Nicole Matos

Community College Career Coach at www.communitycollegecareercoach.com

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Don’t Dodge the Diversity Question!

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In interviewing part-time and full-time faculty candidates at my community college, I’ve found that the question applicants are most likely to answer ineffectively is the so-called diversity question—you know, the one that goes something like, “Describe your experiences with diversity in and/or outside the classroom.”

Nobody denies the relevance of this question: After all, as the American Association of Community Colleges reports, community colleges now educate about half of all black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American undergrads; seven percent of community-college students are not U.S. citizens; and 12 percent identify as students with one or more disabilities. But there is something about the diversity question—an awareness, I guess, of its hot-button potential—that leads even the most confident candidates to stumble.

If I had a nickel for every time a candidate answered the question with a sort of “folks is folks” default—”Well, I just try to treat everyone the same…”—or reached immediately for age differentiation as the safest possible example of diversity, I’d be doing quite well, thanks. But rather than leave it at that, I thought I might suggest alternatives based on my experience as a tenured community-college faculty member and administrator. Whether you agree with my precepts or not, think carefully about potential answers to the diversity question! Doing so can give proactive candidates an edge over those who hesitate or shy away.

Please explicitly discuss race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, and/or disability as aspects of diversity. This point might seem self-evident, but I have seen candidates discuss much more tangential taxonomies of diversity (“gamers” vs. “non-gamers,” or students from one high school vs. another), seemingly to avoid acknowledging more culturally potent forms of difference. If you are worried about using the exact right form of language—should you say “Latino” or “Hispanic”? “LGBT” or “LGBTQIA”?— it might be useful to read up on the critical discussions surrounding these terms. But I’d be much more concerned about someone who fails to address the relevant issues at all than someone who makes a small terminological misstep.

Demonstrate an awareness of difference within commonly-accepted categories of diversity. I would be impressed by a candidate who offered an awareness of the tensions and textures within identity groups—who made it a point to remind us that blackness, so to speak, is not monolithic. Describe for me the essay a deaf student wrote about changes in her identity after receiving a cochlear implant. Or discuss both the friction and fellowship you’ve observed between African and Caribbean students of different nations. Basically, look beyond the homogeneity of the most basic labels, and you’ll have me sold.

Go easy on the “stranger in a strange land” equivalencies. Be mindful of the difference between institutionalized discrimination and simply being an outsider. Your experience as a foreign exchange student, for example, may not be totally irrelevant. But it is not the same as living ingrained sociopolitical and economic oppression. Best that you acknowledge the distinction.

Never assume your expertise with diversity issues should go without saying. More than one candidate has startled me by claiming, “I am diversity”—a statement that brings to mind Brahma, god of many heads. Those candidates might actually have had a wealth of really relevant experience, but they neglected to produce focused stories to support their somewhat grandiose claims. A rich personal background can definitely make for great reflection, but interviewers need access to that reflection, not just the “badge” of minority status itself.

Discuss privilege. It is OK, and in many cases welcome and refreshing, to have a candidate admit to a level of privilege. Like it or not, your very qualifications as an applicant for professorship speak to a level of advantage that your community-college students will not yet (and may never) share. In what ways were you lucky? What currents influenced that luck? For what reasons are you grateful? And—perhaps most important—how might you help level the playing field for those less lucky?

Admit to uncertainty and ambiguity. You were unsure how to react when several Hmong students announced teenage marriages. You struggled to maintain a fair attendance policy while recognizing that your farmworker students were tied to the harvesting weather. You had to broker a difficult classroom discussion between a strident atheist and an equally strident Christian fundamentalist. Your honesty and willingness to critically self-reflect on incidents like these are worth more to me than false assurance that you definitely got these moments “right.”

But also discuss the very real positive side of classroom diversity—don’t only treat it as a “problem” to be “solved.” Consider Angela Davis’s “anchor and rope” metaphor from Fires in the Mirror: “I feel very anchored in my own various communities … but I think that the rope attached to that anchor needs to be long enough to move into other communities, to understand and learn.” What pedagogies, strategies, or approaches do you use to help students take ownership and pride in their “anchors,” but also extend the reach of their “ropes”? What successes have you had in allowing and even encouraging students to express their distinctiveness? What positive growth have you yourself been gifted with through experience with a wide range of students?

Finally, and in general: Offer specifics and stakes. Vague, mushy diversity-question responses are often partly the fault of the vague, mushy way the question is asked. Interviewers would better serve their candidates—and ultimately themselves—by posing a series of case-studies or situational prompts. What might you do, for example, if a Muslim student challenged your use of a particular reading on 9/11? How might you handle a white student who claims, “I just don’t have a cultural identity”?

What if you noticed self-segregation in your classroom seating? What if a student asked to be called by a non-gender-conforming name? Even if your interviewers don’t take this direction, you as a candidate should remember that you can—and should—steer into territories that make the diversity question worth the asking and answering.

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