Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Acquring Diversity

One of the shocks in moving from grad school at a research university to a small liberal arts college was the degree of homogeneity within the community. Johns Hopkins, where I was, is a microcosm. There are people there from everywhere. Yes, they were brilliant, arrogant, stressed out nerds from everywhere, but they are from everywhere. Gettysburg, on the other hand, is different. There are lots of reasons -- cost, location, selectivity, liberal arts vs. a more vo-tech approach to education -- why the student body is less diverse. The joke here is that diversity means having people that wear both Abercrombie AND Fitch.

And it is not only the students. There is here, like most other institutions, a push to diversify the faculty. This is a good thing. Diversity on campus, and especially at the front of the classroom does a number of positive things for a college community. Among them is to widen the spectrum of perspectives on intellectual and social matters. We like to think that seeing is believing, but this presupposes that seeing is a passive act, a taking in of things as they are. But what we see is in part an act of interpretation. To see something is to take the sensory input and build the something out of it in a way that makes sense to us. But what makes sense is a function of the categories we use to understand the world and these come from our personal experience and the community from which we come. Diversity reminds us that everything we see is to some degree affected by a culturally constructed lens which can be changed. Being in a diverse intellectual community is like going to the optometrist and looking at the fourth line and being asked better now or now? A or B? Diversity in an intellectual community means constantly having to wrestle with multiple ways of seeing things because you come to understand the different lived experiences of different folks in the same situations.

This then leads to the question, what ought to count as desirable diversity? I remember being in a cubicle when I was adjuncting at Towson University and listening to a member of the English department, a middle-aged white woman, having a discussion with one of her young African-American students who was arguing that nothing had changed since the 50s. This was a woman whose husband of several decades was an African-American professor at the university. She spoke to me exasperated after the conversation about the ways in which this young man could have no clue about what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the early 60s, the discrimination they faced and the recriminations directed towards her for being in love with the person she loves.

I think of several other colleagues. One's wife became severely limited physically because of a disease that has left her in a wheelchair. He sees the campus and life on it in a way that is radically different from what he saw twenty years ago. He cannot but see it, in part, through his wife's eyes. Similarly, I have had other colleagues with special needs children. Again, because of the nature of the parent/child relationship and because of the way that those with special needs experience our society, they bring a different perspective to conversations.

In these cases, the people I am talking about hail from the privileged class, they have all of the advantages that come with being in the in-group that has the power. But, because of choice or happenstance they have acquired perspectives that are those of the out-group, of those whose experience differs from most. Because they therefore bring to the intellectual community what is it we look for in a diverse community, should we think of these folks as bringing diversity? When we are purposeful in acting to diversify our community, should we think of these kinds of people as having acquired diversity?