Diversity Engineering

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By Mark Bauerlein

The diversiphiles are desperate.  Nearly 50 years of affirmative action of various kinds still haven’t produced a sufficient critical mass of under-represented groups in the sciences.  It isn’t enough that attitudes have changed.  Whatever forms of sexist or racist biases afflicted the science faculty in 1970, they’re gone now—or so far underground that people harboring them don’t dare let them show in professional contexts.  I have never met a professor of STEM who isn’t disposed to favor candidates and graduate applicants who are women and under-represented minorities over white and Asian males, all other things being roughly equal.

That leaves diversiphiles and social engineers in academia looking elsewhere for ways of changing the STEM demographic.  Here’s what they’ve come up with at UC-Davis.  The campus has several job openings each year in the sciences, but apparently the leaders haven’t been able to achieve the diversity in hiring that they would like to see. So, they have adjusted the hiring criteria.  Instead of tailoring jobs to disciplinary areas, they school is creating eight jobs that are wide-open in terms of specialty and expertise.  As insidehighered.com summarized the pilot initiative:

The idea is that a diverse search will lead to a diverse candidate pool.  Instead of focusing on a particular disciplinary expertise, search teams will look for candidates with proven commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion among underrepresented groups, namely black, Latino, Chicano and Native American applicants.

UC Davis is holding eight faculty searches focused on …

www.insidehighered.com

The University of California, Davis, is launching a pilot hiring program that eliminates the requirement — typical in department searches — that candidates have a specific disciplinary specialty.. Davis says the research-backed approach will help it increase faculty diversity. “Part of having a diverse student body poised for success is having a diverse faculty,” said Philip H. Kass …

By widening the net, the school hopes to identify non-white/Asians that might not apply to Davis if the job openings were more narrowly defined. (Often, of course, women are included as under-represented figures in the STEM fields, except for biological sciences, but here they seem to have dropped off.)

Note the cross-purposes, though.  To open the search across scientific categories is one thing.  To add a criterion of “commitment” to diversity is another.  In other words, we must tinker with disciplinary norms and standards if we want to hire people outside the dominant identities.

One hears similar arguments made in the humanities, where feminists and Marxists have insisted for years that scholarly premises of objectivity and clarity are, in truth, wholly political.  Nearly 20 years ago, Judith Butler, now incoming president of the Modern Language Association, declared the language of common sense a conservative and, at times, reactionary strategy. She had just won the Bad Writing Award for one of her turgid, inflated, pretentious sentences, and had become the butt of jokes about theory windbags who disguised their flimsy philosophizing in pseudo-technical jargon and needlessly complex syntax.  (For a summary of the Bad Writing Award, which includes Butler’s blather, see here.)

A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back

archive.nytimes.com

In the last few years, a small, culturally conservative academic journal has gained public attention by showcasing difficult sentences written by intellectuals in the academy. The journal, Philosophy and Literature, has offered itself as the arbiter of good prose and accused some of us of bad writing by awarding us &apos;&apos;prizes.&apos;&apos; (I&apos;m still waiting for my check!) <p> The targets, however, have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism — a point the news media ignored. Still, the whole exercise hints at a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language? <p>

 

The Bad Writing Contest – Denis Dutton

www.denisdutton.com

We are pleased to announce winners of the third Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature and its internet discussion group, PHIL-LIT.. The Bad Writing Contest attempts to locate the ugliest, most stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book or article published in the last few years.

Now, Butler writes a rebuttal in the New York Times under the title “A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back.”  She notes that the winners of the Bad Writing Award have been “scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism,” implying a clear ideological aim for the Award.  But the real questions turn upon language itself: “why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?”

That’s quite a compliment Butler gives to herself.  The verbiage many find gobbled-gook she describes as “difficult and demanding.”  The books and essays written by leftist professors in the Nineties she casts as “the most trenchant social criticisms.”  But, of course, the point of the Bad Writing Award was to demonstrate the opposite, that is, that what the professors passed off as insight and ingenuity was, rather, incompetence and pretense.

Butler’s political point comes next.  Common sense, she argues, has in the past licensed the acceptance of injustice.  “Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense,” she writes, turning to the case of American slavery and the denial of women’s right to vote.  Ordinary language, in other words, reinforces the assumptions and premises that underlie those abominations.  To insist on straightforward articulation and clear meaning is to reinscribe a status quo that may appear natural and true, but is, in fact, ideological to the core.  In writing “difficult” prose, the professors thereby break up the linguistic foundations of social injustice.

Again, the self-compliment is extraordinary, whereby elite professors of the 21st century are somehow analogous to abolitionists in 1855 and suffragettes in 1910.  So is that historical ignorance, for you couldn’t find any of the “difficult” theoretical language Butler praises anywhere in abolitionist or suffragette literature.

Nevertheless, Butler aligns herself and her prose with those noble forebears.  The position counts as radical because it digs down beneath the semantic surface of language and roots out embedded biases and hidden discriminations.  Academics have been trained in this hermeneutic of suspicion for a long, long time.  They critique the overt meaning of things and expose the latent meaning of things.  The verbal crust must be broken up and broken down.

They apply their skeptical eye to the very norms of reason and truth, too, and that includes the grounds of their own academic fields, habits that scholars and inquirers generally take for granted.  When you respond to a conference talk by pointing out some deficiencies in the evidence the speaker has invoked, the speaker has full justification to ask in return whether you are relying on a concept of evidence that doesn’t really pertain.  This reflective counter was one of the basic moves of deconstruction.  Ideas, images, and words had to be examined, and so were the very standards of examination themselves.

That’s the proper mode of critical reflection, they maintained, a hyper-self-consciousness, stepping back and back like Hegel does in the Phenomenology in an ever-developing practice of abstraction.  Everything is up for analysis.

That includes the disciplinary assumptions we bring to the hiring process.  You see, if those assumptions have a political dimension—and according to the academic left, they always have a political dimension—then they will affect different groups in different ways.  There are no neutral politics.  We may fairly assume that the meager presence of under-represented identities on the science faculty is due to the ostensibly apolitical standards on which we rely.  The existing professors who make hiring decisions don’t have any anti-women and anti-minority dispositions, but that doesn’t mean discrimination isn’t taking place.  The ordinary and seemingly innocent professional outlooks they adopt have an un-innocent impact.

Diversiphiles have to go this far.  Other approaches haven’t worked out.  The mission must go on, however, and if this one doesn’t issue in more diversity, if UC-Davis can’t boast three years from now a dozen hires they can put in photos in the marketing materials, they will invent some other mechanism.

There is an easier way, though.  In the news story on the Davis project, the vice-provost for academic affairs states, “Part of having a diverse student body poised for success is having a diverse faculty.”  There is no evidence for that, but no matter.  The vice-provost continues: “Part of having intellectual leadership in research and scholarship is having a diverse faculty.  Part of bringing students of color into graduate school and academic careers is having a diverse faculty.”

Okay, then, let’s have the vice-provost start the process.  He is a white man.  He should show his integrity and commitment by stepping down and asking Davis to put an under-represented figure in his place.  No white males should apply for that empty post, either.  When the Democratic Party had aspirants to a leadership post explain their viability, one of them famously pointed out that her job would be to tell white people to be quiet and step aside. That opinion follows logically from the demand for more diversity.  Any white academic in a leadership position who insists on changing the demographic should start with himself.

 

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