Group Identity (Part Six)

This is the sixth installment in a series of essays on group identity on college campuses that comes from a speech I gave back in 2007. You can find the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth here. In this essay, I will continue discussing what happens with a fixation on group identity, problems I saw playing out 15 years ago. And these problems have only increased since then.

This installment begins with how group identity damages relationships between students. The speech is rewritten in the indented sections, and I interrupt periodically with my current comments about what I wrote so long ago. 

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

            Between Students

Perhaps most damaging, group identity destroys the relationships between the students themselves. 

Today, Hispanics are suspicious of Blacks. Whites are suspicious of Hispanics. Everyone is suspicious of Whites. And it is human nature to continually seek confirmation of those suspicions. 

As a result, students segregate themselves in a variety of ways.

A current trend on college campuses is the development of segregated departments, which will be discussed in more detail later. But briefly, rather than offering English 101, the course is now often offered as African American English 101, Chicano English 101, Asian American English 101, etc.

Therefore, classes in these departments separate students by race, through a self-imposed segregation. Most of the classes in these departments are filled with people from within the group, not people outside the group. In fact, students have relayed to me that when students of a different race sign up for such a class, they are ostracized and silenced, making them feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Some of the most active clubs on campus are often the Black Student Union or MeChA. And colleges even hold graduation ceremonies by race.

This does little to enhance relationships, or even understanding, between students.

Speech

Does the problem with this really need to be explained?? Yet this practice has not only continued, but it has accelerated and been increasingly justified and promoted as the only moral good.

When our college began the separation of students by race in English classes, it was so disappointing and terribly detrimental to the student experience. That is obvious to those who believe in the importance of diversity and to the importance of understanding those who are different from us. But not to those who want to play the game of identity politics.

This is another area where my observations from 15 years ago seem almost quaint by comparison to what is happening in education today. Yes, all of these things are happening and then some. There have actually been instances of elementary schools as well as high schools segregating students by race – blacks in one room and whites in another – for instruction, for seminars, for workshops. And back to the subject of teachers for a moment, many K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities have required staff and faculty attendance at segregated professional development workshops and diversity training sessions.

I am shocked that this is happening in the United States of America in 2022 and for what it is teaching children about gathering with those who look like them and to separate from those who are different.

But moving on to another area where the focus on group identity has terrible consequences, identity politics has negative consequences when it comes to hiring faculty. 

Hiring Practices

Group identity also impacts hiring practices, where the most important qualification for a new faculty member becomes his or her group membership rather than his or her competence in the classroom. Hiring committees typically include the previously mentioned compliance officer (in some states these are required by law) to ensure that candidates selected for interviews reflect the prescribed racial makeup desired by … well… I am not exactly sure who decides these things. I have served on plenty of hiring committees where the compliance officer was not satisfied with the pool of candidates we selected to interview. So we were repeatedly sent back to the drawing board to find more diverse candidates.

Ironically, the committee is not allowed to know the racial identity of candidates as that information is not included on applications forwarded to the members, and it is illegal to ask. Yet we must pick the correct number of blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, gays, and women for interviews. So how do we do this?

Speech

I honestly don’t know if it is still the case that racial/gender information is not allowed on applications. (If I had to guess, that information is probably now highlighted right at the top of every application file.)

We are forced to look for covert indications of group identity on applications and transcripts. Club membership in MeCHA lets us know we have a Chicano applicant. Courses in Homosexuality in the Early American Novel indicate we probably have a gay or lesbian candidate. 

But that also means that an African-American who does not belong to the Black Student Union might be passed up for not being obviously black on paper.

And what does this teach job applicants? On your resume, do not highlight individuality. Highlight group membership. 

The most commonly known impact group identity has on hiring practices is with the policy of affirmative action. Of course, this is a whole lecture in and of itself, but let me just touch on a few points.

Conscientious new hires under affirmative action often wonder, “Was I hired because I was the best for the job or because the school needed a black, a woman, or an Asian?” I personally was told point blank that I was hired because I was a woman. The directive to hire a woman came from on high. No man was even considered for my position. That is very difficult to admit.

This causes self-doubt in the mind of the new hire. And this causes the established faculty members to question the qualifications of these new teachers.

One of my colleagues was hired because he is Mexican. He was also told this when he showed up for his first day of teaching. And that has since been a burden for him. He has felt that people look at him differently, as perhaps not truly qualified but only hired because of his last name. Whether people actually look at him that way or not is irrelevant. The circumstances of his hiring told him that people are suspicious of him. He has felt it necessary to work twice as hard as others to prove his worth, a burden many professional women complain about frequently as well.

Such thinking does nothing to shore up people’s view of themselves as individuals of achievement. 

Speech

In the second installment, I discussed how at the end of a California budget crisis that lasted nearly ten years, the hiring floodgates opened, and every department was approved to hire full-time faculty, resulting in a 50% increase of full timers at the school – a huge, sudden increase. The English Department, where I was vice chair, was approved to hire three.

This meant putting together three hiring committees; I was a part of all three. 

The hiring procedure at the college began with the committee reviewing applications and conducting interviews before choosing its top three candidates. Those candidates would be sent to the college president, where they would be interviewed, and the president had the power to make the final decision on which of them would be hired.

For the first round of hires, those of us on the committee were unaware of the racial requirements set forth by the president’s office. We sent the president the names of two women who had been teaching for us as adjuncts for years and a third who was a stranger but had impressed the entire committee. 

All three were rejected by the president. We were told that no candidate who had already taught for the college as an adjunct would be considered. And the president wasn’t interested in hiring the third.

This made no sense. This seemed…stupid. There are so many benefits to hiring someone who has worked for us as an adjunct:

  1. The adjunct is already familiar with the people that he or she will be working with, and so both the candidate and the full-time English faculty know whether they are professionally compatible.
  1. The adjunct is already familiar with the curriculum and with the overall philosophy of the department, dramatically reducing the time needed for training and orientation.
  1. The hiring committee has already officially evaluated the adjunct multiple times. So they already know the candidate’s work ethic, their interest in participating in the department, the quality of their ideas, their reaction to constructive criticism, and the response they have gotten from their students via student evaluations. For anyone who has been involved in hiring, you know that these things are impossible to detect of a stranger through an interview process.
  1. Candidates are often willing to say anything during an interview, whether it is true or not. And there is no way of knowing until it is too late. One problem contributing to this is that it is nearly impossible to give someone a negative reference in the state of California. Only information that has been officially documented can be included, and it is often difficult to officially document anything. Certainly someone can provide an unenthusiastic reference, but it is difficult to read between the lines of such things. So you truly do not know whom you are hiring. 

On our second attempt to convene the English hiring committee, a full-time English professor on the hiring committee emailed one of our adjuncts that we had, for years, hoped to bring on as a full-time instructor. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, he attended a meeting with the new president and was told that she would not consider hiring anyone for a teaching position who was NOT white. So he took it upon himself to email the white adjunct to let her know that she had zero chance of being hired and shouldn’t even bother applying for the position.

He ended up being forced into early retirement for the breach of confidence, and the adjunct sued the college for discrimination, eventually being awarded a six-figure settlement as long as she signed an NDA and promised to never work for the college again. She may have won the case, and she deserved to win, but what she went through to earn the settlement was personally devastating and career-ending. 

So we hired women of color. And as it turned out, they all turned out to be problematic. Plus they wasted no time in revealing so.

One, immediately after accepting the position, announced that she would be starting the semester one week after classes began because she already had a trip to Jamaica planned. This was not revealed during the hiring process, and I suppose it never occurred to her that she could cancel or reschedule the trip. After all, missing the first week of classes is not the same as simply starting at a bank or an ad agency a week later. No, it sets the tone. It lets students know that missing class for a trip is an acceptable option. And it reduces the amount of overall classroom time and thus the content taught. Remember, this was before the proliferation of online classes and long before virtual classes had ever been considered.

Another, while we were sitting with her to determine her class schedule for her first semester with us, announced that she was pregnant and could only teach in the mornings. During her interview, we informed all candidates that we were specifically hiring people to teach in the evenings for the first couple of years. Those were the classes we most desperately needed filled. This candidate told us that there would be no problem with this schedule. But once she was hired, she said she would not be able to work evenings because once she had the baby, her husband could not be expected to take care of the new baby. When we reminded her that during the interview she told us she could work nights and that she never indicated it might be a problem because she was pregnant, she told us, in no uncertain terms, that yes, she said that so she would get hired. And yes, that she did not reveal that she was pregnant. And she made sure to remind us that it was illegal for us to have asked her anyway. In her first semester, she refused to take the classes she was hired for, and she would be taking maternity leave. I was stunned. That was the first of what turned out to be four babies that she had in five years. During her four year probationary period, she was out on maternity leave more than she was teaching.

The third refused to assign essays in her English composition classes because, she claimed, they were too intimidating for students. The other two soon adopted this philosophy as well. This one also led the charge leading to maybe a dozen racial discrimination complaints filed by them within four years, before they even gained tenure. Those complaints were not only against some of us in the English Department but also against others across campus. Do I need to explain how this destroyed the functioning of not only the department but also of the school? 

In the next installment, I will discuss the damage done to the curriculum when a college is wrapped up in group identity.

2 thoughts on “Group Identity (Part Six)

  1. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Seven) – The Writing Life

  2. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Ten) – The Writing Life

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