Shibboleths That Exclude in the Name of Inclusion

Shibboleths That Exclude in the Name of Inclusion

Sebastian Cesario
Sebastian Cesario
11 min read

The Bible can be surprisingly relevant to academic politics. The Book of Judges tells of an internecine clash between the people of Gilead and their faithless brethren from the Ephraimite tribe, who had refused to aid Gilead against a foreign foe. Gilead retaliated mercilessly against the Ephraimites, first smashing their army and then setting a clever trap for Ephraimite survivors seeking to return home from the battlefield. Any man caught crossing the Jordan had to utter the word ‘shibboleth.’ In ordinary Hebrew, this referred to a part on a stalk of grain, but at those checkpoints it meant the difference between life and death. In the dialect of Gilead the first consonant was pronounced like the ‘sh’ in ‘shelter,’ whereas in the Ephraimite dialect it was pronounced like the ‘s’ in ‘sinister.’ In this way, a linguistic subtlety became a tool to identify and kill 42,000 enemies.

The stakes aren’t as high when universities hire faculty, but rhetorical nuances increasingly do stand watch at the gates of the professorial ranks. Many institutions now require aspiring professors to include a ‘Diversity Statement’ in their job application, alongside their curriculum vitae, research plans, and reference letters. This Diversity Statement is usually an essay about the applicant’s experiences working with people from ‘diverse’ (read: under-represented) backgrounds. Some institutions also expect the applicant to assure the hiring committee that he or she understands the nature and origins of disadvantage in American society, and can discuss these hot-button topics within the confines of accepted discourse.

Read leniently, this can be almost a trivial requirement. Most highly regarded graduate programs (i.e. the programs that train most future professors) have students and faculty from around the world, so it is reasonably straightforward to write a congenial essay about working with people from varied backgrounds and learning to understand and value cultural differences.  Many professors, being tolerant people, accept such statements as sufficient. Reviewing several example statements that the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) offers as a guide for applicants seeking to navigate their job requirements, it’s clear that the Diversity Statement genre can leave room for non-ideological essays about personal experience. (Though I doubt that most nascent professors have the time and energy to make the same heroic efforts as the authors of the examples.)

Things get more treacherous if the would-be professor is expected to hold forth on systemic disadvantage in modern society. Here, knowledge of progressive shibboleths becomes important, as pronouncements on disadvantage and under-representation might garner approving nods when phrased properly, but staunch condemnation if tweaked only slightly.

For instance, in a recent advice column for job applicants, a sociology professor asked readers to consider the question “Do you use a wide range of learning activities in the classroom and adjust your teaching to the diverse set of needs of your students?” while preparing a diversity statement. Likewise, a document with advice for graduate students seeking faculty jobs lists “Incorporating a variety of teaching styles and activities” as a way of responding to diversity in the classroom. And the New York Times, the ultimate bellwether of respectable opinion, has given voice to those who argue that new, progressive strategies (in which students spend more time discussing with peers and less time listening to experts) are particularly useful for women and minorities.

Upon hearing that reformed teaching methods are proper responses to ethnic and gender diversity, the naïve listener might be shocked to discover that women and minorities learn differently to white males. However, when presented as part of a pitch for progressive education, these assertions are received without protest. It’s not that most academics believe in inherent cognitive differences between groups; to the extent that they will countenance theories of difference, the differences are presumed to be rooted in culture and circumstances, not biology.  More importantly, the differences asserted here are favorable (at least from a certain perspective) to women and minorities. These purportedly marginalized groups benefit from more communal classroom approaches (good!), while the white (and perhaps Asian) males are the ones benefit from more traditional methods (bad!).

The attribution of communal preferences to women and minorities is what makes assertions of group differences palatable in academic settings. Without that crucial element, academic audiences would recoil from any hint at group differences. However, this crucial distinction is not always obvious to people who haven’t sat through the ‘right’ workshops. I’m aware of a job applicant answering the Diversity Question by talking about the importance of recognizing differences in learning styles among students from diverse backgrounds. The interviewers tried to encourage the applicant to correct their pronunciation of ‘shibboleth,’ but to no avail. Even when offered gentle rhetorical assistance, the interviewee stumbled, failing to offer up the correct platitudes about diverse students faring better in progressive educational methods.

And so, a superb teacher and scholar failed to impress in a job interview. I won’t identify the participants in that episode, but I will say that the interviewee was from a very different background than the disappointed interviewers. It is one of the great ironies of Diversity and Inclusion that people from very different cultural roots must discuss contentious social issues in exactly the tones favored by a certain segment of educated elites. This line between mandatory and unacceptable discourse is paper-thin, and enforced with predictable consequences for outsiders.

Another increasingly common shibboleth is to decry ‘color-blindness‘ as an inadequate answer to racism. This notion may be confusing at first, since until recently most people learned that eschewing racism meant looking beyond skin color. That is certainly a valid point—race does shape people’s experiences in society, and hence seeing the totality of a person includes seeing the effects of background on life experience. However, all experiences (including racial experiences) are multi-faceted and highly variable, so a reasonable person should be reluctant to make race-based assumptions when first interacting with someone. The totality of a person is only discerned over time (if at all), so it is not something one can quickly evaluate and respond to when answering questions about homework.

Nevertheless, on multiple occasions I’ve seen professors interrogate job applicants about their strategies for working with minority and female students. Most of the applicants offered some egalitarian statement about treating people as individuals, and reminding students who experience doubt that they are wholly capable of success in their studies. Scandalized colleagues deemed these responses grossly inadequate, having expected to hear applicants discuss systemic barriers, and the ways in which they factor race and gender into their interactions with others.

Honestly, would anybody feel comfortable discussing the ways in which they deliberately (and progressively!) treat minority students differently to others? Even now, after years of working as a professor and hearing these shibboleths, and sitting in a comfortable chair with ample time to compose this essay, I’m not sure that I can offer a sentence that captures the appropriate sentiment. I cannot imagine expecting a new STEM PhD, who has spent years studying science rather than critical race theory, to offer an adequate answer off the top of their head in the high-stakes setting of a job interview. Fortunately, in each case a majority of my colleagues forgave the fumble, but the pressures to discuss diversity issues in job interviews have only increased rather than abated, and nobody has been able to dissuade certain people from asking similarly dangerous questions in subsequent interviews.

Perhaps the most important shibboleth is the one uttered, not by the interviewee, but by the interviewer. Hiring committees can say all day long that they work hard to seek and hire diverse faculty, and that once hired the diverse new professors will work alongside colleagues who will strive to ensure their success and retention. If, however, somebody were to say that they not only value diversity as a concept but actively give preferences in accordance with that value, the unfortunate speaker would face severe criticism (or worse).

It’s not just that such a statement might sound like an admission of a legally suspect hiring preference, it’s that the diverse faculty thus hired would carry the stigma of having faced different, lower standards. Acceptable rhetoric casts the hiring committees as virtuous, while unacceptable rhetoric casts the diverse people hired by said committees as beneficiaries of largesse. The naïve observer might ask, “But aren’t the hiring committees implying that they did indeed bestow such largesse?” To which any right-thinking academic would react like a soldier of Gilead hearing a captive mispronounce ‘shibboleth.’

There’s one other dimension to this particular shibboleth. It is common to assert that marginalized status confers unique insights not easily accessible to members of dominant groups. There is certainly some truth to that—fish take water for granted in ways that land animals never would. However, it is also true that Deans are under increasing pressure to hire candidates from marginalized groups. If there’s one important lesson to be drawn from intersectionality theory, it’s that experiences are highly contextual, and in the context of academia it’s hard to describe the Dean’s top recruitment target as ‘marginalized.’ However, if we were to concede that, the paradox of marginality would come full circle. Academic work is (ostensibly) about seeking and promulgating knowledge and understanding, so we should value those who offer deep insights. If insight comes from the margins, then we should cultivate the marginalized, which means they are now valued rather than marginalized, so the clarity of their insights declines.

To be sure, unwritten rules of speech and conduct are not confined to liberal academia. Conservative professions like banking and finance have their own workplace cultures. Managers may judge applicants on details like the style of their business suit, and other indications that the job seeker made a serious effort to learn the unofficial codes of the profession. Likewise, a devoutly religious manager who has built the company’s brand around wholesome marketing will no doubt have many written and unwritten criteria affecting suitability.

Moreover, in matters less volatile than diversity issues, academics routinely accept necessary limitations on inquiry and discussion. Taking an assignment to teach a class on bacteria means agreeing to not spend much time discussing, say, fish (unless discussing interactions between fish and bacteria). When a student signs up for a class on the history of medieval China, he or she is agreeing to devote time to reading about, writing about, and discussing the people and events of a specific time and place; aside from the occasional comparative analysis, that student probably won’t be spending much time discussing modern France.

So rules are the reality of even an academic workplace, but shibboleths are more subtle than plain rules, and come with two key problems. First, they are antithetical to diversity and inclusion. Reasonable people have always disagreed on how much tolerance to grant the intolerant, but we aren’t talking here about hiring clearly intolerant people to mentor impressionable youth. We’re talking about decent people who, while speaking outside of their home culture and language, cross the fine boundary between “I try to be sensitive to differences in learning style and their implications for diversity” and “I understand that poor and minority students may learn differently to others.”

The other problem with shibboleths is that one needs a very particular mindset to enthusiastically embrace one statement while vehemently rejecting a slight rhetorical deviation. STEM fields are sometimes portrayed (dismissed?) as redoubts for nerds with poor social and rhetorical skills. While such stereotypes are too crude to capture the entirety of a field, they are also not entirely inaccurate. On standardized tests, we do better on the quantitative sections than the verbal sections. Likewise, self-diagnosed autism may be an ill-informed fad among some tech workers, but there is evidence that people on the autism spectrum gravitate toward STEM fields. None of this changes the fact that, like any other group of people, most STEM professionals are decent human beings, but the shibboleths of Equity and Inclusion can trip them up even so. It takes a special appreciation of cues and interpersonal dynamics to understand that “We must treat students of all races equitably” is inoffensive, but that “I try not to see color when interacting with students” is a grave mistake.

To be sure, many STEM professionals do indeed appreciate nuances of language and rhetoric, but a certain sort of literalism is still more common in computer science than in literary studies.  More importantly, even the most nuanced thinkers in STEM learn to analyze extreme cases. In the midst of a detailed calculation, one might reasonably ask, “What if this quantity were very small?  Or very large?  Would the same patterns hold?” We try to make productive use of an interplay between fine analysis and extreme examples, to see how far we can push an idea before it breaks down.

We can’t spend a decade or more training people to push ideas to their limits and then expect them to accept without question that the smallest tweak can transform a statement from party line to heresy. Many thoughtful people will want to respond to these fine rhetorical distinctions with “But aren’t you really just saying [basic synopsis]?” and they will have little patience for “Oh, we’re not saying that, we’re just saying [something that sounds remarkably similar].” You can only expect them to thread so many needles when addressing these explosive topics in their Diversity Statements. (Interestingly, UCSD may be aware of this, since all of the samples that they offer to help applicants draft their own diversity statements are drawn from STEM fields.)

This situation is not limited to STEM. While philosophers are rightly renowned for exploring fine distinctions and hard questions, they are also famous for using extreme examples to make their points. An entire genre of philosophical thought experiments consider the ethical merits of tossing a fat person off a bridge to derail a trolley that would otherwise kill five people, as a way of examining issues of action vs. inaction and individual vs. group well-being. A field that thrives on debating extreme hypotheticals will probably include a fair number of people who prefer to playfully engage with shibboleths rather than solemnly repeat them. Interestingly, philosophy is also under fire for its diversity problems, so one can assume that philosophers’ Diversity Statements will face particular scrutiny. But one needn’t approve of all of the conduct ever exhibited by philosophers to wonder how easy it will be to get trained logicians to swallow the party line without question. They tried that on Socrates, and he chose to swallow poison instead.

(I should pause to note that surely there are people in other fields who dislike these shibboleths, but fields outside of STEM do seem to give greater emphasis to nuances of texts and rhetoric. They may not enjoy the doublethink any more than we do, but they’re probably at least better prepared for it. Also, STEM and philosophy seem to get particular attention for their lack of diversity, so the ways in which people in STEM mispronounce shibboleths are of particular urgency in academia right now.)

Of course, universities are not oblivious to the challenges that come with enforcing these unwritten speech codes. They know that other institutions are requiring the same Diversity Statements that they are, and they know that they’ll have more successful alumni if they can help them navigate these rhetorical minefields. So new product lines are springing up: Certificate programs in diversity and inclusion. Some are revenue-generating online programs for anyone with a checkbook. (Economic class is the one dimension along which universities can still discriminate without apology.) Others are free—but only for current students. The free programs are not so different from the Career Center staff who help students polish their resumes, prepare for interviews, and embark on careers that might net them some disposable income to donate back to alma mater.

I’ve interacted with a few graduates of these programs. In one memorable encounter, they piously derided the concept of meritocracy, assuming that I, having survived in academia, must naturally share the prominently voiced view that meritocracy is a dishonest concept in an unequal society. In truth, my opinion is more complicated, but I didn’t air my disagreement. I know better than to challenge assumptions held by someone who is au courant in the politically correct language surrounding diversity of perspectives and experiences. I did, however, get to hear a colleague extoll this person’s deep understanding of issues of diversity and disadvantage, apparently the product of their sojourn among fellow students in top universities.

The final irony is that the professors who most zealously enforce these shibboleths (and also the applicants who best pronounce them) often have affluent and/or highly educated parents, and some of the people who have most scandalized them hail from much more modest backgrounds. I know professors who worked full-time in blue collar jobs to pay their way through college, and they care far less for politically correct language than those born into high socioeconomic status.  For all the talk of hiring people who will interact compassionately and sensitively with students from many different backgrounds, the apparent means to that end is the Diversity Statement, a filter that selects people who have practiced since birth to cultivate and flatter a certain sort of elitist sentiment. This hypocritical insistence on rhetorical tests that favor the privileged, while preaching about inclusion and disadvantage, reminds one of another Bible passage:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:5-6)

We need to recognize the dangers of rewarding pleasing language, and focus on the tangibles.  Does the applicant have experience teaching students from a variety of backgrounds? Have they worked respectfully and effectively with those students? If so, they’re probably going to do just fine. We should care far more about that than whether or not they know how to thread rhetorical needles in the dialect of the dominant tribe.

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Sebastian Cesario

The author is a tenured professor in a STEM discipline. Sebastian Cesario is a pseudonym.