Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How am I supposed to answer that?

I'm taking a survey on undergraduate engagement. It's a pretty well-put together and thorough survey, designed to see whether college students are actually doing all those things that are reported to make college experience so great. It's useful information for my university, and for educators in general, but it's also a useful self-check for me, to see how I've been doing.

How often have I connected ideas from my different courses?
How often have I talked with my professors outside of class?
How often have I worked harder than I thought I could in order to meet a professor's expectations?

Most of these question are pretty easy to answer-- I either have or I haven't (although there is a four step scale: never, sometimes, often and very often.)

Here's the question that made me stop, open a new tab, and start writing this post:

How often have you "had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than your own?"

The university that I attend is probably 90% Caucasian. That was actually one of my only qualms about coming here, because I believe firmly in the truth of what this survey question implies: one of the greatest ways of getting an education is by talking, with sincerety, to people who are different from you, or who you think are different from you, or who come from backgrounds you have never heard of before, never thought possible.

But that is not why this is a hard question to answer. This question is hard because I am Caucajewmexdian. Which means that in a very real way my personal ethnic experience has been so different from that of my peers that every conversation I have with someone who is not a member of my family is a conversation with someone of another ethnicity. And all of my conversations are serious.

And yet for me to answer "very often" could be to give the survey inaccurate information. Because they're not interested in simply the fact that conversations take place with diversity of background. They're interested in conversations where both participants are aware of that divide in the conversation. Because usually, when you talk with someone or a different race or ethnicity, something about how they look, or speak, tips you off to the diversity without it even being mentioned. And that's when the growth occurs. When you're aware of the difference, and something about the conversations changes the way you think about the world, that person, and yourself.

And my conversations are not generally like that, except to the extent that all conversations between two people are like that. Because I don't look like a minority (in fact, my brother Stephen invented the term "stealth diversifier" to refer to our impact on demographics). The subject of difference only comes up when I wear kurta pajama, or refer to the Talmud, or note my family's observance of various holidays not celebrated in most Caucasian-American households. While these sorts of things occur on a frequent basis, I still don't have the same sort of diversifying impact on daily conversation that more visible minorities would.

So I don't know how to answer this question. I'll probably settle on a compromise answer, like "sometimes" and move on to simpler considerations. But I still won't feel good about it.


  1. I started this post thinking it was going to be about people becoming engaged to be married while still undergraduates. Questions such as, "What has Matt been up to?" "Why would he have much to say on this topic?" gave way to, "Oh, interesting, different engagement." So I'm glad it's this type of engagement you are contemplating--good luck with it. And I will go on about my tasks as a "stealth diversifier."

  2. haha... oh... is that a kind of engagement which would have been on your mind if I'd been anywhere other than BYU?