Reversing the Advice …

Today’s advice at Vitae – Don’t Dodge the Diversity Question –  stuck a nerve with me. There’s nothing wrong with Nicole Matos’s advice, in fact I think you could call the heart of it common sense; as long as the question does not cross any legal boundaries, answer it.

For me, the problem isn’t necessarily people dodging the “diversity question,” the problem is the question. In the opening paragraph of her column Matos paraphrases the diversity question as “one that goes something like — Describe your experiences with diversity in and/or outside the classroom.” As someone who has been doing what I call “baby searches” for the past four years, I have one very big question of my own: “What the hell does this question even mean?”

Seriously.  I do not get it.

I do not have experiences with diversity.  No one has experiences with diversity.  We have experiences with people. Every single person, even the ones who look like me, is somehow different than I am, but I am never dealing with their difference I am always dealing with the person in front of me. So if, as Matos says, the interviewer wants me to “Please discuss race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, and/or disability status as aspects of diversity” then they need to ask me directly about those things [emphasis original].

Let me illustrate.

One of my applications this year paid off, I got a phone interview and eventually a campus visit (which incidentally was the gold standard of campus visits). The offer eventually went to someone else, but that’s how this game is played. Actually, I was amazed to get the campus visit because during the phone interview I was asked this damned diversity question.  I don’t remember my answer but I do know it wasn’t a dodge it was the best I could do to figure out what they wanted. I think I answered something about how I have increased the diversity of our consulting staff.

Then the person re-phrased the question, and re-phrased the question, until I finally caught on and said something like, “Oh, you mean the work I do with the Office of International Studies?!” They said, “Yes!” So, I described the orientation skits we do, and the number of international students who use the writing center regularly, and the challenges of inter-cultural communication. After I hung up and went over the interview in my mind, the question and my in ability to understand what they were looking for stuck out to me.

I didn’t get what they were asking because what I described to them wasn’t any special part of my job.  It wasn’t a special diversity event, it was a service I provide to the Office of International Studies, to the people at Transfer Student Orientation, to the people at the Engineering fair, and to the First Year Writing Classes, really something I would do with any campus organization that asked.

Last year, in addition to getting the diversity question in the phone interview, for several application packets I was asked to write a Diversity Statements. Again, I have to ask all the search committees out there, “What does this mean? ” and “What do you want?”  If there is some information you have not gotten from everything in the Cover Letter, or the Teaching Philosophy, or the Administrative Philosophy, or the Writing Sample maybe the solution isn’t “Hey, I know!  Let’s ask for a Diversity Statement.” Maybe the solution is to put better information in the job ad and to craft better questions.

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