Is the diversity statement the candy crush for diversity points?
How to become comfortable with your diversity statement
Academia is the weird world in which sometimes you need to prepare a portfolio of over 100 pages to apply for a job (yes, I counted them, some departments required me to send that many pages, not sure who in their sane mind would read them). One relatively recent addition to those wordy documents is the diversity statement. Similar to how big companies created departments to promote diversity in the workplace, universities now ask their candidates to explain how their teaching, research, and service address diversity in concrete ways. I am not sure about the motivations that lead departments to ask for a diversity statement. Some might be genuinely interested in your thoughts on the topic, and others might just want to comply with HR policies. Either way, you will be a stronger candidate if you show genuine reflection on why this is an important issue and how to approach it in your job.
I’ve heard multiple people saying that the diversity statement is awkward to write and also awkward to read. I guess it’s not surprising that they get uncomfortable about diversity in the classroom or research. I suspect that facing the diversity statement triggers a similar feeling as facing our racist behaviors. So be careful not to fill your document with platitudes that would make comedian Aziz Ansari accuse you of playing a secret progressive candy crush game. He explains (in a very funny way) how white people are starting to do very weird things just to “get diversity points”.
Looking back, I remember being surprised about the relative ease with which I wrote my diversity statement. I have a few ideas about why this was the case. Right around the time I was preparing my documents, diversity was a topic that had been on my mind. I became interested in how traditional teaching methods don’t reach the students that need them the most. Also, we had engaged in some difficult conversations at my department about how the distribution of grants among graduate students was biased against a certain group of students.
Quite simply, crafting a strong diversity statement is a matter of reflecting on the issue of diversity in your work. Notice how I said work and not necessarily life. While coming from a minority background might be advantageous, you need to make the connection about how your background helps to promote diversity in teaching and research. To give you an example of how this might play out, my colleagues and I were excited about a candidate we interviewed last year for our department. This person had a similar background to our students and, on paper, was well prepared for the job. We thought they might connect well with our students. However, during the interview, there was no mention of how their background would improve their teaching and, for that and other reasons, this candidate did not get selected.
Institutions might be interested in diversity for different reasons. Davidson College, a predominantly white small liberal arts college, might be interested in seeing how you can attract more diverse students and how you to campus diverse world-views. California State University Fullerton, a large state university with around 50% of Hispanic students, already has a diverse student body population, and they want to make sure your teaching methods are appropriate for this student body and how you are going to help them succeed.
Many think that you can only mention research if you work on issues such as gender or decolonial theory. I remember I went to a workshop to prepare the diversity statement well before I had to go to the job market. I was looking for a cookbook recipe on how to draft this document, in the words of Aziz Ansari “What do I need to say to not get in trouble?" But my approach was wrong. I was trying to find a quick fix for a problem I had: “the uncomfortable document”. So I’m going to give you a few resources that changed the way I viewed this document and, importantly, made me feel comfortable when writing it. Notice that they are agnostic to your field of research. Actually, you can apply them to any job you do.
How to make your teaching more inclusive: this article should be mandatory reading. It opened my eyes to how teaching in the same way we were taught perpetuates differences among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It also gives you a set of tools on how to fix it (disclaimer, it is a lot of work).
This video explains in a very graphic way the diversity you will encounter in your classes. I’ve used to convince people about the importance seeing that students have different start points depending on the support they got at home (disclaimer, it might make you cry, I’ve seen it happen repeatedly).
For white folks that teach in the hood: this book explains beautifully why traditional methods don’t work and how the teacher needs to get interested and immersed in the culture of their students to connect with them.
The practice: this book is not about diversity, but about sustaining a creative practice. However, one section captures why diversity matters and might inspire your statement:
“Problems have solutions. That’s what makes them problems. […] It’s the unlikely approaches—the odd combinations that come from diversity—that often win the day. […] Diversity might involve ethnicity or physical abilities. But it’s just as likely to involve idiosyncratic approaches and differences in experience […] Of course, each of us is peculiar in our own way. Peculiar is a choice, an opportunity to bring our own experiences and our own point of view to the work. We’ve been trained for a long time to hide that unique voice or to pretend it’s not there, because the systems around us push us to conform. […] But in a world that’s changing faster than ever, that distinct skill set and point of view are precisely what we need from you. Without your specific contributions, our diversity of approach and experience fades away.”
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: this ted talk captures why the diversity statement is important, but only if we embrace the awkwardness it provokes on us by accepting that real change will be difficult.
My goal is for you to pause and reflect on why the work and efforts on diversity matter and see they are not “just another document I need to get done.” Let me know about your struggles with the diversity statement or other job documents you are working on!