Collaboration & Diversity


I’ve been a longtime follower of this blog, and have recently found myself in an opportunity to potentially do something about an instance of racism and sexism in my department. However, because I am a first year student working with a well-established professor, I could greatly use some advice from people experienced with dealing with these sorts of issues in academia.


Over the past week, my supervisor invited the students working with him to group sessions to discuss ways in which we could promote collaboration in the department, something he has been investigating practically and theoretically for a number of years. The problem is that, looking around the room, one could not help but notice that all of the half dozen people he surrounds himself with are white men.  This surprised me, because he has generally been supportive of feminist and anti-racist scholarship, but of course it should not be that surprising (unfortunately) that this interest does not pan out in practice. That said, as a white male myself, I’m having trouble determining how a professor with an open-door policy and nominally feminist viewpoints is subtly driving away all but a select group of people. I’ve asked women in my department, but they have generally been adverse to discussing this problem fully.


It seems to me that these serious and frank discussions about group work are an ideal moment to discuss the barriers to participation present in this group, but I’m not quite sure what to actually say. The worst part is that people have already commented on the homogeneity of the group, so it’s not that this is an unknown problem.


Do you have any advice for a young graduate student trying to make a small section of the university more hospitable to women and people of color?



The problem here, in its broad contours, is dispiritingly familiar.  One difficulty in addressing it is that the broad contours aren’t, I think, enough to assess what might be in play in this particular group and setting.  But let me speculate based on what I draw from your description.


The lack of diversity in those surrounding Professor X, combined with the women in your department demonstrating reluctance to discuss it, indicates that whatever scholarly and theoretical commitments Prof. X has, he minimally cannot effectively mentor women.  Why that is I can’t confidently assay, but it’s safe to assume that there are reasons non-white and/or non-male students eschew his company and mentoring.  I can infer from your description at least some of what might inform their doing so:  That he would summon together a group to discuss greater collaboration and not ensure that the group is diverse suggests some arrogance.  He may attest to wanting diversity and collaboration, but his conduct suggests he wishes to do so only from the confines of his comfort zone, surrounded by people like himself and, worse, presumably beholden to him as his advisees.  Whatever his intentions in this – and I don’t rule out that the error is unconscious – his incuriosity about what’s producing real world disparities in “collaboration” coupled with a desire to mull it over with his privileged set of white male students likely points to some of why he’s avoided.  This is not an open-door policy in practice and whatever collegiality his circle of students may have, it appears from my vantage to suggest clannishness.     


Given the way you describe all this and your own status within the department, I think, regrettably, that you ought not try to make this slice of your department more hospitable.  Perhaps more accurately, I doubt you have the power to do so.  Others have tried and failed.  The issue has been raised and left unaddressed in any meaningful or likely-to-succeed way.  Moreover, I think the better route for allies in such a context is not to try to draw in those on the margins, but go to where those on the margins reside first. 


Since you don’t know why people avoid this professor or, minimally, stay out of his select circle, working to draw them in closer contact with him could radically backfire.  You don’t really know whether he’d welcome them, after all.  It could also appear insensitive to their own judgments, judgments already made manifest in their giving him a wide berth.  Unless you know of a non-white and/or non-male student who wants entry into this circle, what would be the purpose of trying to achieve greater diversity by convincing them to join?  Whatever benefits study and collaboration with Professor X might afford, I doubt anyone in the department will be ignorant of them.  There is, as you already discern, some counter-pressure that keeps them away and, not knowing what that might be, you should defer to their judgments about what is in their own interests.  Instead, seek out contact and community with those outside Prof. X’s circle via other routes, work or social.  You sound like a very good ally and I can well imagine your disappointment with how the group that professionally draws you seems disturbingly exclusive.  I wish there were a way that you could alter that.  You can certainly mention it to your in-group peers, but again, everyone seems already alert to it.  So I think the better course is just to seek out, as an individual, connections with the wider circle of your departmental peers, taking them on their own terms.


I hasten to emphasize that all of the above is very particularly calibrated to your being a first year graduate student.  You’re only just learning the lay of the land and there are distant territories you can’t know yet.  So take what I say in that spirit.  If, on longer acquaintance, you discover that your peer group with Prof. X shares your dismay and disappointment, some sort of collective effort might be fruitful.  What if Prof. X hosted a meeting on collaboration and no one came?  He might then be obliged to adjust and listen to concerns others have voiced.  But until then, do what you can to make yourself a good colleague to your peers and put to the side working to improve this group until you know more.


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