In this post, I wanted to make a brief comment on diversity in general, discuss diversity in higher education, and then I have a few thoughts on diversity in professional offices. I’ll conclude by talking about inclusive pedagogy. It goes hand-in-hand with creating a community environment and appreciating the opportunity for innovative thinking.
I am a proponent of diversity. I believe it broadens our horizons and aids us in our personal development.
Katherine Phillips in “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” makes some interesting and thought provoking statements on diversity and how it enriches our thinking environments and fosters creativity. Based on decades of social science research, Phillips distills the idea of diversity down into this concept: “The key to understanding the positive influence of diversity is the concept of informational diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives.”
Building on the idea of informational diversity, it makes sense to reason our best classrooms, labs, and studio environments will develop through having a diverse group of students in our academic programs. So why is it that some programs seem to struggle with diversity? It’s not that they aren’t diverse because they don’t want to be, but I believe for reasons relating to outreach, recruitment, access, and privilege. These reasons could be thought of as barriers to diversity and are born out of different contexts.
Outreach is the first barrier to diversity in higher education. One of the major tenants of land grant universities is to serve the people of the state/area that it calls home. We in higher education talk a big game about outreach and connecting with the community, and in most cases, this would be warranted because an impact is being made. But I bring outreach up as a barrier because I believe that we could be trying harder to connect with the communities we serve and sharing our knowledge with them. It’s hard because it takes effort, but we should be trying harder to integrate with area schools and not just feel satisfied if we have a “successful” program for just one or two years. We must be relentless in our outreach–especially to the youth–for they are the key to our future and we need to spark the imaginations of children so that they might grow up and respond to the complex problems our world is facing.
I participated in a water conservation conference (fair) targeted at primary school students when I was a little girl. There were probably hundreds of children there exploring the booths, learning about water, and getting a taste of what applied science looks like. I didn’t know then that this would be such a momentous occasion for me, but it always stuck with me. I’ve always cared about conserving natural resources and environmental issues and this educational event was just one of many that contributed to my research and philosophy today. Had the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi State University Extension and other sponsors not put on the fair, I wonder if I would have developed my passion for protecting the environment?
Recruitment is a barrier to diversity for both the institution as well as potential students. If students out there don’t know that they could go on to higher education, they end up getting missed entirely. For universities to attract quality students, they need prospective students to be aware of the opportunities in front of them. Waiting until students are in their final years of secondary school is almost too late to start. Sure, institutions of higher learning could get lucky and attract top students who are planning to go to college. Conversely, had they targeted younger students sooner, they could have sparked the curiosity of a young student and set them on a path they wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. It comes down to more than just outreach from the university–individual programs would benefit from spending time outside the silo–or inviting prospective students in–so that they can learn about what their options might be for programs of study.
Think about how you found your profession. Was your track slated for you? Did you discover your discipline early in life? Did you experience a crisis and fall into what you’re doing because a career counselor had experience interpreting Myers-Briggs Personality Tests** and Career Aptitude Tests for wayward students?
**this link leads to a version I found online and I can’t be sure of the accuracy of the instrument…but I’d be willing to guess that it’s accurate enough to be fun!
For some, like myself, I didn’t really know what a landscape architect (LA) did let alone what the entire discipline was about when I stepped foot in their courtyard at Mississippi State University so many years ago. In retrospect, the choice made sense, because my father is in construction and excavation and my mother is a Master Gardener, but I never thought of it as an option for myself because I didn’t really understand what LA’s actually did! From experience, I see where a gap in my learning early on (not understanding the profession) meant that it took me much longer to discover my calling because I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe what was missing for me. Could the LA Department have found me sooner? Would that have made a difference in my trajectory? It’s hard to say, but I do know that it was an opportunity nearly missed and I am grateful that I started down this path. Had I not asked “what if?” I would likely still be serving Jager-Bombs, draft pints, and pizza in Starkville, MS’s most beloved and iconic establishment Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern.
But I digress.
If I hadn’t been recruited into both my Master’s program at MSU and again for my attendance here at Virginia Tech, I imagine I would be living a very different life than I am right now. I count myself lucky to have been both in the right place at the right time AND to have been fortunate enough to get noticed!
Access is a barrier to diversity for obvious reasons. It is well accepted that there are certain groups in the population that have less fundamental access to education, let alone higher education. Perhaps the barriers manifest due to financial constraints, (error in) standardized testing, or just not having the support at home so that a student doesn’t feel like they can dream big and pursue interesting careers.
Privilege. Ok this one is a little bit difficult/uncomfortable for me to talk about and so I am going to address the topic gently. First, if you aren’t sure what privilege is, I have linked a short video below that is a good introduction on the topic.
Video Credit: Buzzfeed (Boldly) “What is Privilege?”
Merriam-Webster gives two definitions for privilege: “:a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor :prerogative; especially:such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office.”
Talking about privilege is uncomfortable for me because I do enjoy certain privileges–and for a long time, I really had no concept of this, and for that I am more than just a little embarrassed. I think of myself as a caring, empathetic person; yet, how can I be if I am/remain completely clueless about the issues and challenges facing my fellow humans? Don’t get me wrong. I follow world news and am aware of conflicts around the world and the unfortunate plight of man in different places where there might be one or more factors (climate, resource limitation, social network, governance, systemic racism, etc.) beyond a person’s control that work against the success of that person. Peggy McIntosh’s piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” identified several conditions of life that resonated with me–some that I did enjoy and others that I didn’t.
For me to be able to talk about and comment on privilege means I have to unpack my own so that I can bring a heightened level of awareness to the front of my attention. I can’t be thoughtful about the issue in general if I don’t spend a little time trying to identify, for myself, what privilege has meant in my own life. In a nod to Shankar Vedantam’s theories in his book & podcast “The Hidden Brain,” I have to take back control of my brain and suspend the autopilot function. I day this because it has been extremely easy to not address my own implicit bias and think about how privilege manifests in my own life.
The difficulty I struggle with when talking about privilege is not unlike what Arao & Clemens describe in their (2013) article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces” where people participating in this discussion feel uncomfortable as they are pushed to think through the issue and come to terms with their own privilege. I don’t feel unsafe, but what I do feel is a twinge of guilt for being ignorant in the past. I feel frustration for others who are dealing with obstacles in their lives every day. I understand the implicit imbalance in our society and that there are some people who are deeply wounded by their circumstance. I can’t apologize for being born into the life I am blessed to have, but I can honestly say that I am sorry that “the deck” (of life) was stacked for some and not others.
Privilege is an ugly and uncomfortable part of our (global) culture. By law and in the eyes of God, we are all equal; but by birth and circumstance, we are not. So what does that mean for learners, prospective students, and the university?
Well, if we accept that different people inherently expose us to new ideas, cultural norms, and ways of thinking that promote creativity, than it means that we need to be reaching out to those underrepresented students who do not enjoy the same level of privilege as those in the majority/power/white males. I’m not saying that white males should not be recruited or encouraged to attend college–what I’m saying is that we should try doubly hard to reach the Latino/a, African-American, Native American, female, working-class/poor/rural students who likely experience hardships with respect to access, outreach, and recruitment into higher education and would undoubtedly benefit from the environment and also bring their own diverse experiences to it. When people with less privilege have their needs met and a pathway to success, there can be no limit on their potential achievement.
Research says that students do better when they see people like them as their instructors and as practitioners in their profession. Claude Steele discusses these ideas **2 articles in the reference section** and concludes that students do better when they are 1) not worried about not doing well because of being stereotyped and 2) when in groups that contain people of similar background.
So between outreach, recruitment, access, and understanding privilege, the university (and academic programs in general) can work to increase the informational diversity of academia by inviting eligible students from diverse backgrounds to come study. I firmly believe that we need more underrepresented people–people of color, women, etc. in higher education and working as professionals in their discipline in the work force. Humanity is diverse and we should promote an environment of active inclusion and once we get the students through the door, show them that they matter through inclusive pedagogy in the classroom.
Inclusive pedagogy is the final and most important piece. We, as academics and rising educators, must be sensitive to the humanity present in our classrooms and that each individual has their own story, their own set of goals, and motivators–ideas that will define their individuality as well as their homogeneity with the rest of the group. We may be a diverse population, but first and foremost we are human beings. Successful instructors facilitate active learning through setting up an environment that allows every student to feel like they belong, like they are appreciated, and like they have something to contribute.
C.L. Bohannon leads freshman in a sketching course outside Burruss Hall. In this critique, everyone’s work is reviewed and everyone participates in the discussion.
Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces.” The Art of Effective Facilitation.
McIntosh, P. (n.d.) “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
Philips, K. (2014). “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Scientific American.
Sands, T. (2017). “A special statement from President Tim Sands.” Virginia Tech News.
Steele, C. (2010). “Reducing Identity and Stereotype Threat: A New Hope.” Whistling Vivaldi.
Steele, C. (2010). “Mysterious Link Between Identity and Intellectual Performance.” Whistling Vivalidi.