Print This Issue

November 14, 2006, Volume 53, No. 12

Conjugating Diversity

Herman Beavers

“This is a class that uses a whole bunch of big words to talk about a whole bunch of nothing.” “He sees racism everywhere.”  “Didn’t like class because I didn’t like the professor.” “If you’re white, don’t take the course.” These are some of the many comments I’ve received over the years on my course evaluations and just the act of writing them causes me to relive the sting that comes from reading criticism that is neither productive nor constructive, but is, sadly, mean-spirited and shallow. What I would suggest is that both the frustration of my students and my own thin-skinned response to their harsh criticism arise because courses that confront issues of diversity cannot help but be construed as melodrama.   

Which is to say that courses seeking to chronicle the odyssey of cultural diversity are often perceived as exercises in reversing social polarities, whereby those at the center are either replaced or condemned by those at the margins. In a moment when technological advancements like the Internet, the iPod, and the cell phone have fundamentally altered how we communicate and destabilized the instruments we use to articulate a social identity, to relate the fact that the U.S. is also, at this very moment, growing even more deeply divided along notions of race (which is reflected in housing patterns, schools, and socioeconomic indicators) is nothing if not demoralizing. After all, didn’t The Cosby Show insist that harping on racial difference was passé?  Didn’t Rodney King, in the aftermath of being beaten senseless by a group of Los Angeles policemen,  ask the question, “Can’t we all get along?”

All this obfuscates what I think is the more deeply rooted issue at hand.   We tend to view the notion of diversity as a noun, as a signifier of variety that is both welcome and instantly understood. In my African American Literature survey, I strive to help students understand that the black community is by no means a monolith and that African American identity is much more fluid than fixed. I like to teach on a regular basis two of Robert Hayden’s poems “Frederick Douglass” and “American Journal.”  Formally speaking, they bear no resemblance to each other: one is a sonnet, the other more experimental in form; one commemorates the life of one of the most important figures in the 19th century, the other is written from the point of view of an outsider. But taken together, these two poems seek to communicate the nature of freedom and its complexity, if not its cost. In the former, Hayden insists that freedom in the United States will only exist “when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,/reflex action…” and in the latter, writing from the point of view of a visitor from another planet, he observes “america as much a problem in metaphysics as/it is a nation earthly entity iota in our/galaxy an organism that changes even as i/examine it.” By adopting an alien’s perspective, Hayden suggests that American identity politics and exceptionalism constitute mere presumption in the galactic sense. What distinguishes these poems is the way each communicates an investment in inclusiveness, the body politic wrought whole. The substance of how we will be judged as a nation, Hayden decides, is not whether we commemorate Frederick Douglass through conventional means, but rather on the quality of those “lives grown out of his life, the lives/fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” His “alien” participant/observer realizes that,  “despite the tensions i breath in i am attracted to/the vigorous americans.”  When we undertake to teach courses that point up, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the chasm between our ideals and our conduct, we do so with the knowledge that the United States has yet to realize fully the words found in what Ralph Ellison liked to refer to as the “sacred documents.” Teaching Hayden’s poems allows the class to confront the notion that America’s irreconcilability is also its greatest possibility. 

When we teach courses that foreground the dilemma of diversity, we do so because we see the importance of situating students in a different context. It is a context in which students become participants, not spectators. Viewing them as such is to declare that there is a body of knowledge that belongs to them and for political reasons has been withheld. Two years ago, during the Africana Studies Summer Institute, we screened a documentary on the murder of Emmett Till. In the discussion that followed, students from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds, many of whom had never learned about Till, attempted to come to grips with the film’s depiction of racial brutality. What could have become a polarized free-for-all became instead a moment where the students cohered into a learning community. And this simply because a Jewish student raised his hand and asked, “Why wasn’t I taught this?” As Linda Williams has pointed out, melodrama seeks to make legible an occulted moral truth to assign guilt and innocence.1 The best teaching in instances like the one described above eschews binaries of this sort and seeks, as it were, to refine how we ask questions and to what end. Because the graduate students leading the Institute discussion waited a moment and avoided the melodramatic (and perhaps more lively) discussion about racial victimization, the most important question emerged from the students.  

When I find myself on the proverbial high horse, upset that students fail to value what I have to offer, it becomes very important for me to remember that were it not for a handful of student activists on college campuses a generation ago, who demanded that courses be taught that highlighted the travails and triumphs of people of color, women, gays and lesbians, Latino/as, and Asian Americans, I would not be a member of this community. They did not do this simply because they sought to be disruptive. Nor did they insist on these courses because they understood their history in hagiographical terms. They did so, even if they could not have articulated it thus, because the curriculum did not reflect the complexity they encountered on an everyday basis.  

A university’s curriculum is not a tally sheet. And implementing the “diversity requirement”  will not be cause for self-congratulation. The university is a space in which we work to conjugate diversity which means that it is simply not possible to examine the forces that have shaped the United States without some measure of  uneasiness (if not outright hostility). Though I often have discussions with colleagues who point to their own frustrating evaluations, what has emerged are fascinating discussions on how to fashion  a pedagogy that distinguishes between discomfort and safety, that eschews binary thinking in favor of multiple viewpoints. What is implicit in these courses—both those that currently exist and those yet to be taught—is that one cannot gain an understanding of how a society works without due consideration for the ways that it has failed, or is failing. Confronting this does not mean that we are resigned to pessimism. It does mean that we are involving students in a process that may not yield fruit in our classrooms, but rather in the world beyond the security of Penn. Ultimately, conjugating diversity is essential if we hope to realize the promise of the Penn Compact, because it assumes that diversity is not a noun but a verb.

1 Linda Williams. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas in Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. p. 25.


Dr. Herman Beavers is associate professor of English.



This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - November 14, 2006, Volume 53, No. 12