“How do we diversify our seminar series?”


Last week, I got a request for some advice, and thought I’d share a version of my answer with y’all here.

I’m generally uncomfortable giving generalized advice, because nobody is in a generalized situation, so I’m just going to say what I think I’d want to do in a particular situation*.

With that caveat out of the way, I received an email from a someone who was looking for my input about diversifying the departmental seminar series. While representation was okay in terms of gender, it was not in terms of ethnicity, as nearly all of the invited speakers are white folks. What to do?

The pithy answer is that I’d work to convince people to invite more people of color, and direct folks to Diversify EEB. The site was created to help out for situations just like this.

But I think “go use Diversify EEB” can only be the start of a helpful answer. Because, frankly, there are a lot of talented scientists of color who give top-notch seminars, and if a department is having trouble inviting speakers who aren’t white, the problem isn’t a lack of people to invite, but rather is a misdirected set of priorities. After all, “the seminar series is a pretty good bellwether or canary in the coal mine for assessing life in the department.”

A mostly-white seminar series in a Primarily White Institution is a problem that is eminently fixable. However, this problem isn’t of unknown etiology, as it’s a symptom of a greater problem. Addressing the symptom can help the broader issue (because of the feedbacks between representation and institutional climate). If I’m tasking myself with fixing an institution, then working at the root causes of a white seminar series is more important than just superficially fixing the series. But of course, fixing the series as a short-term win is an obvious good.

If we’re trying to understand how to change the composition of a seminar series, then we need to know why people are choosing to host who they host. At one point (ummm, five years ago) I wrote a post about the different motivations that people have in hosting a seminar speaker. If I’m thinking only about schmoozing opportunities for grad students to land postdocs or only about inviting faculty members from prestigious institutions, then I’ll have a hard time building a diverse series. Of course, there are people of color from prestigious institutions and who are great employers of postdocs, but we approach this issue from a color-blind perspective, we won’t be changing the overly-white status quo.

I’ve heard on many occasions that it’s hard to get people of color to agree to give talks in seminar series, because they are asked so often that they have to say no to protect their schedules. I’m sympathetic to this concern of the hosts, but I also have to first point out that it’s absolute poppycock. There are oodles of scientists of color who I’ve met — and seen talk at conferences and in seminars — and they’re not being asked to hit the pavement to give seminar series on a regular basis. Of course when people decline offers because they’re too busy, that’s absolutely true. But most scientists are not actually beating seminar invites away with a stick — that’s just a curse for people with high visibility. There are a ton of great speakers who aren’t that famous.

I imagine that a lot of folks are inviting the same narrow set of people to speak. What can be the cause of this? Well, let’s look at who tends to get invited to speak in seminar series in departments with large doctoral programs. It’s often folks who are running labs in other big research-intensive institutions, or they are well-connected to their hosts in some way or another.

Perhaps it’s hard to attract speakers from underrepresented groups if these invites are always going out to the same small number of folk who have penetrated into high-prestige positions into spaces that are primarily white. In my field, I can think of several people off-hand, who, I imagine, get overwhelmed with invitations to give seminars. I imagine these are the first people who come to mind to everybody else, too.

So then, what would I have to do to diversify a seminar series? Invite speakers from outside the small pool of people who first come to mind! Instead of using recollection, I’d ask folks to use recognition. I’d implore people to consider scientists who aren’t running big labs. I’d ask people to care less about the institution that a person comes from and instead, look at how exciting their work is.

Am I suggesting that folks might lower standards to diversify the seminar series? Hell no, that’s not what I’m doing at all! Instead, what I’m saying that we can fix seminar series by altering our criteria for everybody we invite. Diversity has many axes in higher education, and most seminar series have poor diversity in many different ways.

The same forces that are causing the minoritization of some ethnic groups in our discipline are the ones that can cause a department to skew towards white folks in the seminar series.

I’d work to fix ethnic representation in a seminar series by building representation for many other types of diversity. I think the fix comes from deliberately prioritizing a seminar series that reflects people who have experiences different from those in the host institution. I think this flies in the face of current practice in most departments, which routinely bring in scientists who have extraordinarily similar backgrounds. Which is a darn shame because bringing in visitors who have radically different ways of seeing and experiencing science have the most to give their audience.

Doctoral students get trained in research-intensive universities, though most of these students use this professional preparation to work in different kinds of institutions. Perhaps these students shouldn’t be subjected to a litany of seminar speakers who all have the same kind of job? Having folks from smaller ponds is a good idea (of course I’d say that, right?), and also people who have expertise in industry, government, non-profits, outreach, and so on. When I do get invited to talk at a research-intensive university, faculty tend to report to me that they’re really surprised at the amount of interest that grad students have in wanting to meet with me. I think maybe some of that is because some are familiar with this site and with my twitter account, but I think a lot of it is straight up because of my institutional affiliation (Cal State Dominguez Hills), because my visit is often like an ambassador from a foreign land, and there is high interest in working in universities like mine. The demand for institutionally-diverse seminar seminar series is high, but most seminar series have low institutional diversity too.

So, in short, if I wanted to convince folks to diversify a seminar series, I’d try to convince folks that we need to destroy the template that gets used for inviting speakers, and instead, develop a new set of priorities for using the seminar funds that will provide a more representative view of what it means to be a researcher and a scholar.

And, yeah, I think the list of scientists on Diversify EEB is a great start for that.

What approaches do you think would be good for you and your department?



*There’s a good chance if I say, “Here are things that you should do,” that some of my generalized advice would be irrelevant or perhaps inadvisable, when you take into account specific circumstances. Instead, I’ll to imagine myself in a certain circumstance, and then say what I would think and do in that position. This distinction between “what I would do” and “what I think you should do” might be semantic from your perspective, but to me, it’s the difference between just saying my thoughts out loud and being prescriptive and bossy. So it’s a distinction I cling to.

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