Karen Kelsky

academic career coach at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Making Sense of the Diversity Statement


This year, all of a sudden, every application is asking for some kind of diversity statement. What do I do?

The diversity statement is quickly emerging as the fifth required document of the typical job application, along with the CV, cover letter, teaching statement, and research statement. And because it’s of such recent origin, nobody has the foggiest idea what it’s supposed to do (including, I suspect, the requesting search committees themselves).

That includes me. I have over the years established quite dogmatic ideas about what each of the four basic job documents should do and how they should do it. But the diversity statement? That’s a tricky one.

But advice is needed. I’m asked about the diversity statement at least once a week at this point. So based on some informal polling I’ve done among my clientele and crowdsourcing on the Professor Is In Facebook page and Twitter feed, I’ve compiled these thoughts.

The first thing to realize is that a diversity statement can take several different angles. It can address how you deal with a diverse range of students in the classroom. It can address how you incorporate diversity into your teaching materials and methods. It can also address how your personal background has equipped you to deal with diversity among your students. Beyond teaching, it can discuss how you administratively support diversity among staff and faculty. And it can consider how you address diversity in your own research and writing.

So this is a lot of angles to choose from, and you don’t have to choose just one. You can combine several.

Taking my own case as an example, from back in the day when I was an assistant professor, I might have constructed a diversity statement around a few central ideas.

Doing my Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii was for me, a suburban haole girl from Pittsburgh, a trial by fire in American race politics. During my time in graduate school the Hawaiian sovereignty movement took off, and I became acutely aware of the charged history of white presence on the islands. The anthropology department was deeply (although mostly unwillingly) implicated in this politics, and by the time I finished my Ph.D., I had been well-schooled in the mutual enmeshment of anthropology as a discipline and the history and epistemologies of colonialism. My teaching and research could not remain unaffected by this understanding.

The classroom teaching experience I gained in Hawaii taught me the challenges and opportunities of managing a multiethnic classroom. Speaking in broad generalizations, I had to learn how to keep the white students from dominating all classroom discussion. And I had to learn techniques to encourage the Asian and local students (who often come from cultural backgrounds that encourage a quiet deference to authority) to speak up. And I had to learn how to create space for Native Hawaiian students to express their often tentative but critical perspectives.

None of these things happened without conscious effort; I had to critically examine what I was teaching. Did the content of the course thoughtlessly reproduce the standard white and Western model of legitimate knowledge? Or did it include a variety of voices from different subject positions of race, ethnicity, gender, and genre? Did my teaching methods squelch challenges to my authority, or did I have means to open up a space for critiques and questions?

Later, after beginning my career as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, I had the opportunity to work with Native American graduate students from local tribes. I learned these lessons again, but in a new historical and political context. How did the presence, and the critiques, of Native American students change the way I taught anthropology? Did my own anthropology? Trained students to work in the academy, and on behalf of their own tribes? This caused me to question: What was the responsibility of anthropology—and the academy as a whole—to the wider community in which it’s located?

I don’t offer these thoughts as a diversity statement model. If I were to write my own diversity statement, all of these questions would be replaced by declarative statements explaining exactly how my teaching, research, and mentoring changed as a result of these experiences.

I offer them instead as a set of prompts. You all have your own histories—your own places and families of origin, your inspirations, your trials by fire. As a white, suburban, straight (at the time) young woman, I didn’t offer much diversity to institutions in terms of my own subject position within cultural anthropology (where white straight women are a dime a dozen, so to speak). But I had experienced a lot of diversity in my training and life experiences, and the way I did my work changed because of it.

If I wrote a diversity statement now, I would also weave my queer identity into it. How do I teach in non-heteronormative ways? How do I empower queer students to feel safe to speak in the classroom? How does my scholarship and my professional life reflect a commitment to queer visibility, including working with queer professional associations in my disciplinary units?

And by the end of my career, as a tenured faculty member, I would include mentoring and supporting a range of junior faculty, and promoting—financially and administratively—initiatives on campus that promote diversity in a variety of forms.

A reader asked me how to answer the question “without offending anyone.” I’m not really sure what that means. Your experiences are your experiences. Your commitments are your commitments. Diversity is diversity. Explaining how you work with different kinds of people is not inherently offensive. It is actually a valuable exercise, although in the context of an already overburdened and unreasonable and emotionally fraught job search process, I’m sure it doesn’t feel that way.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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  • I'm happy this particular flavor of twaddle has not infested the sciences yet. I'm pessimistic because at some point it probably will.

    So let's get to work: "Derrida showed the Second Law of Thermodynamics to be a heteronormative patriarchal statement of white male privilege, and so it my personal mission to replace the monolithic, colonialist concept of entropy with a more diverse derivative of the partition function, that incorporates non-white, female,queer, trans- and non-ableist perspectives."

    Well, it's a start.

    Gerard Harbison Gerard Harbison
  • Having lived overseas for some years, having taught and advised diverse populations for 30 years, I appreciate the underlying thrust of this piece. However, it masks a very real flaw, perhaps revealed more by the vocabulary in it than the concepts.

    The implication here is that white straight students of any gender do not have cualtures, only those students we ID as 'diverse' do. How can an instructor with that attitude reach those students when the implication clearly demonizes them as non-cultural? INSTEAD, we need to push the reality that we construct our realities. "It is not the event, it is the meaning of the event," a meaning that comes through interaction (ala the Symbolic Interactionists or the old myth/symbol school of meaning) Joan Dideon put it: We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Until we can show/teach/lead students to see that their realities are indeed constructs, the language in this piece can only lead to the kind of response that Gerald Harbison has made.

    Theron Snell Theron Snell
  • Gerald Harbison--making a straw man argument and derailing via reductio ad absurdum--classic white dude tactic. Enjoy your privilege, bro!

    che cademic che cademic
  • 'Gerald' is a normative spelling; where I come from, 'Gerard' indicates one is a member of a particular minority population. So twice in this comments section, I have been oppressed by people who don't even recognize their own privilege, and are implicitly denying my right to have my name spelled correctly.

    Oh, the humanity.

    Gerard Harbison Gerard Harbison
  • Gerard, I didn't realize you were a troll. Sad to have inadvertently fed one. Mea culpa.

    che cademic che cademic
  • Knowing that each contributor has to write to connect with the majority of their target audience, was the only reason I read the beyond the title. Personally, living the true meaning of diversity daily is my advantage over practitioners and academic staff that are mot connected to diversity due to options and privilege. (Being transparent, I was offended by the title"Making Sense" seems like mocking or belittling this diversity "thing".)

    Vocabulary and wording are key, and should be direct. "Dealing with diversity" is never idea, it takes some of the humanization out of the word--and diversity becomes something of lesser importance. I do agree that a person should write to their experiences, but do be careful of your wording.
    Overall your wording steers your thoughts, your thoughts move into actions, and your actions are your character--how do you truly feel about diversity?

    Jennifer Ball-Sharpe Jennifer Ball-Sharpe
  • Seems like an underhanded way of extracting information about a person's race, sexual orientation, etc. If I straight out asked those questions in a phone interview my college could be sued. I guess a candidate could do an Elizabeth Warren and talk about their native American heritage (1/64 though it be and only based on unverifiable hearsay) and how it connects them with the disadvantaged and marginalized. Also most academics are a little cognitively different. A story about unspecified (Asperger's?) cognitive challenges growing up... It's an invitation to fraud basically.

    Fitz Carraldo Fitz Carraldo
  • When I first saw the request for a diversity statement, I assumed it originated from the other statements indicating that the particular institution involved did not discriminate in its hiring practices. In other words, I assumed it was a requirement geared towards assuring that any federal funding to the institution was secured. In the past, I've had to work almost undercover to assure that students of a diverse background (and this even included white ROTC students who were discriminated against by administration) were given the same fair chance as those of the status quo. Why? Because I'm identifiably a black female. So, there have been situations in which students of diversity did get great grades or were recommended for honors for legitimate reasons. And yet, because I, myself, am a minority, I was forced to justify these honors to a level that my Caucasian colleagues never had to. Another example. I've been told by students and parents that because I've talked about my struggles growing up in the projects and how I went on to work for Star Trek Voyager and create an alien race, that I'm a role model for students of diversity (and again I include caucasian ROTC students). But, chairs I've worked for who don't understand the need for role models of color then complain that I talk too much about myself. When I created the J-Student White House Invitational for some HBCU students (and HBCUs now include an ever growing number of caucasians and latinos), even the minority students who didn't get to attend said they felt a sense of pride and hope because no one prior to that event (or since) felt they were important enough to go to the White House. And even at the last minute, there were forces who tried to replace me with a caucasian professor. What I hope these examples illustrate is that I don't believe that any professor should be judged on his or her diversity efforts because the ability to make change or even attempt to make change without jeopardizing one's job is determined by chairs and admin, not the individual instructor, lecturer or professor. Sometimes the opposite takes place. I was an ABC student who, due to my high test scores, was selected to attend a private school in Massachusetts. In that case, the administration believed in and supported diversity. But, many of us can recount situation upon situation in which certain faculty members attempted to kill the dreams and professional goals of students. And because we were only teenagers, some of us did not even figure it out until years later. (Sorry for the dense paragraphs. I did not know what would happen if I hit the paragraph key.) And ditto on Theron Snell's and Jennifer Sharpe's comments.

    Skye Dent Skye Dent
  • Our college insists that diversity issues be addressed directly to the candidates in the interview process. As we tend to hire from the business, rather than the academic community we get some great answers. Best one ever: the winning candidate told us about a literacy campaign he developed and the time he spent working with literacy programs to better market their efforts. He made us aware of the true outsider circumstance of the functionally illiterate (regardless of race etc.) and expanded the meaning of diversity for all present.

    c gargan c gargan
  • @Jennifer: I'm late to catching your comment, but I wanted to point that "Making Sense of the Diversity Statement" is in no way an attempt to belittle the idea of diversity. Instead it's meant to reflect that the diversity statement—i.e. the specific document required in many job dossiers—is causing confusion among job applicants. Thanks for your feedback.

    Brock Read Brock Read
  • I am an Australian of indeterminate origin. Would I contribute to diversity? No american university would think I would.
    When I was a post-doc in the US many years ago I was given a form where I was asked to state my racial/ethnic origin. Since I did not fit any of the boxes under "Other" I honestly put my racial/ethnic origin as "Australian". In both universities where I worked that was crossed out and I became an "Asian/Pacific Islander" and therefore "Minority Faculty". I was impressed to learn that. No-one ever came around to give me an apartheid-style racial determination test. I loved getting the racial/ethnic oppression forms to fill out.
    What am I? I simply do not know and I do not have the slightest intention of finding out, in any case how could I because there is no such information on birth records in Australia. It is possible I have some Australian aboriginal ancestry; the other possibility is that I have native american ancestry because I am a decendant of american loyalists who were thrown out of america after 1783. I am a monarchist as a matter of principle.
    Diversity - over 2/3 of the co-athors of my publications are female, I have published papers with holders of all major world religions and for decades I have usually been the only native english speaker in the labs where I have worked. I have a permanent position in a Thai university. In a certain country (not Australia or USA) I have twice been told that I was the best candidate who applied but I was unappointable because my perceived race and sex was wrong.
    What a lovely world. The proper response to diversity questions is to tell them to get stuffed. Unfortunately people today are far too willing to let themselves be classifed.

    Raymond Ritchie Raymond Ritchie