By Pamela P. Felder, Alex Posecznick, and Veronica E. Aplenc, University of Pennsylvania
Changing student contexts and expanding cultural interests have placed new demands on all aspects of higher education, including graduate schools of education. Institutional efforts to support diversity seem to be met with constantly shifting responses; in addition, strategies for practice are often judged outdated before they’re set in motion. Students are sensitive to the rising costs of graduate education, and this awareness is heightened by an increasingly competitive job market. Alongside this determined focus on a turbulent economy, faculty and administrators strive to maintain environments that are supportive in meaningful ways and culturally relevant.
As administrators and instructors, we often find ourselves faced with questions regarding diversity. What is it? Why is it important? And, perhaps most pressingly, on the practical front, how do we implement it? Graduate schools of education are particularly sensitive to these demands given their role in preparing future educators. Recently, our graduate school of education made substantive administrative changes to respond to student and institutional needs on multiple levels. One of these changes was the development introduction of a faculty/administrative hybrid role at the departmental level.
In our positions, we see diversity to be a compelling priority in the day-to-day work of all aspects of our “blended” or hybrid experience. Although, or perhaps precisely because, we each come from different cultural traditions and academic disciplines, and as such have different understandings of diversity, we feel that our special role as scholar/administrator provides us with what we hope are valuable insights into diversity needs.
Given our personal and ideological commitments, we have worked to create a valuable space for discussing various aspects of what can be a politically-charged topic and for debating the meaning of awareness. Maintaining an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the many forms diversity takes represents strategies that can serve both administrators and faculty well across institutions.
Four categories of diversity that are clearly recognized in the U.S. include race, gender, sexual orientation, and class affiliation. These are well known today to all researchers as well as to those who work in an educational setting.
Our hybrid role presents the complexity of moving between the theoretical, pedagogical, and practical. As such, we see embracing research in our practice essential. Diversity initiatives are more formidable when supported by scholarship. When implementing initiatives, research can be effective in facilitating general conversations about diversity. Oftentimes, when discussing diversity, a major issue can be finding an appropriate platform for discussion without being offensive. Some research lends guidance in discussing the scope of the initiatives within each dimension. Individuals may be sensitive about a racial experience they don’t understand, but they may be willing to share a perspective about history.
Looking at our everyday work and comparing our disciplinary assumptions in greater depth, we have also noticed that the diversity we deal with among students is in fact much more nuanced than the neat, four-cornered definition previously noted. Educational institutions are certainly driven by a desire to appear competitively diverse and engage in practices and strategies for achieving diversity. But diversity itself is far more than lip-service and strategic plans. If human beings have a defining trait, t is the broad diversity of cultural interests, understandings, and perspectives that we can bring with us to any endeavor.
The history of and structures found in the United States have often meant that diversity in education has come to be a code word for race and ethnicity, but it is important to acknowledge those categories as only one aspect of the diversity of humanity. Clearly each individual has a diverse set of personal experiences that they carry with them, shaped by the social worlds they inhabit. Race and ethnicity are important parts of that social world; these categories, however, intersect with a variety of others—including gender, sexual orientation, class, sub-culture of origin, family culture, culture-specific gender expectations, population-specific socio-economic challenges, population-specific health challenges, and religious beliefs—not to mention the culture of the institution in question, to create multi-faceted, on-the-ground situations for administrators.
Furthermore, considering diversity from the perspective of academic training, we wish to note that “culture” is not something we only find among people of color; white, middle-class, heterosexual, male students are equally part of this mix. In fact, many of these categories are only made meaningful in contrast to each other. “Blackness” in America is very much a product of the historical conditions which have also led to “whiteness” as a social category, just as GBLT experience is shaped by hetero interests, understandings and perspectives. Every meaningful encounter with a different perspective elevates our understanding of humanity. If education broadly is interested in enhancing and expanding students’ social world, meaningful exposure to a diversity of perspectives is not only something to nod to on paper, but to enact in our everyday lives. Perhaps this is why recent White House guidance is so important to institutional administrators who must consider the nuances of cultural experiences and their impact on academic environments. This demonstration of leadership is a resource that serves to facilitate our support of a changing and expanding nature of diversity.
To take students with less frequently occurring affiliations seriously requires that one “connect the dots” across the socioeconomic, cultural, social, and family aspects of students’ lives, often leading to astonishing realizations. We have found that our academic and personal perspectives combine with our professional experiences as administrators to reveal complex arrays of cultural formations; on the teaching end, we have found it useful to incorporate this awareness into our pedagogical practice and syllabi. For example, the death of a grandparent may mean a sad emotional loss, associated with a remote retirement community, for one student, while it may imply immediate loss of a long-time primary parent figure, of financial support, and of housing, as well as deep sadness rooted “at home,” for another. These situations become more complicated when some facet of students’ lives is inherently incongruent with some aspect of the institutional setting in which they find themselves.
Put simply, the environment in an elite, secular institution rests on very different assumptions than the environment in a local, explicitly religious institution. Hybrid scholar/administrators can play a key role in helping students navigate their particular academic environment. When responding to students, remaining aware that every individual inhabits multiple worlds can help greatly in moving beyond assumptions. By learning a bit about students’ worlds from multiple perspectives—which our position as scholar/administrators necessarily asks us to do—and taking those worlds seriously, those who work with students can take steps towards implementing respect in spite of difference.
The hybrid role we occupy appears on many levels to be a response to the changing trends in higher education. Increases in student enrollments, large pools of underemployed PhD holding-scholars, tenure-track faculty retrenchment, and expanding adjunct pools are signs that faculty-administrator hybrids may be here to stay. We have found this role to be exciting on several levels, not least of which is the day-to-day implementation of diversity efforts. In the face of corporatizing efforts in higher education, being able to translate this connection into practical terms has great potential for facilitating diversity.