My ambivalence about "diversity" required courses and who teaches them

Most universities and colleges have a multi-culturalism/diversity course requirement somewhere in the curriculum, but who teaches these classes?  It has been hotly debated whether these courses themselves are necessary. I do favor the courses for the reason that it is often the only class a student will be exposed to learning about non-western, non-dominant population's cultures, histories and traditions.  In a rapidly changing United States which is headed into being a majority-minority nation, and with many big cities already majority minority, knowing about non-western histories and cultures is essential to mutual understanding and respect in our diverse society.  These classes oftentimes also criticize the dominant historical and political narrative that students are so accustomed to hearing and forces students to evaluate history and politics from another point of view.  As well these understandings will come into play in a globalized world where the business of corporations and governments traverse nations. 

I believe these classes are needed, but I am very ambivalent about who actually teaches these courses. More often than not, it is women who teach women's studies, African Americans who teach African American studies classes, and other minorities who teach required diversity/multiculturalism classes. On the one hand, members of these groups may have a strong interest in these subjects and through their Ph.D. training have become experts in those fields.  It is true that the most Ph.D.s in Women's Studies are awarded to women and Ph.D.s in African American Studies is awarded to African Americans,  but it is not exclusively true as shown by my friends Jeanne Theoharris (Brooklyn College), an expert in Afrian American studies, and Paul Frymer (Princeton) an expert in race and ethnicity. 

But the opposite is not true.  It seems kind of stupid to even say it, but not all female scholars are scholars of women's studies nor are all minority scholars experts in race and ethnicty. Yet, it happens all the time that women and minorities are conscripted to teach these multicultural classes regardless of whether their own research expertise involves multiculturalism or diversity.  There is an essentialism underlying these decisions to tap women or minority faculty to teach these classes when the faculty member's research expertise is not in the area of diversity.  The assumption is  that somehow the faculty member, by virtue of being female/nonwhite must have some special expertise in the area of race or sex, just by being a woman or minority.  But ultimately it is about the power dynamic.  When a chair of a department tells you to teach a class, and you do not have tenure, you have little choice but to comply. 

I found myself in such a situation.  I am not a race or sex/gender expert.  I am an expert in law and legal institutions.  Nevertheless, at my first job, I felt so lucky to have a tenure track job straight out of grad school, that I was eager to please.  (In retrospect, I wonder whether the chair of the department routinely asked all faculty members whether they would teach that class.)  When asked if I would teach the multiculturalism class, I agreed, saying I would offer a class on the 14th amendment's equal protection clause as it has been applied based on race, sex, and sexual orientation.  I figured it would not be so bad to teach multiculuralism if it intersected with my actual expertise.  I was so wrong.

So what are some negative effects of having mainly women and minorities?  First, it further reinforces the idea that race/sex/sexual orientation are specialized courses about someone elese's history, not American history.  The drawback of creating these courses is that students often fail to grasp that African American history is part and parcel of American history, not a detour from it.  When primarily women and faculty of color teach these courses, it reinforces the sterotype that these classes are about "other people's" issues. If diversity/multiculturalism is so important, why don't white men and tenured faculty in large numbers teach the class?

Second, speaking from experience at having taught such a class for four quarters, these classes are especially draining on the faculty member for a number of reasons.  Because it is often a required course, the professor is working with a conscripted army rather than a voluntary one.  Students don't enjoy required courses; many dig in their heels out of resentment and often challenge the instructor's teachings. Many professors teach required courses and they all complain about unengaged students and why they would rather teach an upperlevel elective.

But there are very specific challenges to teaching a diversity/multiculturalism courses. I felt drained not so much that I was being constantly and directly challenged by my students at a former university I used to teach at, but that I routinely was met with students (and not just white men) who did not actually believe racism or sexism existed because they were either too naive and/or they grew up in monocultural environments.  I did not anticipate how emotionally draining the class would be for me to have to walk into class several times a week and prove over and over that racism and sexism actually exist, which were very real features of my own life.  To them it was just academic.  To me, it was the actual life I live.

Third, it can take a toll on the faculty member's teaching evaluations because these are unpopular courses to begin with, and a toll on the faculty's overall well being and job satisfaction.  By the fourth time I taught the diversity seminary, I was exhausted and I begged out of it.  I had a good argument.  I pointed out to the chair of my department that I also routinely taught Intro. to American government, an entry level class taught to almost all non-majors that most professors also don't like to teach.  I argued that it was unfair for her to stick me with two required "service" courses (no one wanted to teach them, yet they are essential to the curriculum) and that my teaching evaluations were taking a beating and I was pre-tenure.  I offered to continue to teach Intro. to American but I needed a break from the diversity class.  I explained the reasons outlined above.  I do not believe I ever said that I refused to teach the class ever again. 

The chair was quite reasonable at first.  She responded, "No one should have to teach a class they absolutely hated teaching."  But she argued with me, saying how important the class was.  I responded that I had no particular expertise beyond being a woman and minority myself and that if it was so important, have a white male teach it.  She acquiesced only to retaliate by insinuating several years down the road during my tenure decision that I was "difficult" and not a team player for saying I hated the class. I very much doubt that I was the only faculty member to come to her to ask to be taken out of teaching a class they hated.  And I never refused to teach it in the future.

After tenure, I did not dump the class from my teaching lineup.  I changed the readings very slightly, renamed the course as a law course "Equal protection under the law?  Women, African Americans, and the LGBT" , and most importantly, taught the class as a mid-level political science requirement rather than as the diversity seminar.  The same class, with the same lectures, worked a lot better and students actually enjoyed the class.  I certainly enjoyed teaching it more.  There is something about labeling it the diversity seminar that brought out the worst and killed the class.

Moral of the story: to all chairs of departments, please think about the effects of your decision to fill those required diversity classes.  Don't just dump them by default on women and minority professors.  Even if the course is within the professor's area of substantive interest, ask them how the class is going for them. Better yet, tenured, white and male professors should all seek to include diverse perspectives (if yourt subject matter will at all allow) in their non-diversity requied classes.  This move would go a long way towards showing students that the concerns of minorities should not only be confined to those groups and their professors.

With much sadness, I recently learned of a friend's decision to leave academia  because she was so burnt out from teaching a women's studies required course to always hostile students.  She described it to me as "constant blowback".  If those classes are that important, spread it around, have other white male faculty teach it and have tenured faculty teach it.  Have them design the course around their own expertise as I did.  The course that started as the diversity seminar is still in my teaching lineup.  I look forward to teaching it to my very diverse Brooklyn College students, but it will never again allow it to be labeled as a multiculturalism/diversity requirement.