• April 19, 2014

A Case of Mistaken Diversity

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Uh-oh. They think I'm gay.

Until that moment, my first on-campus interview was going well. Everything was by the book: In the dining room of the campus hotel, I had a light breakfast with the search-committee chair. A brief walk across the small campus and then I was in the department's conference room. I shook hands with three men and three women who looked almost identical to each other: aged and ageless. The conference room was painted a dull gray. It smelled like a warehouse of Manila envelopes.

I sat down. The chair of the search committee explained the job. Without looking at her notes, she almost perfectly recited the position announcement. Then she affected that artificially informal tone that is the mainstay of interviews, urging candidates to relax and, knowing all the while, that they're being closely, closely watched.

The last two candidates weren't good matches, she said, so the department was "very interested" in me. She said that in a way that articulated the quotation marks. "We're very glad to consider you as a candidate for this position. You've got a lot of experience, and you'd bring much-needed diversity to our faculty."

Wait a minute. That didn't make sense. What was "diverse" about me?

I am a pale, white, heterosexual male in my early 30s. My hair had just started to gray, and it was probably obvious that I had stopped working out in order to focus on getting a job. I looked just as unexceptional as the members of the search committee—only I was a tad younger. So I wasn't diverse based on race or age. Then it hit me.

Keep smiling, was my next thought. The chair took a sip from her bottled water. She cleared her throat, double-checked her notes, and began a history of the college and the department.

I did my best to look attentive as I tried to figure out the dilemma I was in. What was I supposed to say? Was there anything to be said at all?

"If they think I'm gay, then gay I'll be" was my first reaction. I desperately needed a job. Looking at my notes for that job search, I see that I applied for 137 openings that year. This interview was my only campus visit, and the odds were overwhelming that I would not receive another such interview elsewhere. The clock had stopped ticking: The lease on my apartment had lapsed. I was living on borrowed time, and I was running out of the last dose of borrowed, albeit federally subsidized, money.

I tuned back in to the interview. It was clear that the chair was rambling. One of the committee members was doodling on a pad; another was squinting at my vitae. I couldn't tell if he was scrutinizing it or if he was falling asleep.

In bringing up my (supposed) diversity, I understood that the chair was simultaneously encouraging me to "come out" and drop the pretense of straightness. But there was a problem. I could not figure out how to "act" gay. An arsenal of stereotypes came to mind. No, those would not do.

I thought more shrewdly. I didn't necessarily have to act out the role that was given to me. If they think I'm gay, as long as I didn't say anything to the contrary, they would continue to think so. If I didn't say anything now, and they bought it and hired me, then they couldn't fire me because of something I wasn't.

I had to keep quiet, not only because I needed a job, but also because the only alternative was to confess my straightness, which would have damned me to looking like a closet case. Because it hadn't been said directly—really, what is ever said directly during an interview?—my confession would inevitably be an awkward one. It would make the committee look foolish, and who hires a candidate who makes the committee look foolish? There was no way for either of us to recover.

As I kept thinking, the interview kept going. It seemed to go on without me. One of the senior professors disagreed with the institutional history that the head of the search committee was narrating. It was therefore his task, he said, to provide a history of his own. The committee turned inward. I listened and kept thinking.

There was a larger issue lurking behind my predicament: I didn't know how to act, and I was tired of acting. Graduate school had more than satisfied any desire I had to act. Graduate students are, by default, actors: We pose; we experiment, we take the persona of the professor in seminar into the undergraduate classroom and play with it. We learn and then abide by a set of rules that are unnatural to us at the time. We ignore attractive students who are only a year or two younger than us, or at least we figure out other ways to flirt with them. We desperately try to act older. Often, only our desperation shows. A fellow graduate student tried to dye her hair so it matched the gray of her dissertation director. When that didn't work, she bought a custom-made gray wig. I emulated my dissertation director so well that I knew when his sciatica would flare up. My back would ache, too.

What I had first faked became second nature. Then it became nature itself.

If I faked being gay, what would be the result? I might be employed, but then I would be the gay hire I wasn't, with the obligations—overt or subtle, professional or personal—that come with that role. I would not know what to do if I were called on as a spokesman to "represent." And if I didn't represent, then there would be confusion, or worse, resentment.

It was the farthest thing from my mind that, had I been hired, I would have stolen a job better suited for someone else.

Their contrasting narratives of institutional history presented, the interview returned to me. I was asked the standard battery of questions. At the early lunch, the chair's affected tone returned, this time with a vengeance. She asked me if I would like to teach classes that fulfilled "certain diversity requirements." I said yes, but I didn't elaborate or enthuse. Another committee member began to talk about housing, which led to the recommendation of realtors who knew the "alternative" parts of town. I nodded but did not inquire.

I was slowly becoming afraid of the questions they might ask, the helpful suggestions they might offer.

The remaining hours were routine: the job talk, the teaching demonstration, a brief dinner. Before I knew it, I was in the car I had rented, on my way back to the airport. Over all, I felt that the formal aspects of the interview went well, given that it was the first campus visit I had ever had.

But I knew that in those supposedly private, informal moments, I was lackluster. I wasn't surprised when I received the phone call informing me that the committee had chosen another candidate. It had found, as the chair put it, "someone with more experience." I was tempted to ask exactly what was meant by "experience," but I was really too relieved to care.

More important, I was relieved that I wouldn't have to reconsider all of this. I can't say for sure that I would have declined the job if it had been offered to me.

A candidate comes to an interview with qualifications and with a repertoire of carefully developed enthusiasms and exaggerations. There is nothing wrong with that, and having sat on the other side of the table, search committees expect those enthusiasms and exaggerations.

But equally important, and something that I think we talk less openly about, is the committee that comes to the interview with perceptions about the candidate. Some of their perceptions are false and can be fixed during the interview. Others are set in stone and will damn the candidate. And if they don't damn the candidate, those perceptions may return once the candidate takes the job to damn the entire university.

We all want academe to be more diverse than it is now We can encourage, in our students, an appreciation for diversity. We can sponsor diversity efforts. We can refashion old positions to attract diverse hires or invent new positions. But we must be careful—very careful—not to project that urge for diversity onto candidates. On the one hand, diverse hires may not want to represent whatever group a committee wants them to represent, and certainly new employees shouldn't be coerced into doing so.

On the other hand, committees run the risk of seeing diversity where there is none, creating ethical blind spots for candidates and institutions. Seeing things that don't exist is a blindness all its own.

Robert Traver is the pseudonym of a visiting professor in the humanities at a university in the Midwest.

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