Corn teaches us about diversity (or the consequences of the lack of diversity)

After being introduced to diversity statements in class two weeks ago I have been on the look form them.  A few days in an email advertising an Assistant Professor of Soil Microbiology position at University of California Riverside another mention of diversity statements.  Until this semester I had never heard any of my professors, friends or students talking about diversity, equity or inclusion in relation to crop and soil science, except when a university or state mandate required it.  But from the discussions and readings we have had in class this semester and other things happening in our culture and on our university, to have an inclusive and welcoming learning environment for everyone, a commitment to the principals of diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be an afterthought or just going through the motions.  Either really mean it or don’t do anything at all.

“Just focus on the science”

I have been trying to figure out why thinking and talking about diversity and inclusion are so rare and so hard, when they happen at all.  I was trying to explain this difficulty to another soil science grad student and she made a comment that I have heard from several people, including myself: “just focus on the science, we’re not studying people”.  This idea may not be unique to agricultural sciences. But maybe our science is getting in the way of using focusing issues like inclusion. Agronomy, the application of agricultural science knowledge for production of crops, is devoted to eliminating diversity, excluding all except for the chosen few and giving preference and special treatment to the favored ones.  We have made incredible technological breakthroughs that allow us to be extremely throw and aggressive in our goal to prompt the growth of the select few cash crops, corn, wheat and soybeans, at the expense of weeds, insects, soil microorganisms and other undesirable organisms.  Only in the last decade have ideas about the benefit of greater biological diversity in agriculture even been discussed, let alone accepted or adopted.  Maybe as we start to broaden our thinking about what agriculture looks like in terms of plants, animals and insects, we will also begin to think about how we benefit from and can encourage a greater diversity and inclusion of people as well.

Using science to understand diversity

I really appreciated how Deborah S. Willis, in her article to graduate students on writing a diversity statement talked about ways to find and place diversity, inclusion and equity in our teacher, mentoring, research and professional service. I also appreciated the advice to not feel like I have to include and champion every single aspect of diversity and inclusion, but to choose the ones I am most passionate and knowledgeable about. Despite all this good advice I do not feel like I am ready to write my own diversity statement yet.  My understanding of how and where I can be making my classes and my field more diverse, inclusive and equitable is in about the same place as my field’s understanding of how increased biodiversity will affect agriculture.  We know that what we’re doing now isn’t working and we know that a greater inclusion of organisms, plants and animals as well as people, is beneficial but we don’t know how to get there, what will happen along the way and what our new way of farming will look like, and that is intimidating. But I believe that a greater biodiversity is an important part of sustainable agriculture in the future and am educating my self to conduct this research, so too will I learn more about how I can make my classes more welcoming for everyone.





5 thoughts on “Corn teaches us about diversity (or the consequences of the lack of diversity)”

  1. You bring up a really good point – we think that there are fields that study humans and need to care about them and on the contrary there are fields that do not need to care – that in itself is part of the problem. Everything that is being studied, researched, invented, created is in fact being done by humans to resolve some elaborate problems probably also invented by humans….I could go on because it is a vicious cycle.

  2. I love this analogy. Monoculture made so much sense when our society was smitten with industrial agriculture and our progress in dominating global food markets. Now I much prefer the ideas of agroforestry and agroecology where biodiversity is exalted for its resilience and our crop systems can take advantage of natural symbioses in the soil and with other organisms in the ecosystem. Our tendency with industry is alway to simplify things down to the minimum amount of parts, to make hugely complex systems seem more manageable. The whole NPK fertilization scheme is an example of this. I think our educational system suffers from the same oversimplification. We want our organizations to run like machines, meaning our teachers and their curriculums become like mechanical components. Students are just inputs and outputs, hopefully somewhat smarter or more prepared for careers after graduation, but not paid any particular attention as individual learners. The quality controls are all standardized in the forms of quizzes and examinations.

    There is certainly some sort of analogous “agroecological” educational model out there that embraces student diversity and individuality and is stronger and more effective because of it. Challenging yourself to learn more about diversity is the best step toward this model’s implementation. It is not necessarily going to be the easiest nor the most economical means to educate the masses, but it will certainly be the most affective from a systems perspective and probably the most fulfilling as well.

    1. Right! Monoculture vs polyculture is an interesting way to view this issue. I’ve been mulling over this idea since we talked about inclusive pedagogy several weeks ago. What I have been thinking about is that is it easier (although there is still lots of resistance and outright hostility) for us to talk about biodiversity and ecosystem services from and to agriculture because we already have a common goal on both sides of the issue (producing food, supporting agriculture and improving sustainability so farming can continue for many generations) and the space, format and language to have these discussions. But we don’t yet have a common goal to unit around and the language, understanding or outlet to talk about issues of diversity and lack of equity in the agriculture industry or the way we education students in agriculture. Based on what I know about the history of agroecology, what it will take to change this is several (or maybe many) years of individuals doing research and having conversations about these issues, despite opposition and dismissal from the mainstream thinking. It also took collaboration agricultural and ecological scientists and the willingness to learn from each other. In fact, these two issues might have a lot to contribute to each other. One of the first discussions I had about equity was related about access to food in a community of eastern Washington. This was in a class about sustainable food systems and agriculture.

  3. Hi Bethany, thanks for the post. The diversity statement is really difficult for me to start as well. But I think you have already got a nice and deep reflection here in this post. And nice analogy! At the same time, we could also learn from good samples of other people. Or to write something that we may not have yet, like writing a paper before conducting the research. It just becomes a reference point that we can check frequently to see how we have evolved. As we put more diversity efforts into our teaching experiences and establish theories that work for our own teaching styles and field, the statement will become more and more complete. The point of the first draft of a diversity statement is to find gaps and put action items on the table.

  4. Hi Bethany! I really enjoyed your analogy on agriculture, monoculture, and specifically, corn. I immediately thought of this NPR bit from 2012 about this photographer who was doing a project on biodiversity. Here is the link–
    Let me know what you think (and if that link doesn’t work). I found this project to be extremely fascinating! David Liittschwager, the photographer behind this project, has a book called: A World in One Cubic Foot.

    I agree with you on the notion that you have to go all-in when you decide you will incorporate a practice of diversity and inclusion. Writing a statement like this has been extremely difficult for me to articulate well (which is why I wrote about multitasking–my statement just isn’t there yet!) ….but despite this, I’m going to keep working on it. I appreciate that you are addressing this mentality of “just stick to the science.” I believe that when we willingly put on blinders to the world around us that we are actually contributing to the problem. You’re right, we don’t have to champion EVERY issue, but even scientists should care about social problems….we’re all human beings, right? Anyway, I say all that to say that you will get your diversity statement. It may take some time, but your heart is in the right place and I know it won’t be too tough for you to pen one once you have your ideas lined up.

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