Friday, April 23, 2010


It's been noted, for years now, that much of the racial and ethnic diversity at top-tier universities involves upper- and upper-middle-class minorites: the sons and daughters of black doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers mingling with the sons and daughters of white doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers.

Although I believe that racial diversity is intrinsically valuable (it's surely better to have a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from different backgrounds than a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from the same background), this particular rap against college diversity programs does highlight the limited and limiting ways in which we often talk about diversity.

RU does not have the racial or ethnic diversity of the institution where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, and neither does it have the racial or ethnic diversity of the big urban university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. But it's more racially diverse than I would have expected (given its small-town, semi-rural location)--and it's phenomenally diverse in other ways: there are street-wise students from our state's biggest city, students who grew up in farm families, students who are military veterans, students who work full-time, students who have children. Most our students are traditional-aged, if you raise the upper end of "traditional" to 25 or 27, and most of our students live on campus. But a large minority commute, a large minority are transfer students from community colleges, and a small but visible minority are over 35. The range of economic backgrounds is also striking: I have students who take unpaid internships in Boston and New York, and students who are piecing together their tuition by cleaning houses.

And if we believe that diversity is its own good--that all students benefit from it, not just the ones whom diversity outreach is trying to give a leg up in the world--then surely we should define "diversity" as broadly as possible.

But of course, the problem is how to get a student body that's both cohesive enough and diverse enough. If you're an Ivy, you can construct a freshman class with whatever racial and ethnic balance you want; you can have students from every state in the union and most of the countries in the globe; and you can even have students from an impressively large range of family income levels (it doesn't often get mentioned, but the Ivies are much better on economic diversity than most private universities). But what you can't have, if you're an elite, residential institution, is students who vary tremendously in ability or preparation level, in age, or in domestic arrangements. Likewise, the more truly diverse a campus is, the less cohesive its student population is likely to be.

And maybe that's not a solvable problem. But looking back I'm struck by how homogeneous my own classroom environments were, when compared with those of my current students. And perhaps as a result, it took me a long time, post-college, to make friends with people who weren't my exact age (people more than two years older or younger just seemed to lead impossibly different lives), or with educational backgrounds unlike my own. Sure, I thought of myself as having an intriguingly diverse group of friends--but by virtue of being the same age and having attended the same institution, we were much more alike than different. So when I wound up with an officemate who was living with her parents on Long Island, and whose boyfriend was divorced with a kid? I liked her, and we had fun at work. But I couldn't imagine her life, and I probably didn't try very hard.

Maybe it takes a while, for everyone, to appreciate or take an interest in people significantly unlike themselves, and maybe colleges and universities can only do so much. And maybe being exposed to some kind of diversity helps one to negotiate other kinds later on. But I do wish we talked more about, and valued more actively, a fuller range of student and life experiences.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, it's a difficult problem. My own campus draws students with an incredible variety of backgrounds, life experiences, and levels of preparation, but I don't think we're very good at giving them all a shared sense of community (and perhaps this is an impossible goal). Most of the ones who actually show up for campus events are traditionally aged, living on or near campus, and disproportionately white and middle-class. (This is also the pool of students who tend to major in the arts and sciences; I get the sense that the business / education / pre-nursing students are a lot more diverse, but often less academically prepared and less connected to the daily life of the institution.)

We also have a very high CC-transfer rate; community colleges around here are essentially free, and there doesn't seem to be any stigma to spending your first two years at one.

Theoretically, this is all to the good, but I'm not sure what these demographics are going to mean for the institution in the long run, especially since this school has had to fight very hard and very frequently for its survival, and arguably owes its continued existence to an exceptionally close-knit and dedicated group of alumni. And I doubt that the commuter students who attend for two years, take mostly pre-professional classes, and go home are going to be as committed to that fight. (But I could be wrong.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know...i think in some ways the way professors teach favors students who are more prepared--not that they can move faster but that they can presume so much. I notice this among faculty at my fancy grad institution. Honestly, they don't teach. They facilitate students who know how to figure it out for themselves. So there's a kind of pedagogy of relying on student preparation that goes on that makes it difficult for less prepared students to thrive. I don't think it has to be that way, even without placing some kind of burden on the more prepared students. It isn't a question of speed. It's the fact that the conversation takes place in a shorthand that only makes sense if you're already in the club.

I wonder about schools that establish cohesion around something else--church based schools, for instance. I couldn't say but I wonder. There was actually quite a lot of diversity in terms of economics and background at my church based school, which didn't interfere with the cohesion of the student body unduly.

Bardiac said...

At my (public, regional) school there's a side to diversity that has to do with serving our community. We have 16% ethnic minorities in local high schools, and about half that (including international students) at my university. So, we aren't serving the people of the region well.

Part of the problem is that it's hard for middle class white folks (including faculty) to see the diversity in our high schools; their kids don't go to the more diverse high school, and they don't "see" farm labor populations. But once I see the statistics, I can't trust my middle class "vision."

Anastasia brings up a really important point; a lot of university faculty are folks who did well with lecture teaching or whatever. And the people who didn't get well-served by colleges just dropped out and the faculties tended to see it as a problem with those students. But now we're looking at those students in new ways, and trying to see the problem not with them, but with the ways our teaching advantages middle class white kids who can sit still well.

Sorry for being all over the place; I need more caffeine.

Susan said...

At an extremely diverse university -- racially, economically, etc -- I see this problem. It's especially strong because of the number of "ethnic" clubs. I think the trick is that there are enough things that cross groups -- and also that we're pretty isolated in a rural community. That means that most people live on campus their first year, so they do make wider connections.

Flavia said...

Fretful: strangely enough, a lot of our CC transfers do live on campus, or in off-campus student housing; this may be because our biggest "feeder" CC (which is very strong academically) actually has dorms itself, and lots of students seem to have begun at said CC with the intention of coming to our institution. So if they're 20 or 23 or so, and if they were always intending to have a more traditional college experience--and if lots of their friends from CC are coming to RU--they seem to integrate pretty smoothly (and I have to say that RU does a good job of this, and of making sure that certain opportunities, like studying abroad, are equally as visible and accessible to transfers as to our "native" population).

But this is much less the case when the students are commuters, or have significant outside commitments (family, full-time jobs), or are older. It reminds me of how important it is, as a teacher and as an advisor, to try to give my students a sense of connection--even if it's just the human connection of feeling that someone knows who they are, and would be happy to see them in another class.

Anastasia: That's a hugely important point. I understand why elite schools want all their students to be at the same level of ability/preparation (which of course aren't the same thing--but I think admissions committees do calculate relative parity: this kid went to Andover and this kid went to a crappy urban public school--but the latter will be able to catch up within a semester or two in the same classes). But I totally agree that this is often done more for the institution's benefit than the students'.

I mean, even from my own relatively privileged/well-prepared perspective, I missed out on certain things: there was no way I was going to be able to take a "real" science or math class in college: there were science classes for jocks, to get their distribution requirements fulfilled, and their were science classes for majors or pre-meds. Nothing for people who sincerely wanted more exposure to science, and who might have been able to work up to taking the kind of science classes that majors took.

And if there weren't those classes, you'd better believe there weren't any truly remedial classes, either!

And speaking as someone who now often teaches classes with a range of abilities: it can be hard, and truly unprepared students are often going to fail if you pitch the class where you have to pitch it to benefit the rest of the students. But students don't have to be at exactly the same level for a class to be successful, either (and you never know whether the kid who's struggling mightily in your class one semester is going to be one of the sharpest and most valuable members two semesters later).

Flavia said...

Oh, and Susan:

Yes, I think being in a remote location (or somewhere that otherwise encourages a certain amount of inward focus) definitely helps. We have some lounge-y seating areas, and a rather nice cafe with lots of tables and chairs, in the academic building where I work, which does seem to encourage students who commute to hang out between classes, read, and make more social connections with their classmates. But I wish we had more, and could encourage it more actively.