Thursday, May 16, 2013

We are the champions

The semester's over and commencement has passed, which means we're all hip-deep in a morass of faculty development workshops, hastily crammed into the two- or three-week-long period before half the faculty take the rest of the summer "off."

This past Monday-through-Wednesday (Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday, and Wednesday morning) found me in two full days' worth of workshops dedicated to diversity and inclusion. UNC Asheville's faculty, staff, and student bodies are not representative of the overall population in many respects, particularly racially and ethnically. And what diversity we do have (in terms of age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and sexuality, etc.) often goes unrecognized and underappreciated. The result is a lack of diversity in some regards and a lack of attention paid to issues faced by members of certain underrepresented groups in others. To address this important matter (and believe me, I do believe it is of prime importance), UNCA's Diversity Action Council brought in a pair of outsider consultants to coach about 30 faculty and staff in becoming "Diversity and Inclusion Champions" ("DICs," for short?). This unfortunate acronym is, sadly, about the best thing to come of the workshop.

Well, not so...I'll start with the positives.

1. Community. The workshop involved a couple of administrators, about a dozen faculty, and maybe 15 or 16 members of the staff, from departments ranging from Housekeeping through the Office of University Advancement (basically a fancy name for the people in charge of building up the school's endowment). These are folks who generally have very little opportunity to interact, and their stories often go unshared. It was wonderful to me to talk to colleagues from Accounts Payable, Admissions, and Athletics, folks I'd never have met in the course of my day-to-day duties, folks whose perspectives are as valid as my own and who face a broad array of diversity-related issues in their work. This aspect of the workshop was enlightening, enriching, and invigorating.

2. Conversations. Similarly, the stories we shared, many of which had nothing to do with diversity and inclusion, ultimately, gave us a chance to get to know one another authentically.

3. Communication. Many of the exercises we completed reminded us of important communication skills: active and compassionate listening, empathy and understanding, deliberation in discourse, etc. Though these skills have little to do with diversity, per se, they are good things to keep in mind in having future multilogues around important issues like diversity.

4. ...? I'm dyin' over here...

So what went wrong? First of all, as my last positive point suggests, the workshop was misnamed. If it had been called something like "Creating community and carrying on conversations," I wouldn't have found as much fault with it. (Note: "as much"; see discussion below.) As it was, though, I kept expecting there to be much more attention paid to diversity issues. I recognize that diversity and inclusion are incredibly complicated issues and that there's no magic pill the university can swallow to make it all better, but as it was there was practically no content directly related to diversity, whether in theory or in practice. Moreover, what content there was was overly-diluted, simplistic, superficial, and unreflective.

Part of the problem (perhaps the largest part) was the facilitators' utterly tone-deaf delivery. It was evident almost from the get-go that these two folks are used, almost exclusively (though they tried to deny it), to dealing with corporate audiences. Their manner of speaking was facile, reductive, and puerilizing. They dumbed things down, universalized, and made frequent superficial statements about complicated issues. The materials they used (handouts, videos, etc.) were similarly over-simplified and ill-suited for the audience they were speaking to. Sometimes the materials were simply misleading or untenable.

Example: the facilitators showed a 10-minute segment from Dateline NBC on the Implicit Association Test (IAT), an instrument used to help uncover persons' hidden biases. The IAT has been shown to be somewhat credible and most folks generally accept its reliability and validity. However, the Dateline segment, in an obvious attempt at dramatization, brought a dozen or so people into a studio to take a version of the test in front of one another and and in front of television cameras, thus placing the test-takers under enormous stereotype threat, a condition well-known to introduce substantial and problematic variation in test results. This condition rendered this piece essentially baseless, little more than a completely unreliable media stunt that undermined the credibility of a well-established psychometric instrument. When a couple of us pointed this out after the segment was shown, one of the facilitators acknowledged this shortcoming. "Then why in the hell did you show it anyway?" I thought.

Example: one of my "favorite" excerpts from the godawful handout on managing unconscious biases which they handed out for us to read on Tuesday night was a numbered list of the steps one might take to uncover and eliminate such hidden biases. Step 2 was "Identify your unconscious biases"; a number of people quipped "if they're unconscious, how are you supposed to identify them?" Step 6 was "Get rid of your biases." I was reminded of this famous cartoon:

Ah, circularity. This step makes the whole process into an Ouroboros, a serpent devouring its own tail.

Example: the same handout contained "case studies" on diversity initiatives undertaken by major corporations like Weyerhauser and Chubb ( who, I'm sure entirely coincidentally ) cosponsored the organization that produced the handout, but no information on other sorts of institutions. Every aspect of the handout's rhetoric suggested a corporate audience, with bulleted lists, unsubstantiated claims ("Some scientists suggest..."), unreflective appeals to authority ("...researchers at [list of several major universities] tell us..."), anecdotal appeals devoid of any actionable information...as I put it on Facebook just after reading this piece, "The reading for tomorrow's last half-day workshop is a jargony piece of quasi-corporate pap that's so full of syllogisms and so bereft of appropriate citations it's rendered practically baseless. If one of our first-year composition students wrote it, they'd get a C+ on a good day."

The workshop's facilitators were equally oily, hands glad and laughter forced. The whole workshop was clearly an act for them, one they were used to performing in front of people who make far, far, far more money than everyone in our little room put together. At one point, I shit you not, the oilier of the two, Brad, said, to a room in which sat, among others, housekeepers who likely make barely more than the minimum wage, "That's why you all get paid the big bucks!" Tone. Deaf.) I got into a handful of tense exchanges with Brad over the course of our time together. After one exchange in which I called attention to the syllogism inherent in "Step 6" mentioned above, he got out of the conversation by simply saying, "see, what we're having now is a heated agreement!" He could barely contain his annoyance when I and several of my colleagues tagged the term "Diversity and Inclusion Champion" with the label "condescending." "I'm not 10 years old anymore," I said. "I don't have to be called a 'champion.'" One of my colleagues suggested the term "Community Advocate," and for the remaining hour or two of the workshop that phrase stuck.

 Ultimately I was offended by the quality of the workshop, and I left wondering how many thousands of dollars the university had spent bringing these folks into campus. Worse yet, this was not their first visit to campus (it was, in fact, their fifth; four similar workshops have been run in the past couple of years) and it's not likely to be their last. As I mentioned above, the best things to come of it were community, conversations, and a reminder of some solid communication skills. I've learned more, far more, about managing diversity from any one of several learning circles I've taken part in over the past several years than I did from this workshop.

I might add one more positive outcome: during one of our breaks on the last morning of the workshop I was chatting with one of my colleagues from the Education Department, and I boasted that I was confident that by the end of the semester, the HON 479 students I'd worked with in Fall 2012 would have been able to put together a better workshop on diversity and inclusion. It got me thinking: why not ask them to do just this? Thus, I'm now planning to ask my Fall 2013 HON 479 students to design a workshop preparing participants to (1) understand the issues facing the citizen of a multicultural society, (2) interrogate and explain their own views on multiculturalism, and (3) more confidently engage members of multicultural communities. I have no doubt whatsoever that the students' product will exceed this past week's in quality, no matter the measure applied to it.

1 comment:

Maughta said...

And yet, you encouraged me to get an MBA and become that oily person. I see what you think of me. ;)