something.

    In other words, the more abstract the answer, the more likely that it is just total bullshit.

  3. I agree with Archie. Anyone who can provide a concrete answer or specific examples would rate higher in my eyes. I would also rate more highly someone who honestly answered that they didn't know that they COULD actually answer such a question, but then made an attempt to show that they'd actually considered that all students be given a fair learning environment.

  4. This isn't as dumb as it sounds. Even in a freshman chemistry lecture, it can be an issue. The question could be rephrased, "How do you interact with students that avoids focusing on just one culture or one demographic group?"

    For instance, I break up my otherwise boring lectures with random questions that I ask my class. Here are some questions that ignore groups of my students:

    What's everybody's favorite food for Thanksgiving?

    I'm thinking of buying Modern Warfare 3. Has anybody played that yet?

    What's the funniest bacon-themed food you've ever tried? (e.g. bacon-flavored ice cream) [BTW, the answer is this.]

    None are offensive but they don't take into account that a quarter of my students are from the middle east, a third are women (who are much less likely to play MW3), etc.

    In the end, I care about this not for diversity's sake but because what I do is a presentation. I want to reach my audience, that's all.

    As an example of how to do it right for Dr. N, I could provide examples of how chemistry is used in various cultures and countries (oil production in the middle east, paint pigments used in European art, mentioning scientific contributions of women, etc.

  5. Yeesh. I've just tried to think how I would answer that question myself. I'm good on gender, reasonably good on showing the differences between the assumptions of the culture we live in and the one we're studying. My community is so whitebread race doesn't come up much. I think your best bet might be to do just that - think how you'd answer the question yourself, and then base your judgment of the candidate's answer on how hard you found it yourself. And the more concrete the better, though I'd also give points for slickness to anyone who managed to come out with Archie's PC answer.

  6. I'm horrified to say that I watched a committee drop a version of this question when they interviewed a candidate of color. When I asked them why (after the interview) I was told "well obviously they're sensitive to diversity issues." Way to essentialize / tokenize (is that word?) your candidate, people.

  7. @Beaker Ben, how about simply not asking chemistry/physics/math/biology/you-name-it unrelated questions?

  8. Richard, if you truly are a middle-aged white guy, I would find you asking that question on a skype interview pretty ironic.

    It's hard to answer that question. I guess what I'd be looking for are signs that the job candidate is put off by the question itself, or is defensive. I don't think the answer really matters as much as the attitude towards the question.

    As for me, I'd basically say "I promote diversity by educating a highly diverse group of students".

    I find it especially funny as well that often this question is asked by a bunch of white people to a bunch of other white people, who are trying to hire a professor to teach yet another a bunch of (mostly) white people.

    Hypothetical diversity is like hypothetical Marxism. You're not a Marxist if you're rich. You don't promote diversity unless you actually deal on a regular basis with a diverse population. And promote diversity not by talking about it but by practicing it.

  9. Plasmon,

    The questions are for student enjoyment. A two minute break every 20 minutes helps to keep their minds focused. Who am I kidding? It wakes them up.

  10. After being on the interviewed end of several committees whose questions were read off a carefully scripted list, I can say that this is actually not a bad way to ensure that all candidates answer the same questions (assuming that is one of your goals).

    As for what you should be looking for, you should look for a specific example or policy that the candidate shares that makes some effort towards cultural or racial diversity. It will mean that they are aware that this is something to be concerned about and are trying.

    Bad answers are general, dismissive, or defensive.

  11. Ben,

    I don't want to sound like a troll or an idiot. After all, I am just a 99.9% college_misery reader [non-native English speaker as well]. But to wake my kids up during regular boring physics 101 lecture I may show a few demonstrations [blow things up usually does the trick], sometimes one can show funny physics related videos like the one with Jim Carrey

  12. The odd thing is that after more than a decade teaching general education courses at an institution with an extremely diverse student body, I still can't think of a really good answer to this question, other than to point out that, once you get to or close to the point where there's no clear majority group, the issue sort of takes care of itself as long as you're paying a bit of attention to who your students are (in ways similar to what Beaker points out above), and treating them all with respect, and as individuals.

    I guess my answer would be something along the lines of being aware of cultural differences, and also not making any assumptions based on name, phenotype, gender, or anything else about students' interests, preferences, etc. (because all students *are* individuals, and also cross-cultural marriage and adoption, divorce and remarriage, etc., etc. have a way of producing some unexpected combinations of name, phenotype, and cultural experience).

    The very small, concrete example I would give is that when naming authors of hypothetical scholarly articles, I throw in Rodriguez, Lee, and Nguyen along with Smith and Jones (and I could probably use an African and a Southeast Asian option in there, too; suggestions welcome).

    Whether those are good answers or not, I'm not sure. Frankly, I think it's always going to be tricky on a campus where there is a clear majority, and less so when the student population is more mixed, and that professors can do only so much to change that.

    The one thing I would never say in an interview, but I do believe to be true, having witnessed the effects of well-intentioned efforts at diversity at one moderately-selective, historically-white institution in my adjunct days: for goodness' sake don't admit members of any group which is historically underrepresented at your institution who are, on average, less prepared than the admittee pool as a whole, just to pump up your "diversity" numbers. That works out badly for all concerned. I rarely say that anywhere, for fear of sounding like Dinesh D'Souza (except that I don't think it happens much if at all at more selective schools, at least the ones I attended or taught at). But having spent a few semesters teaching at an otherwise very good school where the handful of students of color in any one class were predictably also the ones who were visibly -- to me and to their peers -- struggling, I think it needs saying somewhere (and, had I any choice, I might actually be leery of any institution that was asking the diversity question for exactly that reason).

  13. I was fortunate to teach in a couple of schools where the majority of our students were "minorities" (though that standard comes into question when flipped). That gave me many specific instances to call upon to describe how I deal with such situations while on the job market (and the question did come up). On the other hand, does this really make me a better teacher than people who haven't been in that atmosphere?

  14. I've always fucking hated the one-question-per-committee-member mandate. Just have the chair ask all the fucking questions.

  15. You know, I think I'd side step the question's obvious measurements of race/gender/age/religion etc and talk about how important it is for me to reach every student in my classroom, and so by design I switch up my teaching approaches in order to facilitate different learning forms. Add that to a determination never to adopt assuming pronouns in class ("we" etc), I have a pretty good track record of promoting participation from a diverse line of students.

    Also, I'm aware of my surroundings. Those examples of Ben's are very good ones; unaware people often use gendered language or references to complex cultural/religious traditions under the assumption that everyone in the room "gets it" and has a lifelong understanding of, say, the Trinity in Christianity. That's a terrible assumption to make and hampers the education of your students.


  16. Well, I teach English, and I have only served on search committees within my discipline or in a foreign language, where the answer to this question is obvious. but for, say, a chemistry class? I like Ben's answer about giving examples of how chemistry is used in different contexts. If I were teaching chem or any science at my college (one where whites are the clear minority) I'd try to incorporate minorities into my examples, into the times where I talk about situations where this concept might be used, might be tested or relied on---and to give them research articles by people of different cultures. It is good for the students to see that people of all cultures both excel at and use hard science.

    I have served on a few search committees---I like to do it. I am serving on another one this Spring. We also have to read preset questions----to make it fair to all candidates. And we have to just assign the questions randomly---they even have a procedure for that so that we can't pick which questions will be asked by whom. I admit that I find it annoying and a complete turn off when people just refuse to answer a question or to do something. It is better to give it a shot. We had one guy at the last search who refused to "teach" to us----telling us it was just plain dumb for him to try to pretend that we were students when we were not students, and he refused to go into "teacher mode," instead just explaining to us, colleague to colleagues, what he did in a classroom. How could we possibly compare his teaching techniques to the others when he refused to do it? If you refuse a question, you are only going to compare badly to those who don't. We did not even consider him and were a little annoyed with ourselves we gave him the opportunity to even come.

  17. How does asking the same set of questions make it "more fair"? I've just read a round of applications for a job, and at the top of the list, I've got quite different questions for the different applicants: (a) talked about research but not teaching, (b) talked about teaching but not research, etc, etc. Shouldn't I be 'fair' by giving each candidate the best opportunity to address shortcomings in the package?

  18. DrNathaniel, what you write makes a lot of sense. But we are not necessarily making sense here with the rules we have to follow. I think the rationale behind it is that if everyone has the exact same materials to respond to, they all knew what they should be sending. And if everyone gets exactly the same questions, there can be no allegation of favoritism with either someone getting an easier question, or someone getting to fill in blanks of his resume in one area while another person did not get that chance in another area. What if someone feels that if only you had asked him _____ he would have been able to explain why he did not include _____, but you did not. And then finds out that you allowed the next applicant to fill in the blanks in her packet. They might claim favoritism and sue! The whole thing at my place of employment is extremely bureaucratic and they are just trying to avoid lawsuits.

    We are also not allowed to look at any extra materials candidates might send. Such materials are never even sent to us. That would not be fair, according to the HR powers that be, since everyone was not told they could/should send that extra stuff (like say....letters of rec----we don't ask for them for the committee---only after we have chosen the final candidates for presidential interviewing does my institution get the letters of rec---so if a candidate sends them (the letters) along for the committee---or anything else-----we will never see it. IT is all strictly uniform.


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