Monday, December 11, 2006

Respect Mah Diversitah!

One of my favorite people from my grad school days sent me a heads-up about the T.H. Benton piece in the Chronicle about diversity. It's an annoying piece, encapsulating much of the whininess that sends us more thoughtful white guys away from the topic altogether. (Bitch, Ph.D. Asked a while back why there isn't more thoughtful male-authored sex writing. While my style doesn't really lend itself -- “boinking ensued” doesn't quite cut it – I'd venture a guess that the reason is similar. The dominant discourses – conservatism and porn, respectively – are so entrenched that it's hard not to either replicate them or spend all your time differentiating yourself from them, which just comes off as narcissistic and, well, whiny.)

I did a piece on diversity back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears blogger, which at least wasn't as whiny as Benton's. I wouldn't write it that way now, but there it is.

Benton makes some valid points: yes, the costs of diversity initiatives are often borne by people other than those pushing for them. Yes, some very privileged sorts use 'race, class, and gender' to avoid actual thought, and yes, sometimes the theoretical moves are stale and predictable. It's even true that race is not a simple proxy for class, and that chambers of commerce issue routine calls for greater diversity in the business community. (Although I've never, not once, heard one “talking about changing the paradigm of white hegemonic domination.” Has Benton ever been to a chamber of commerce meeting? I've been to lots, and they don't talk that way. They talk about 'inclusion,' and 'changing demographics,' and 'reflecting the community.' 'Hegemonic domination,' not so much.)

I'll take it farther. I'm a little creeped out by the concept of a “diversity officer,” and I have been on job interviews on which I've been asked about my “commitment to diversity.” The former strikes me as self-evident refutation of diversity as oppositional, and the latter as a loyalty oath. Not a big fan of loyalty oaths, even if I'm already loyal. My loyalty is by choice, thank you very much.

All of that said, I'd hate to see us lose sight of the real benefits of diversity.

Proprietary U, for all of its flaws, achieved a real diversity in its faculty and administration almost entirely without even trying. In my deaning days there, I don't think there were any two managers there of the same religion. The faculty was tremendously diverse (except for an unusually high concentration of Unitarians, for whatever reason), whether you looked at race, gender, age, politics, style of dress, teaching philosophy, or just personality.

Looking back, I think the critical variable there was turnover. The place did a great deal of hiring in the late 1990's, so the new hires tended to reflect the folks on the market at that time. People also left or got fired fairly frequently. The net result of all that turnover was that no one group was able to entrench itself for very long. Since you couldn't take for granted that everybody shared the same cultural background, work conversations, more often than not, were actually about work.

I suspect that one of the reasons that hiring for diversity in traditional higher ed is as contentious as it is is that the turnover rate is so low. When there isn't much hiring generally, every hire 'earmarked' for a diversity line is a line lost to someone else. Worse, when new hires happen once a decade or more in a given department, it's nearly impossible for the newbies to effect meaningful change in the departments. That's a real loss. When a newbie is appended to a department that has been together for decades, most commonly one of two things happens: either the newbie doesn't 'fit' and gets flak for it, or the newbie learns to keep her head down. Neither is good.

In my stint guest-blogging for Bitch a while back, I did a post called “Spot the Glass Ceiling” in which I simply listed my work hours for the previous two weeks. A disturbing number of commenters missed the point completely, and some actually took me to task for using words in unusual ways. (Heaven forbid we should try to say something new!) The point was to show that something ostensibly neutral – work hours – can reflect expectations about the life situation of the employee. A single parent could not do this job. This job is not unique that way. Therefore, over time, we should expect this job and jobs like it to be filled be certain kinds of people and not others. It will look like self-selection, and there will be some truth in that. But the self-selection will reflect jobs constructed on the assumption that the worker has a wife to watch the kids.

A really productive approach to diversity, I'd hope, would take as a starting point the idea that we shouldn't just find different-colored pegs for pre-existing holes; we should re-shape the holes. Jobs are becoming more time- and effort- consuming. The theory, back in the day, was that they'd have to become less so as more women entered the workforce. Jobs used to be built on the 'primary breadwinner' model. Now they're built on the 'isolated monad' model. There's a sense in which this is progress, but there's a very real sense in which it's madness. If diversified hiring pushes us to reshape jobs to fit actual human beings, that would be a contribution worth any amount of annoying literary criticism.

Diversity is best when it happens without a diversity officer making it happen. That requires both a consistent stream of opportunities, and jobs shaped around the realities of how people actually live. Most of higher ed now features neither. I suspect that if we take care of those, over time, we'll be able to have some much less whiny conversations about the problems that remain.