Diversity & Inclusion in Academic Program Development and Faculty Recruitment: An Interview with Professor Libby Allison
By Aimee Roundtree and Miriam F. Williams
As scholars in technical and scientific communication, we are interested in making the complex plain. In this emerging field, researchers and practitioners often call us “advocates for users” of technology and complex written information. It was peculiar then, that as late as 2005, in a field concerned with writing and designing for non-expert audiences, our textbooks, research articles, and conference papers included little to no discussion of the racial, ethnic, or language diversity of those readers/users in the U.S. who so desperately needed medical, technical, legal, and scientific information written and designed with them in mind. Fortunately, when we entered the field, technical communication research and pedagogy was finally making “the political turn” and beginning to explore the cultural, political, and historical contexts in which technical communication is created. But during this time, we were two of only a very few faculty of the African Diaspora in the nation teaching in graduate technical communication programs and presenting research at academic conferences in our field. This meant we were often the only black scholar at our field’s conferences and certainly the only black women in the room.
It is by no coincidence, though, that thirteen years later we both now call Texas State University our academic home. Yes, we are both Texans, who had both lived and worked as technical communicators in Houston and Austin before accepting positions here, but there were other important factors that attracted us to Texas State. We both have personal connections to the university--one is an alumna of the Master of Arts in Technical Communication (MATC) program and the other has familial connections--and the MATC program’s curriculum included the opportunity for us to prepare students for high-paying jobs in industry, but with a deep appreciation for ethics and intercultural competence. Admittedly, the legacy of Texas State University’s most famous alum—Lyndon Baines Johnson—was also a draw. The prospect of teaching at the institution where LBJ honed some of the expertise and values that served as a touchstone for the “Great Society” and civil rights advancements was appealing, as was the opportunity to teach, serve and collaborate on research at a Hispanic Serving Institution.
Our colleague, Professor Libby Allison, the M.A. in Technical Communication’s inaugural program director (1999-2013) and faculty in the Department of English were instrumental in designing one of the most diverse graduate technical communication programs in the nation. In this chapter, we share the M.A. in Technical Communication’s story through a conversation with Dr. Allison. It is our hope that the following discussion will help others in the Texas State University community understand the importance of recruiting and maintaining diverse faculty and students in academic programs.
What are the benefits of a diverse faculty to students?
I have been on dozens of hiring committees since I moved to Texas in 1993 to teach at A&M-Corpus Christi and when I came to Texas State University in 1999. These were committee assignments with substantial participation responsibilities. Because the MA in Technical Communication (MATC) was just beginning when I stepped in as the first Director, I was able to hire faculty with an eye toward diversity.
Because of its historical background as a Normal School for educating teachers, primarily women in the state, admitted its first African-American student in 1963, and recognized in 2011 as one of a handful of Hispanic-serving Institutions in Texas, I knew the campus has a long history of inclusion. Shortly after I stepped down as Director, the MATC program had two African-American faculty women, one Chinese male faculty member, a younger white female, a younger white male, and an older white female (myself). For a small program, and with its technology ties, it is about as diverse as it gets.
I may be a big proponent of diversity because I am of the generation of women when many of our Mothers were homemakers and had not yet ventured out into the “working world” themselves, so I personally have experienced being one, if not the only, woman in various educational and work situations. As a result, I have experienced some positive results of those circumstances but also the negative consequences of those circumstances that were unfavorable toward women.
That said, perhaps the most important reason I believe in diversity is because it is fundamental to the role of colleges and universities in our country and society. Our role is to introduce students to new and different ideas and experiences than they have ever heard of or had before. It is because of these learning differences and opportunities that the United States leads the world in many things including innovations across all fields. Having people with different backgrounds, cultures, races, genders, and disabilities offers students an opportunity to learn from and about people who have different ideas and may be different from them.
In a field with so few faculty of color, what strategies did you and your colleagues use to recruit faculty of color to Texas State?
In efforts to recruit a diverse faculty, I found some strategies useful:
Even though it may seem standard fare to some, I think that ads from Universities with statements about the University having commitments to diversity hiring are important. Those ads missing such statements seem to say that diversity hiring is not even a consideration.
For instance, here at Texas State, our faculty and staff positions job ads include this statement:
Texas State University, to the extent not in conflict with federal or state law, prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion, disability, veterans’ status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. (https:/jobs.hr/txstate.edu)
Our campus also has a strong statement about the importance of a diverse faculty in its Policies and Procedures Statement for Faculty Hiring that says,
Texas State is committed to recruiting and retaining a diverse and distinguished faculty.
“Diversity” is broadly defined to include such factors as geographic backgrounds, ages, genders, educational backgrounds, employment experiences, language abilities, economic backgrounds, cultures, and special skills and talent. (http://policies.txstate.edu/division-policies/academic-affairs)
Also, our campus has “Guidelines for Recruiting and Hiring a Diverse Faculty, which is linked to its Policies and Procedures webpage, and the campus has a Center for Diversity and Gender Studies as well as a Multicultural Transformation and Research Institute that can offer ways to reach minorities.
In hiring let your colleagues know you want to diversify your program and ask them to spread the word.
If the program has alumni who have gone onto doctoral programs, tell them about programmatic diversity needs and wants, and ask them to spread the word about upcoming hiring.
Alert your own friends from your graduate school about the hiring being done in your program, and if they know of interested applicants, encourage them to apply.
In hiring, particularly at the Assistant Professor level, check not only the title of the applicant’s dissertation but also the content of it. Even if the dissertation title and/or topic is not focused on diversity, check the table of contents and the index for indications of diversity and/or cultural research.
Network in your professional organizations—let members of your own professional organizations know that you are hiring and that you are looking to diversify the faculty. In the fields of English and Technical Communication there are numerous professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association (MLA), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Society for Technical Communication (STC), Association of Teachers of Technical Communication (ATTW), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).
Likewise, there are organizations and associations in higher education that have job information for recruiting women and minorities. The Higher Education Recruitment Consortium lists numerous resources for recruiting and hiring African Americans, Asian Americans, Individuals with Disabilities, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Veterans, and Women. A webpage for the Consortium is https://www.hercjobs.org/career_advice/diversity_resources/.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a longtime publication for academic job advertisements, has on its online job posting a Special Diversity Network where the ad will also appear in sites like Diversity and Career.com, Diversityjobs.com, and Diversity.com (Chronicle.com).
What are the benefits of a diverse technical communication workforce?
I also think diversity is important because it prepares students for their careers. Some may find that statement odd, but it is ironic some people criticize the university for not preparing students for jobs, yet, also criticize the university for its diversity efforts in both faculty hires and student recruitment. The reality is that as the demographics of the country changes, so do the demographics of the workplace. For instance, within a few years Texas’ Hispanic population will “become a plurality of the state’s population” (Texastribune.org). In addition, the U.S. military, which has a long history and large institutions in Texas, is the largest employer of a diverse workforce in the world (Militaryconnection.com).
In the same vein, one of the key rhetorical principles of good writing and communicating that we teach our students is to “know your audience.” If a student goes out into a working environment and has not experienced people who are different than he/she is and tries to communicate with a boss or coworkers or clients, there is going to be a lot of misinformation and miscommunication, which can be detrimental to the employee and maybe the company. In the field of technical communication where students often land jobs in technical companies having experience dealing with diverse populations is, in my opinion, even more critical because big technology companies like National Instruments and Dell computers deal with people and sale products all over the world. Understanding how to negotiate through and respect different people and cultures can be critical for an employee’s success.
What factors did you consider in planning and implementing a program that privileges ethics and cultural competence?
Without going into an analysis of whether the term cultural literacy is appropriate or not, I think of cultural literacy is the ability to negotiate among cultures--to not only understand and appreciate your background and culture but also to “take in” and respect other people’s cultures. In considering hiring faculty, I looked at the types of classes we needed in the program and considered who might be able to teach them well, paying attention to the CVs, dissertations, and research interests of potential hires who came from other backgrounds and cultures than mine. It is similar to another principle we teach about writing and communicating well, and that is “visual literacy”—the ability to see beyond what is presented to what is absent, missing, or unspoken in a document, media presentation, illustration, etc. In the same way, if a student is looking for a certain program, major, discipline, etc., it behooves him/her to pay attention to not only the topics presented for courses and so on but also the faculty members’ backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, disabilities, and so forth. Diversity adds to education and experience.
What future steps should we take—as a field and as a program here at Texas State University—to advance diversity and inclusion among faculty, students and professionals?
Here are some approaches toward keeping a diverse faculty and student program:
- Emphasize the diverse faculty and students already in the program on the program’s website and on promotional materials for potential faculty and students.
- Send hiring information to individuals, alumni, and friends who work in diverse organizations, businesses, and agencies to help spread the word. Ask them to come to talk with your classes.
- Create teaching activities that engender inclusion and diversity.
- Describe and highlight diversity research done by faculty on the website.
In reflecting on the MATC program’s history, I know we had a diverse faculty and student body. I realize now that over time students began to gravitate to faculty members not because of their race, ethnicity, sex, or age but because of their areas of expertise. To me that indicates a positive overall tendency. Students stop going to faculty whom they felt were like them because they were afraid or shy of the ones who were not like them and began to see beyond the faculty’s race or gender, for instance, to what they could learn from the faculty member. That is the way graduate school should be. Having a diverse faculty from the beginning of their education offers students a cultural learning experience beyond reading and writing, which they will realize the value of later in their lives.
Libby Allison grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a college town with people from all over the world and all walks of life. As a former journalist, she focused her academic career on how language usage, written, oral, and visual communication, can create cultures that exclude and marginalize people based on their socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, gender, and disability. Regardless of the way language and communication is delivered, she says, the success of communication depends on writers and communicators understanding that audiences are diverse and are becoming increasingly diverse as the demographics of the country are rapidly changing.
Dr. Allison has a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Sociology from the University of South Florida, (1974), a Master’s degree in Journalism/Communications from the University of Florida (1983), and a Ph.D. in English, with a specialization in Rhetoric and Composition, from the University of South Florida (1993). She has taught technical writing for 30 years and has won numerous teaching awards.
About the Authors
Dr. Aimee Kendall Roundtree is Associate Dean of Research in the College of Liberal Arts. She is a Professor and Interim Director of the Master of Arts in Technical Communication program at Texas State University. She is an associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and an editorial board member of Technical Communication Quarterly and WAC Clearinghouse Publications. She has worked at the Texas Medical Center and Air Combat Command, Langley, Air Force Base.
Miriam F. Williams
Dr. Miriam F. Williams is a Professor of English who previously worked as a policy analyst, policy editor, and program administrator for the State of Texas. Her research on race, ethnicity, and public policy writing includes three books and articles in her field's most prominent journals. As Presidential Fellow (2011-2012), she co-authored Texas State’s proposal for reclassification to an Emerging Research University. From 2013-2018 she served as Director of the M.A. in Technical Communication Program. In 2017, she was the first person of color elevated to Fellow of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing.