Thursday, September 27, 2007

One Way to Diversify Academe

Many of us who teach for a living have sat on hiring committees; moreover, the vast majority of those hiring committees were--and will continue to be in the near future--staffed primarily by whites and not people of color. In English departments and creative writing programs, the overwhelming majority of hiring committees are not diverse in the most basic definition of that term: racial diversity. Of course, some of us have witnessed colleagues who've tried to redefine diversity to rationalize the makeup of such committees: "Well, we do have two women on this committee," or "I'm from Poland, and Bill is gay."

And the results from these countless hiring procedures are often the same: No persons of color are hired.

Some might argue that the candidate pools aren't diverse enough, but this argument appears to be an invalid one: the number of people of color who apply for academic positions indeed increases each year.

Others suggest that the "best qualified" candidates just happen to be whites, though this too has one major flaw: Why did many of us, regardless of race, have to study with mediocre white professors at the community college, state college, university, and post-graduate levels?

This isn't to say that some of us didn't have some excellent professors. For example, I was fortunate to study with Philip Levine (he's in a class by himself--he was my one great teacher, and I know that greatness is a rarity in any discipline). Additionally, I studied with some exemplary English professors: Peter Everwine, Eugene Zumwalt, John McDermott, and Andrew Simmons at California State University at Fresno; Michael Ryan, James McMichael, T.R. Hummer, Renee Hubert, Myron Simon, and John Hollowell at the University of California at Irvine; Kenneth Fields and W.S. DiPiero at Stanford University. (I also had the pleasure of informally auditing courses taught by Marjorie Perloff and the late Gilbert Sorrentino at "the farm," in addition to studying with visiting professors Derek Walcott, the late Thom Gunn, and the late Joseph Brodsky.)

But, like many others, I also had to put up with far too many mediocre professors (approximately 75% of my former professors fit that description I'm sorry to say). For example, one of my former professors in American literature would have been happy lecturing to a brick wall--the students were that inconsequential (he could have easily been on videotape, for the students had no reason to be in the classroom with him or with each other). Another professor of 17th century poetry never uttered one syllable of verse during the entire quarter (his love for his own exegesis didn't require him to recite one line from Donne, Jonson, or Vaughan); to this day I suspect he doesn't like to read poetry even in silence. I could go on and on.

My mediocre professors had one thing in common: They were all white. Moreover, they were likely screened and interviewed by all-white committees and forwarded to and hired by nearly all-white English departments. (I'm not arguing that professors of color can't be mediocre too;
if anything, more diversity within the teaching ranks will prove that no one group has a lock on mediocrity nor on excellence.)

Furthermore, far too many mediocre English professors, past and present, live fairly segregated personal lives. Think, dear reader, of the people with whom you regularly dine, the people you'll query when you want to view a film, the people you cajole to join you on a seven-day cruise through the Carribbean or help you withstand a twelve-hour flight to the promised land of a ten-day stay on the Yucatan peninsula. Think of the voluntary relationships you foster and cultivate even when you live hundreds or thousands of miles from each other: Are any of them friendships with people of color if you're white?

In contrast, are most of your contacts with people of color forced because of employment or other involuntary circumstances? For example, most professors are forced to interact with students of color (which makes me wonder if some whites who enjoy online instruction do so to avoid such in-person contact).

Are your contacts with people of color forced because they're your neighbors? Do they attend the same church or local political club?

How open are we to voluntary differences, not forced differences, in our personal lives? If we answer this question truthfully, we can probably put a finger on the reason for the lack of diversity in academe: The majority of people who hire others often live fairly segregated personal lives. No wonder they hire others like themselves: their business lives are merely extensions of their personal lives. (Wouldn't we be guilty of wishful ignorance if we ignore the personal lives of those on hiring committees? If one responds, "We do have a black person in our department," that would only be evidence of tokenism, not true diversity.)

Therefore, every public educational institution should ask potential hiring committee members to list at least three voluntary relationships with people who come from different racial backgrounds than their own. (Thus, I would be asked to present names of non-Latinos who could vouch for my ability to create voluntary relationships with them.) If those eager to sit on hiring committees can't produce such referees, that might be reason enough to disqualify them from such participation, especially if their educational institutions routinely hail themselves as "AA/EOE" employers. Seriously, does anyone expect people who voluntarily segregate their personal lives to promote--and prove via hirings--true racial and ethnic diversity in their business lives? We need to screen potential interviewers before they screen and question job appplicants.

Would such a requirement to sit on hiring committees spur us to reevaluate our personal lives and voluntary relationships? I would hope so if only for our own sakes--and for the sakes of our students.

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