A middle-class white guy’s view of diversity

October 26, 2006

Fall is the season when people like me apply for tenure-track college faculty jobs that start the following fall. Most job ads request a curriculum vitae, a statement of teaching philosophy and research interests, three letters of reference, and perhaps undergraduate and graduate transcripts. Certain schools make you work a bit harder, though.

One university, for example, asks applicants to read and reflect on its mission statement, which includes the following: “The Jesuit educational tradition promotes independent critical thinkers informed by the humanities, open to finding and serving God in all things, and challenged by the Jesuit priority of ‘the service of faith and the promotion of justice’ to address issues of poverty, injustice, discrimination, violence, and the environment in knowledgeable, committed, and effective ways.”

Because of my nonreligious worldview, I struggled with this assignment when applying for a position at this university last year. I wound up saying, in part, “I respect students’ religious beliefs and cultural traditions, and I encourage them to learn from and respect each other by assigning group projects in which cooperation breeds success.” Truthful and yet tasteful, right? Well, it wasn’t enough to land me an interview.

Now that application season has returned, I’m once again trying to fit myself into oddly shaped holes at various schools. The most interesting challenge thus far has been writing a statement of my potential contribution to the diversity of one of these colleges. I suppose I could have played up my multiethnic ancestry — if you go back far enough, I’m part English, part German, and part French — but instead I said this:

Although I wouldn’t add much socioeconomic, political, or ethnic diversity to the college community, I believe that I could help sustain its behavioral diversity (for lack of a better term). While the pursuit of scientific knowledge is central to my identity, I like to think that I defy the usual stereotypes of what scientists are like, thereby broadening my students’ and acquaintances’ perceptions of what it means to be a scientist. Moreover, my experiences as an “outlier” allow me to sympathize with and support others who are atypical in one way or another.

Three examples of stereotype-challenging behavior come to mind. The first concerns my research, which has entailed studying enzymes and metabolic pathways in plant tissues (as an undergraduate), human muscles (as a graduate student), and bacteria (as a postdoc). Am I a physiologist, a biochemist, a microbiologist, or all or none of the above? The labels don’t greatly interest me; I want people to recognize that my work is interdisciplinary, requiring techniques and insights from several fields. The lesson for students is that you don’t need to define yourself according to your major; you can focus on the intellectual questions that interest you most and draw upon whatever disciplines are most relevant to those questions.

A second example is my interest in science songs (i.e., songs whose lyrics are about some aspect of science). I have written, recorded, and performed science songs for academic and nonacademic audiences, sometimes for explicitly educational purposes and sometimes not. My colleagues think I’m crazy for doing this, but bridging the gap between science and the arts can help communicate scientific humor, drama, and jargon to people who might otherwise find the material bewildering and/or boring. Given that different people learn in different ways, it makes sense to present information using multiple modalities in order to connect with as many people as possible.

A final example is the fact that I train for and compete in ultramarathons (i.e., races longer than 26.2 miles). This too causes raised eyebrows among my colleagues, some of whom were previously unaware that humans can run 60 miles or more without stopping. But ultramarathoning is a challenge that I’m good at and enjoy, so why not do it? Similarly, many of my students also have serious nonscientific interests, and, while holding them to high academic standards, I try to be flexible in accommodating their other pursuits.

Maybe the search committee will be impressed, and maybe they won’t be. Either way, that’s what I have to offer.


  1. I think your response is as convincing a response as you could have made to a somewhat strange question. Apparently this school conceives of "diversity" much more broadly than many institutions. Most colleges and universities are concerned primarily that their faculty and students be diverse in ways that that individuals can't (or typically don't) change, such as ethnicity and gender. Presumably that's not all that this one cares about (because otherwise why ask candidates for an essay describing their ethnicity or gender?). But then again, why ask candidates to write about their contribution to diversity in other ways ("diversity of behavior", as you say)? It's not clear why they would want to promote diversity of behavior, or why they think that diversity of behavior can be promoted via the hiring process. I can imagine more-or-less sensible rationales for promoting diversity of behavior, especially at a liberal arts college. But I can also imagine non-sensible rationales, such as political correctness run amok. From the perspective of the faculty at pretty much any college or university, recruitment of new faculty is one of the most important collective activities in which they engage. The recruitment process can therefore reveal a lot about the recruiters, as well as about the applicants. I'm not quite sure exactly what this recruitment process is telling you, but I'm sure it's telling you something.

  2. In my grad program, they're fond of comparing diversity to an island — some things are below the water line and some things are above it. The things are above it are the things that people can see, the things that are below it are things that they can't see. So your "behavioral" diversity might be below the water line when people first meet you, but it might eventually surface 🙂

  3. Was thinking about "behavioral diversity" a bit more this morning in the context of my own dept., and it seems to me that schools might be hard-pressed to *avoid* a behaviorally-diverse faculty. My colleagues (both within and outside my dept.) not notably diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, etc. (they're mostly white guys). But collectively they have all sorts of hobbies, habits, interests, and personal histories (as well as a lot in common of course–they pretty much all drink beer). I suspect the same is true everywhere, and it is true despite the fact that most faculty members simply aim to hire good colleagues. My advice to hiring committees would be to focus on doing that–an explicit attempt to search for "behavioral diversity" seems at least unnecessary.

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