Nicole Matos

Associate Professor of English at College of DuPage

With Support From

Don’t Dodge the Diversity Question!

Full 07162014 pressconference

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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  • I'll put my business hat on...simply put. If over 50% of your "customers" fall in one of these groups, the diversity questioning is not only right, it deserves extensive answers.

    Daryl Hodnett
    Daryl Hodnett
  • Nice discussion, Nicole. I like how you bring it back to the interviewer, too. I have been told before that I had to ask a diversity question, and some committees do treat it as a token question. Your essay asks that both sides of the table think about the question seriously.

    Kim Martin Long
    Kim Martin Long
  • I deny the relevance of the question. Actually, I deny the meaningfulness of the question. When I teach science, the race/ ethnic background of the student is irrelevant. Furthermore, I doubt any science department would ask stupid question, or base a hire on the answer.

    So please take out the categorical 'nobody'.

    Gerard Harbison
    Gerard Harbison
  • The first problem with “the question applicants are most likely to answer ineffectively”: There is no question. “Describe your experiences with diversity in and/or outside the classroom” is not a question, which in English ends with a question mark.

    Second, the “question” is extremely ambiguous, as is any text with “and/or.” Which is the correct response for the job candidate: To address experiences and diversity inside the classroom, outside the classroom, or inside and outside the classroom?

    Third is the ambiguity of the word diversity. What is it interviewers intend to address? Race? Ethnicity? Disabilities? I doubt that interviewers share a common meaning when addressing diversity.

    Interviews at College of DuPage want “right answers.” Ambiguity, however, conceals intention. To evoke the responses sought, don't dodge asking a clear question.

    Hugh Glenn
    Hugh Glenn
  • I am willing to concede that the interview question on diversity might be irrelevant, but the *issue* of diversity is very important in academe. With all due respect to the science professor, the diversity of one's classroom is meaningful, subject matter notwithstanding. Remember that "diversity" is not solely associated with race, sex, belief, or socioeconomic class. I have taught students from identical "groups" that still have diverse learning styles, viewpoints, and learning needs based on visible and non-visible disabilities. These latter "diversities" are extremely relevant for any teacher who hopes to connect the student with the material...even "objective" material such as the hard sciences. In this regard, the issue of how a would-be faculty member deals with difference in his/her classroom is extremely important. Whether that can ever be apparent from an interview question is, admittedly, another issue.

    J. T. Manhire
    J. T. Manhire
  • What a wonderful world Prof. Harbison must live in, where the race of his students is "irrelevant." A world without stereotype threat, without racial tensions, a world where students of color feel just as comfortable in college chemistry classes as white men do! Oddly enough, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, seems, through its offices and policies, to think that this world doesn't actually extend to the rest of the campus, but I'm sure, just sure! that Prof. Harbison's classes are a very special case.

    I think if Prof. Harbison's Department, the Department of Chemistry in their College of Arts and Sciences, really and truly doesn't ask such "stupid questions" in their interviews of candidates, or care about the answers, then perhaps, just perhaps, UNL's "Office of Equity, Access, and Diversity," might, just might mind you, want to have a little chat with them, the next time they are submitting all their paperwork to that office in order to get approval to start their search. Just a thought!

    Jonathan Kaplan
    Jonathan Kaplan
  • Seems pretty treacherous territory to me. How do you avoid the suggestion that you are pressuring the candidate to discuss their own race/gender/marital status...

    Paul Johnson
    Paul Johnson
  • I think what anyone needs to be aware of in a situation where the diversity question is asked is that the questioner is almost certainly looking for evidence of a specific ideology. In this case I guess it is prudent for the job seeker to have done some research beforehand. I think it is also prudent for any job seeker to realize this question is likely being asked as a way of vetting candidates for the university's diversity profile rather than their ability to be sensitive to any classroom issues.

    Ben Quick
    Ben Quick
  • Ah yes..."diversity", that contemporary, ubiquitous and every-present buzz-word and dog-whistle that can tell us so much about so little yet inexplicably demanded by so many.

    I am old enough to remember when I first heard the word. I was about 7 years old laying down on the grimy linoleum-covered living room floor of our Manhattan public project apartment, watching my idol Jacques Cousteau (sp?), the French underwater marine biologist on TV, as he gently waved his hands at the beautifully-colored (in black and white, of course) and exotic submarine creatures that most of us would never see above the water, ever.

    Jacques would gush in his very thick French accent peppered by the incessant bubbles in the background that competed for our attention as he so honestly expressed his respect and passion for the beautiful and graceful creatures who allowed him to pet them gently as they swam by him in the turquoise waters. May you rest in peace Jacques.

    But all of that elegant metaphorical reference for the word ended when I began to hear it over and over again on campuses which in time grew to use it interchangeably with it's bat-sh*t crazy sibling "multi-cultural", often accompanied by not-so-oblique references to their politically-prostituted cousins "tolerance" and "inclusion".

    Today, the word conjures up all sorts of kaleidoscopic and confused knee-jerk faux-political litmus tests to be imposed by the slithering campus gargoyles-come-to-life of all things "diversity" to dupe candidates into telling her/his innermost secret feelings about the "D" word.

    First of all, I would NEVER ask any candidate for any position about what they feel, think or do about "diversity". Nor would I bait them into any loaded and lop-side faux-discussions about what "diversity means to you" or "how has 'diversity' touched your life".

    Unless they are interviewing for the position of "Home-coming Queen/King/Hermophrodyte of Diversity", any such inquisition would say more about the inquistors-de-jour and their penchant for politically-over-corrected knuckle-dragging political postures than of the hapless candidate in the political head-lights fixed on them as they sit there vulnerable in front of the campus gate-keepers who have as their misguided agenda of "social justice" (yet another dog-whistle queue of the bobble-head "diversity" goons) as their guiding light.

    My sympathies to anyone who thinks that somehow as "insiders" complacent and deluded, they have the right to impose their fallacious personal and political (never mind "professional") agendas on any candidate at any time.

    Alas, your games are now legion and laughable and your "diversity" charades will show you for the provincial, faux-sophisticated fops that you have become...grasping for relevance while you hang by the torn thread of your arrogance.

    "No thanks", I've served in your ranks long enough to know how rank wafts the stench of your gatherings and diversity soirees and witch-hunts.

    Try working outside of the US for the knowledge of what REAL relevance, respect and true "diversity" looks like.

    In the US, it is just a minstrel show with way too many clowns and cowards in the wings waiting for their own sad 15 nano-seconds of self-importance.

    And let me know if you would like me to say this in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Basque, Arabic or Yiddish. I'm working on Italian right now, but I can oblige in the other languages and of course I have some facility with English too.

    Dios mio que barbarides se leen aqui.

    Benno G. Medina-Fletcher
    Benno G. Medina-Fletcher
  • Nicole, thanks for this helpful entry—I'm going to share it widely.

    Dan Royles
    Dan Royles
  • Since you are a white woman I understand you have no idea what prejudice a white man must face.  Most government controlled institutions Universities, community college, police departments, are run by women or blacks(that is the requiremtnet to get the job).  Lets face the facts I want to interview for a job I have no chance of getting, because I am not black or a woman, yet I am supposed to grovel in front of them and say how I understand everything was given to me becasue I am a white man?  Whne in fact it is given to them and exclusivley denied to me! Do you really believe the nonsense you are spouting?

    Andrew schlegel
    Andrew schlegel