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Discovering Diversity

posted: 9.17.13 by Steve Bernhardt

I’ve made it a habit to teach intro comp each fall, in part to learn more about how to use Writer’s Help, but mostly because I enjoy working with new students. After a letter in which they introduce themselves to me as readers and writers, we get off to a fast start with a paper on campus diversity. In our last Middle States Accreditation Report, UD was dinged for not being sufficiently diverse in its faculty, its student body, or its administration (too white, too regional). So a campus-wide goal has been to create a more diverse campus, and we have a number of programmatic and research initiatives underway, in addition to more strategic recruitment.

New students are learning the institutional context, so the assignment works well. They can use the Web to look at the Middle States report, or the President’s diversity initiative, or the feature articles on new hires. I provide some links to a thoughtful series in the New York Times, and it is a simple task to Google “campus diversity” and find numerous links to campus activities, as well as court cases, such as the University of Texas US Supreme Court case on race-conscious admissions.

The central challenge of the assignment, however, is for students to meet, interview, and profile someone who  is quite different from themselves, and to use that person’s perspective and reported experiences, combined with their own, to develop a discussion of diversity on campus. I was at first a little nervous about asking students to go out and meet someone different, but they engage readily with the task. I urge them to take advantage of the assignment to meet someone new, to strike up a conversation, and perhaps to start a relationship with someone whose company they might not otherwise enjoy.

Students like the assignment, and we get to think through some tricky issues of gender, politics, race, nationality, and community. We get to consider the individual vs. the group, while considering the limits of stereotypes or cultural presuppositions. We discuss what to do in classes where TAs or professors speak a strongly-inflected English as a second language, or where the single Black student sits off to the side, or where the Chinese student is never approached conversationally. We talk about affinity groups, support groups, campus social life, and religion on campus. As part of the assignment, students have to introduce some object, typically a picture of their interviewee, but sometimes a voice clip or video. They are expected to record the language of the interviewee and show they know how to thread quoted language into expository text. One way or another, they are expected to develop an engaging portrait of another individual and to start comparing perspectives on difference. Most do, and most say they are better off for doing so.

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