Readers Respond: Diversity Statement
In Fall 2020, the Graduate Student Council Steering Committee and newsletter team decided to create a new newsletter format allowing readers and authors to engage in constructive dialog and exchange of ideas about the articles published in AAALGrads. In this section of the newly introduced "Reader Response Form," Ashley Moore (University of British Columbia) responds to Ahmad Alharthi's (University of Washington) Fall 2020 piece on writing diversity statements. Below you will find the original article, followed by the response.
Original Piece: How to Write a Diversity Statement
"Professional Development Corner" article by Ahmad A. Alharthi, University of Washington
Separate from the teaching and research statements, the diversity statement is a document explaining the extent to which one is able to contribute to a culture of equity and inclusion. It functions as one piece of evidence for one’s effort to address diversity issues regarding teaching, research, and service. To help you get started with your statement, I will explain below the possible sections of a diversity statement and what each section might entail. When writing this statement, considerations typically revolve around certain keywords, including the words making up the title of this issue—“race,” “equality,” “justice,” and “allyship”—along with others that I will also mention below.
Before we go into each section, two important points need to be sorted out. First, you may want to spend some time thinking whether you would like your statement to be past-oriented or future-oriented (or some combination of both). In other words, are you going to highlight your commitment and contribution from past experiences, or are you going to discuss your growth and awareness about diversity, thus primarily explaining your future plans? The guidelines for writing a diversity statement published by the University of California at San Diego allow both options, as applicable to the respective candidate, but state that “a demonstrated record of past effort is given greater weight than articulating awareness of barriers or stating future plans” (University of California, San Diego, n.d.). No matter which option you choose, the key is authenticity. So, in your discussion, make sure that you talk about real involvement (from the past) and/or realistic projects (for the future).
Second, make a decision as to whether you would like to mainly discuss your personal identity or your engagement with disenfranchised groups (or some combination of both). If you decide to talk about your personal identity, you can do so in terms of either acknowledging your own privileges (Golash-Boza, 2016) or, as applicable, by discussing your own disadvantages. On the other hand, if you decide to talk about your relation to historically underrepresented groups, you can focus, as appropriate, on racial/ethnic minorities, immigrant/first-generation students, women in higher education, or multilingual/international students. With that said, Beck (2018) points out that not disclosing one’s personal identity might be preferred by some universities. For example, at the University of California at San Diego, attention is given to specific efforts related to diversity on the part of the applicant “regardless of personal demographic characteristics” (Contributions, n.d., as cited in Beck, 2018).
Now, for the actual statement, you may begin by explaining your understanding of the notion of “diversity” before you discuss your commitment to diversity in relation to the three major goals of higher education: teaching and pedagogy; research and scholarship; and service and leadership. When asked her opinion about the diversity statement, Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan, explains that while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing a diversity statement, “every faculty member’s work connects to at least one of these goals” (Smith, 2019). So, the decision is yours as to which of the three goals to highlight most. Your decision can be based on your past record and on what the institution applied to values the most among these three goals. Note that you will likely be asked to provide a separate document for your teaching philosophy and another one for your research. Therefore, your discussion of teaching and research in the diversity statement will not only be less detailed, but also be exclusively concerned with how diversity features in those two areas.
In the case of teaching, this is where you should discuss how you are able to create an accessible learning space for your students. Give examples of and provide a rationale for decolonizing your teaching practices and diversifying your curriculum, where a variety of voices and a range of perspectives are represented in your course content. Notions relevant to this section might also include “access,” “inclusive teaching,” and “anti-racist pedagogy.” Indeed, even the notion of “active learning” can be linked to diversity in that it promotes various teaching methods which can serve different learning styles and help students with diverse educational backgrounds. If not already, familiarize yourself with some of those terms and see what each one entails. You would be surprised with how you might be already implementing some of those ideas without even realizing.
As for your research section, discuss to what extent your research addresses social justice issues. For example, does it engage with civil rights and/or human rights issues? Reflect on how your research is focused on one or more of the “big eight” social identifiers: age, ability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, and religion. If you have a dissertation chapter that addresses any of those issues, this section would be the place to summarize your chapter.
Finally, with regard to service, this can include anything that is neither teaching nor research, from programmatic work and administrative experience to leadership opportunities and service on relevant committees and task forces. Have you participated in tutoring or mentoring programs targeted towards underserved groups? Did you take part in designing curricula or compiling resources with diverse writers (e.g., international students) in mind?
Willis (2017) talks about probing yourself as a strategy, where you would examine who you are, where you stand, what you did, and what you really believe in with regard to diversity issues. Just as importantly, remember to ask for feedback on your statement from colleagues, your advisor and, if applicable, the career center at your institution. As language professionals, we are already in the midst of efforts to promote issues related to diversity, including, among others, respecting students’ home languages, ensuring fair assessment practices, and reducing stereotype threats. To me, that is a huge component of what we do in applied linguistics and language studies in general. So, it is crucial to reflect on your past and try to translate that mindset into words.
Beck, S. L. (2018). Developing and writing a diversity statement. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
Golash-Boza, T. (2016, June 10). The effective diversity statement. Inside Higher Ed.
Smith, B. (2019, January 14). The case for diversity statements. LSA on Point.
University of California, San Diego. (n.d.). Guidelines for applicants writing statement.
Willis, D. S. (2017, August 21). Getting up to speed on diversity. Inside Higher Ed.
Response: Are Diversity Statements Nonperformative? A Critical Discussion
Article response by Ashley R. Moore, University of British Columbia
Most graduate students are keeping one eye on the conditions of the job markets we will have to navigate upon graduation, and for those hoping to stay in academia, the increasing number of job postings requiring a diversity statement as part of the application package will not have gone unnoticed. Given this trend, Alharthi’s (2020) recent guide to understanding this emerging genre is timely and practical, and will no doubt be used by many graduates across the field of applied linguistics as they attempt to secure employment.
Alharthi’s piece also offers us a chance to think critically about the intentions behind diversity statements and how they actually circulate and function within institutions of higher education and the wider systems of power in which they are entrenched.
The practice of institutions requesting diversity statements seems to have gained traction around the mid-2010s (Kelsky, 2014). As Alharthi notes, the genre’s ostensible function is as a form of evidence that hiring committees can use to judge an applicant’s ability to contribute to an institution’s professed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work. But could there be other potential uses of the text? I’ve found Sara Ahmed’s (2006) concept of nonperformativity to be a useful tool for thinking about the uses of diversity statements.
For Ahmed, a nonperformative text “works” precisely because it fails to bring about its declared purpose. Ahmed gives the example of the Macpherson report (1999), the result of a public inquiry into London’s Metropolitan Police Service and its mishandling of a racially motivated murder. The report concluded that the police force was institutionally racist, and offered 70 recommendations for reform. However, Ahmed argues that the report was nonperformative because it failed to consider individual racism, implicitly absolving individual officers perpetrating racist acts and thus allowing racism to continue to poison London’s police force.
In her exploration of the trajectories and uses of various EDI-related policies and documents in UK higher education, Ahmed shows convincingly that many such texts, especially those that purport to “do” antiracist work, in fact do just the opposite, leaving systemic and individual racism unchallenged. And although we graduate students will be writing our diversity statements individually, it’s fair to consider them institutional texts, since it will be institutions that demand we write them. Indeed, I hope that the following arguments are not read as a critique of Alharthi’s guide to writing diversity statements, but of the very systems that require them.
Diversity statements can reduce social justice work to buzzy keywords.
Critical applied linguists know that such work is a restive process (Pennycook, 2001). Oppressive power pools and dissembles, even seeping into the critical project itself, meaning that it requires lifelong commitment and reflexive action. The quickly coalescing genre of diversity statements encourages us to think of EDI in terms of acronyms and keywords, strung into formulaic sequences (Henry, 2015). The more mundane diversity statements become, the more they obscure the actual ongoing work they claim to represent.
Diversity statements can fetishize equity-seeking groups.
Alharthi’s invocation of the “big eight” social identifiers (age, ability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, and religion), with its echoes of the “big five” pursued by safari game hunters (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo), usefully highlights the ways in which equity-seeking groups become fetishized within diversity statements. The statements act to transform experiences related to equity-seeking groups into forms of cultural and symbolic capital that will hopefully be converted into economic capital in the form of a job offer (Bourdieu, 1986). Through this same process, diversity statements encourage us to commodify such experiences and the real individuals involved, carefully inserting references to Indigenous, queer, and disabled people like so many trophies hung on a wall.
Diversity statements can perpetuate an oppressive status quo by uncritically rebranding it as “already doing” EDI work.
Not everyone will have a wealth of EDI-related work to draw on as they write their diversity statements. However, the demands of the genre encourage us to come up with something to fill the required 1–2 pages, and it seems likely that activities that actually have nothing inherently to do with the pursuit of equity, diversity, and inclusion are desperately “rebranded.” Ultimately, this will likely have the effect of perpetuating the status quo in applied linguistics, a status quo that has been critiqued for its complicity with epistemological racism (Kubota, 2020), the reification of standardised language practices (Flores & Rosa, 2015), and opportunity gatekeeping (McNamara, 2010), among other troubling practices.
Diversity statements can promote nonperformative effects for both institutions and individuals.
Ahmed (2006) argues that EDI-related documents “might … perform a lie insofar as they represent the university as if it has principles that it does not have” (p. 114). It could be argued that, in requiring applicants to submit diversity statements, universities are constructing themselves as already-equitable, already-diverse, and already-inclusive. The same effect might be a consequence of writing a diversity statement; As we construct ourselves as “already-EDI,” the likelihood of us actually believing that our work is done increases, and the text fulfils its nonperformative function—undoing the very work it describes.
Despite the concerns I’ve shared here, diversity statements might still prove to be tools for transformative work. A first step, Ahmed (2006) instructs us, is to exercise a healthy skepticism regarding diversity statements’ capacity to do anything that actually promotes EDI. A second step might then be to use them as critical lenses, “exposing gaps between words and deeds” (p. 125). Each time a job advertisement is crafted and sent out into the world, individuals involved in sustaining the institution could use the occasion to measure the gap between the positive image it creates for them and the reality that will meet the successful applicant. In a similar vein, we graduate students might write two diversity statements, one on paper that celebrates our work to date, and another on our conscience that also records the work we haven’t done but must. If we find ourselves with limited or no experience in enacting EDI, we might do better to follow Alharthi’s (2020) suggested strategy of writing a future-oriented statement, rather than dressing up in superficial keywords past activities that do not specifically realize the enactment of EDI.
As for the tension that emerges when our genuine efforts to support equity-seeking groups become entextualized in a diversity statement and, in turn, fetishized within the social practice of finding employment, this is not easily resolved. One strategy can be to use each occasion to write a diversity statement as an opportunity to first listen again to those groups and renew our understanding of how we can become better accomplices to their flourishing. Better informed, we can act to close any gaps that may have opened up between our commitments and our practices. Lastly, our diversity statements, looming in the not-too-distant future, compel us to pursue equity, diversity, and inclusion in everything we do today—and if we can do that, the gap between our words and deeds might not be so wide when we finally come to put pen to paper and conscience.
Ahmed, S. (2006). The nonperformativity of antiracism. Meridians, 7(1), 104-126. https://doi.org/10.2979/MER.2006.7.1.104
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). Greenwood.
Henry, A. (2015). “We especially welcome applications from members of visible minority groups”: Reflections on race, gender and life at three universities. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 18(5), 589-610.
Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Ashley R. Moore is a Ph.D. candidate and International Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Language & Literacy Education, University of British Columbia, which occupies the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people. His empirical and theoretical work on queer inclusion in language education has been published in TESOL Quarterly, The Modern Language Journal, ELT Journal, and the Journal of Language, Identity & Education. Under the guidance of Dr. Ryuko Kubota, his dissertation research explores a newly theorised construct, first language dissociation, among Japanese late plurilinguals.