Meta G. Carstarphen, Ph.D., is a Gaylord Family Professor and Associate Professor of Journalism in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma. She served as Associate Dean, Academic Affairs, for the College from 2006 to 2008. In 1993, she received a CCCC “Scholar For The Dream Award” for Outstanding Research by an Emerging Scholar of Color. An experienced book critic, Carstarphen is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters, including, “News-Surfing the Race Question: Of Bell Curves, Words, and Rhetorical Metaphors,” in Race, Rhetoric, and Composition (Gilyard, ed, 1998). Carstarphen has edited two books, including, Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender and Identity (Greenwood P, 1999) and is the lead author of Writing PR: A Multimedia Approach (Allyn & Bacon P, 2003). Currently, she teaches courses in public relations writing and campaigns; race, gender and the media, and research and cultural studies within the media.
Diversity is the street where I live, and I would argue, the neighborhood that all of us inhabit. Like Victor Villaneuva, though, I find the word itself problematic, at least in terms of how we most often encounter it. One definition I found online equates diversity with “variety” and “multiformity.” When diversity is poised as an organizational or institutional goal at our various colleges and universities, we are often left with the strangely disembodied target. How much diversity is enough? And who gets to decide?
Diversity in some ways is too placid a term, connoting just the right mix of different elements, operating in a perfect balance with all of its parts. But I think the experience of diversity involves a sometimes raucous, sometimes contentious and sometimes blissful set of interactions. Mary Louise Pratt’s essay, “Arts of the Contact Zones,” captures the spirit of this social context as the author describes the “joys of the contact zone” incorporating a host of experiences from “rage” to “revelation” and beyond.
And yet the notion of multiple varieties existing in one temporal space is as commonplace to our everyday sensibilities as our everyday lives attest. I encountered one recent reminder of this as I trekked along the I-35 highway corridor between Texas and Oklahoma. Right inside the southern border between the two states, a large billboard loomed along the roadside, proudly trumpeting the specialties of a local eatery: “Catfish, BBQ and Mexican food.” Imagine the cultural cornucopia in place to make such a space possible—American Indian, African American, European American and Mexican American. Ironically, this restaurant resides in the state that, in 2007, passed the harshest anti-immigration law in the country at that time, with a not-so-concealed agenda to hasten the exodus of Mexican and other Latino residents.
So as I consider diversity as a state of dynamic flux, I find my research interests intensely concerned with historical constructions of diversity. A major project now centers on my work to give close readings of some of the nineteenth century Native American and African American newspapers published in Oklahoma pre-statehood. These periodicals, a tiny part of massive archives held at the Oklahoma History Center, are texts that offer multiple possibilities for new readings of the cultural histories of this state, region and country. What would happen if knowledge of these periodicals jostled along with knowledge of larger newspapers? In a dynamic environment of diversity, would we see—as the Law of Requisite Variety posits—a wider, more flexible view of knowing?
Such an idealized goal looms more concretely in the classroom as students attempt to move beyond sometimes deeply held biases for or against diversity by talking to real people in their acquaintance. A course I developed for the Gaylord College of Journalism called “Race, Gender & the Media” attempts to provide an academic space where students can examine, in a critical fashion, their assumptions about how the media represent race and gender. Over the semester, students are invited to combine their personal experiences with scholarly perspectives, all with the goal of encouraging them to locate themselves in the media professions to which they aspire.
One project involves a long-term research assignment where students work in small teams to
investigate and analyze historical and contemporary race/gender topics. The teams examine the ways in which the topic has been presented in the media and they critique those representations based upon the information they have garnered from a wide array of other sources. Their goals are:
· to determine if the coverage they found was accurate and fair,
· to ascertain the relevance of the topic to contemporary readers and viewers, and
· to suggest better ways in which the information could be communicated to mass audiences.
In previous semesters, I have required students to present their research projects in poster-style fashion in the lobby of our building, inviting written questions and comments from other students and faculty members.
One student group researched the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and included archival newspaper reports of this event as well as contemporary coverage of hearings considering reparations for survivors.
As new media have figured more heavily into our curricula, poster boards have given way to class blogs. Colleagues who also teach critical and cultural topics have championed the use of wikis in place of the traditional research paper.
One of the fundamental activities of journalists and media professionals is the interview, and another assignment I assign my students is the diversity interview. The assignment has a few key requirements. One, students must select someone, an acquaintance, who belongs to a visibly different racial or ethnic group from themselves AND gendered differently from themselves. As a corollary to this requirement, students cannot pick anyone currently taking the class or anyone with whom they have an intimate relationship! Two, students have to conduct this interview in a public place, like a restaurant or campus space. Three, students are required to comment on the experience of interviewing their subject, in addition to reporting on the facts and responses they receive, providing them with an informal experience in ethnography. They all ask a core of common questions that I provide, including:· Tell me about where you were born and grew up. Do you think the racial attitudes at your
home are different from the ones you have experienced here?
· How do you describe yourself physically?
· When do you think about race? What makes that happen?
· Would your life be different if you were another gender? A different race? Why or why not?
If so, in what ways would those differences be evident?
When the discussion begins, I (and the students) become fascinated by the complexity of these identity answers. Diversity is in flux, illuminated by the voices of real people who do not fit into one-dimensional categories or experiences.
Welcome to the neighborhood.