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From the Editor – Dungan

This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Christine K. Dungan

“All of us are hyphenated persons; each of us combines various nationality, class, ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual dimensions in our identity. And each has a story to tell about the unique hyphenated ways we define ourselves.”
–Peter Frederick

“Making difference understandable does not make it disappear.”
Evelyn Fox Keller

This issue of Teaching Forum focuses on questions of diversity. It is not a new subject; thoughtful persons have directed serious attention to these issues for decades, and that reflection has resulted in a series of social policies aimed toward achieving political, cultural, and economic inclusivity. But talking about diversity is a bit like encountering a Russian doll – every time the subject is addressed, additional questions arise and new assumptions are exposed, which, in turn, lead to more questions and different presuppositions. In an age in which “political correctness” has become a punch line, no one can pretend any longer that there are easy answers; indeed, there are few easy questions.

What tends to get lost in the conversation is the fact that diversity is not an abstract, theoretical construct that can be viewed from a position of relative objectivity as just one more element within the academic discourse. Diversity is, essentially, people, and as such is an inherently personal issue. When we discuss diversity we are talking about identity, and the potential for conflict is very real. Dealing openly with questions of diversity is a minefield where very few teachers would choose to tread.

In recent years, a variety of scholarship has been published to assist us on the journey. These writers recognize that diversity is not only a legitimate subject in itself but also an inevitable subtext of every course in every classroom. It is a source of fear, as well, for many faculty members, who feel ill-equipped to constructively handle potential conflicts yet earnestly wish to avoid silencing any voice. At the same time, we realize that no one, including the teacher, comes to these discussions free of personal bias. Weinstein and Obear identify the six most commonly held faculty fears as follows: 1) confronting one’s own social and cultural identity conflicts, 2) having to confront or being confronted with one’s own bias, 3) responding to biased comments, 4) doubts and ambivalence about one’s own competency, 5) the need for student approval, and 6) handling intense emotions; losing control (Gerald Weinstein and Kathy Obear, “Bias in the Classroom: Encounters with the Teaching Self,” Promoting Diversity in College Classrooms: Innovative Responses for the Curriculum, Faculty, and Institutions , Maurianne Adams, ed., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).

Regardless of our fears, we can no longer avoid participating in the discourse. We face an increasingly diverse student population in an increasingly diverse society in an increasingly diverse world, and if we wish to avoid anachronism, we must take a hard look, not only at those around us but within ourselves as well. This is what Peggy McIntosh has done in her groundbreaking work on white privilege, excerpted in this edition.

It was McIntosh’s visit to the Vanderbilt campus in February that inspired this newsletter. She has written extensively on the subjects of white privilege and women’s studies, but questions of diversity go beyond race and gender. Our cover story features interviews with three persons who reflect upon issues of disability, religious diversity, and sexual orientation. As with the Russian doll, we achieve a measure of familiarity with one element of the conversation only to be confronted with a new subject equally deserving of our thoughtful attention.

American society has moved through a series of stages in attempting to engage diversity issues seriously. We began by looking at statistics and developing organizational models that mandated inclusivity by percentage; if this minority group constitutes x percent of the general population, then that figure must be reflected within our public institutions. The next stage was characterized by a “celebration of diversity,” which, by recognizing and honoring certain groups, served to reinforce the concept of the “other”; the religious denomination to which I belong recently designated one Sunday for the “Celebration of the Gifts of Women,” but there is no such day set aside to honor men – their gifts remain the norm.

Finally, then, we move toward the realization that it is the institutions themselves which need to change if all persons are to be appreciated for the unique contributions they offer. Each one of us who teaches can influence the progress of Vanderbilt as an educational institution, because it is at the level of personal interaction that the validation of individual human beings is most effective and that true systemic change begins. The “other” is a social construct, not a biological imperative. If we silence those voices different from our own – or, worse, refuse to hear them – there is an entire body of knowledge we will never learn.