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Affirmative action important to scholarship, social scientists say
STANFORD -- Affirmative action may have existed for 30 years on paper, but it is just getting under way in many fields of scholarship, Stanford linguist John Rickford said at a symposium on "Affirmative Action and Scholarship" at Stanford's Meyer Library on Friday, May 5.
The only non-white faculty member in Stanford's 14-member Linguistics Department, Rickford said he sits on the year-old "ethnic diversity" committee of the Linguistic Society of America. "We are still very much in the data-gathering stage," he said, unable yet even to report on the distribution of ethnic minorities in the field at either the student or faculty level. Current critics of affirmative action, he said, often say that 30 years is long enough for the program, but they overlook the fact that it has taken decades in some cases "just to get the machinery to put affirmative action in place."
Anthropologist George Collier painted a very different picture of Stanford's Department of Anthropology, which, he said, began taking affirmative action seriously in the early 1970s and now has, in some years, about half of the total minority graduate admissions in the social sciences within Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences. The department has gone from having no women and two non-white male faculty members in the 1960s to having six females and three ethnic minority Americans among its 17 members today.
Yet it will probably take another two faculty generations, he said, to bring the faculty's gender ratio into balance with the gender ratio of students in graduate schools of anthropology. Currently, about 55 percent of the doctorates are earned by women.
The symposium, part of a series sponsored by the Committee on Culture and Cultures and funded by President Gerhard Casper's office to deepen the discussion of multicultural issues at Stanford, drew about 60 people, primarily faculty and students in social sciences and engineering. Collier and Rickford compared and contrasted what affirmative action has meant in their two departments and fields, and Sally Dickson, a lecturer in the Law School and director of the university's Office for Multicultural Development, gave a brief history of affirmative action law in education and employment.
The law is oriented to changing the process by which people are considered for jobs or schools, Dickson said, rather than to producing specific results. One of its major accomplishments in the labor force, she said, has been getting employers to reevaluate qualifications for jobs to see what is really relevant to the work involved.
Most of the questions were asked by women and minority students who said others at Stanford sometimes assumed they did not have the qualifications to be admitted here, and that sometimes they wondered themselves if they belonged, because of the allegation that affirmative action led to unqualified applicants gaining admission. One African American female graduate student, for example, told about a white friend who said she was glad she had not applied to a particular program because she was certain she would have been displaced by the African American applicant.
If women and minorities did not have to qualify for Stanford admissions, Dickson said, "all we would need to know [to admit you] was your gender and race. We wouldn't even need your name."
Jane Collier, a professor of anthropology who served as moderator of the discussion, urged students and faculty who have benefited from affirmative action to "be proud" of it. She said she was able to join the faculty in 1972 only because Stanford had made some money available to departments who were willing to try women or minorities in faculty positions. Until then, she said, "women with Ph.D.s were being shunted off into part-time lecturer and research assistant positions. All of us who benefited from affirmative action should stand together and take pride in the fact that we are here, because we are good."
Rickford said, however, that the questioning of one's qualifications can be wearing and eventually leads students and others to be less bold in the academic environment. "I think we are still all trying to understand that it takes a tremendous degree of audacity to become a scholar and to make scholarly contributions. The way scholarship works involves the creation of new ideas. It involves stepping out. 'Everybody else has said X and I think Y.' Now that is really walking a plank."
Rickford, who is African American, said he has seen through the experiences of his own children in local high schools how small instances of others stereotyping them based on their race probably leads to less "bravado."
The next symposium, scheduled for noon on May 26, at a location to be determined, will take a look at "how the informal cultures of engineering and science research relate to the relative scarcity of women and minorities in those fields," Jane Collier said. The overarching theme of the series of events, which will continue into next year, is "cultural difference" within the university, including difference in disciplines' perspectives on culture, said Akhil Gupta, an assistant professor of anthropology, who is coordinating the programming for the committee.
During his talk, Rickford reviewed various veins of linguistics scholarship and showed how women and minority scholars had contributed to them. "In linguistics, we are trying to understand the nature of human language, broadly conceived, so, in fact, it is essential for us to be seeking diversity." Historical texts that scholars use to study language change are representative primarily of elite classes who were writing in very formal language. Today, it is possible to record native speakers, he said, but scholars of socio-linguistics still have the problem of the "observers' paradox" in which the language most valuable to study is that which people use every day -- when they are not being observed by outsiders. Because of Noam Chomsky's work, he added, there also has been an emphasis in the field on the need for the linguist to use his or her own introspections to fully understand the relationships between sentences in human language. The few ethnic minority linguists that have been admitted to the field, Rickford said, have contributed valuable new information to linguistics as a whole by obtaining access to the communities from which they come and by use of their own insights.
Since affirmative action began, women linguists, he said, like women anthropologists, have contributed greatly to gender theory as well as to the more traditional areas of study within their disciplines.
Gender theory has become an "indispensable" part of anthropology, George Collier said, and ethnic minorities also have expanded the insights of the field.
A white male who joined the faculty in 1969, Collier said he was in the last group of Stanford anthropology faculty to be hired through an "old-boy network." There was no public announcement or advertising of vacancies for faculty positions at the time, he said. Faculty at the leading anthropology schools -- Harvard, the University of Chicago and Stanford -- simply got on the phone, he said, and asked each other who among their students was a "hotshot."
"It's perfectly easy through this old-boy network to get people who have got good qualifications. That is not the issue," Collier said. "The issue is broadly one of equity and equal opportunity."
Linguistics Professor Tom Wasow, who was in the audience, said that when he was an associate dean for the School of Humanities and Science he was asked to work with departments on affirmative action in graduate admissions. "I found tremendous resistance to the idea that they may have to reexamine the criteria [they use] in admitting graduate students." He said he believed it was this type of affirmative action pressure that had led to a backlash against it.
But Collier said there should be a "synergy" between expanding the pool and re-thinking how candidates are evaluated. "When the pool rises from 20 to 200 because of your efforts at equal opportunity advertising, you necessarily have to look at the applications in a different way." His department, he said, has added a requirement that graduate students submit an example of their writing in the field, which is read and considered in addition to test scores and grade point averages. The writing, he said, is difficult to quantify but leads to consideration of students with somewhat different backgrounds and experiences.
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