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Gossip And The History Profession

September 9, 2008

Last week I wrote this. Today Ralph Luker posted a short treatise on the same subject at HNN’s Cliopatria weblog. Here is the comment (mildly edited) I left on Ralph’s post:

My Case Against Gossip

I begin by acknowledging that I’m not without flaws in terms of gossip. I was firmly reprimanded—in a timely way—as a teenager for gossiping. At the time I had been caught, at the very least, making assertions on a situation about which I had no empirical evidence. The stern correction I received kept me from error for a number of years. But again, as a graduate student with complaints about departmental funding, I “speculated” unnecessarily about a colleague. The person was hurt, and I lost a friend. I had temporarily forgotten the lesson from my teen years. In both instances I was either wholly or partially wrong. And even if I had not been wrong, the people I discussed did not need their lives complicated by me.

I have also been the object of pernicious gossip—from friends, colleagues, and family. After a long period as a twenty-something single, some members of my family speculated about my sexual preference to other family members. All of them were eventually set on the right track, but only after I answered a set of extremely uncomfortable questions from loved ones. As a graduate student, my dating and sex life were the objects of speculation by colleagues. This might have fed my loose tongue with regard to others, as mentioned above, during the same period of my life. Finally, recently a few of my so-called Catholic-Christian “brothers” openly speculated with others about my commitment to the faith because of my political positions.

There can be little doubt that I have first-hand experience with the dangers of gossip. It is with these confessions in mind that I want to preface my response to Ralph’s post. Life has taught me that gossip is not always harmless prattle, and real people are sometimes unnecessarily hurt.

In a related but separate vein, I concede that anonymity and the passing of inside information have their place. Anonymity in the weblog world of history professionals is in part the product of unbalanced power relations. Ralph rightly cited the painful, ground-level observations of “Invisible Adjunct.” As someone perpetually on the full-time job market and employed at-will, she couldn’t risk, or justly feared, exposing herself. She used her pseudonymity to expose the consequences of injustice. But I never felt like, in my admittedly fading memory of reading IA’s posts, that her discussions dipped into tit-for-tat. She spoke from her experience and direct observations of others. She had a goal that coincided with the interests of the history profession at large.

Ralph mentioned Tenured Radical, aka Claire Potter. In the beginning of her weblog, TR used her insider status as a tenured faculty member to anonymously vent about power relations at her institution. I appreciated her effort to expose injustices, minor and major, in her department and school. I felt, and still feel, that she had the right intentions. But TR eventually had the tables turned—rightly or wrongly. Some at her institution felt that her anonymous “gossip” (their feeling, not mine) was hurtful. TR went to great pains to alleviate a few situations, and eventually decided that her anonymity hurt the legitimacy of what she wanted from blogging. She gave up anonymity (if not the fun pseudonym), and has since limited her topics of discussion. Anonymity got too complicated, and Claire—being a loving soul—decided that the potential to unnecessarily hurt others wasn’t worth it.

So how does all of this matter in relation to the writings of Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III—aka the mystery man/woman authoring the weblog Broad-Gauged Gossip?

I don’t know for sure. AHB is a gifted writer—much better than me. I read a few posts and was thoroughly entertained. I had no experience, however, with the situations about which she/he wrote. Still, I had to tear myself away at one point. Vice aside, I was having fun. And if fun is all you’re looking for, then Broad-Gauged Gossip is a place to be.

And AHB seems congenial. Like TR, I was “friended” by AHB through Facebook. I have not accepted, and I’m not sure I will. I’m not an overly private person—or I wouldn’t be writing this comment and keeping up an internet presence through two weblogs. But Facebook, and the invitation from AHB, gave me pause. My Facebook account is not a place where, in juvenile fashion, I expose my deepest fears and desires. But it does reveal a few elements about which I’m not sure I want all my colleagues to know. I keep my Facebook account as private as I can more out of fear than any juiciness about me (it really is decidedly bland and certainly apolitical—TR and Ralph can back me up here).

But the fact that AHB is not accountable to anyone I know gives her/him the power to say anything they want about me. I would have no recourse. So why does AHB want to “friend” me? What are her/his motives? How can I trust her/him? And how can I trust anyone, for that matter, whose stated purpose is to gossip? What’s the point?

These are the reasons I gave an eighteenth-century “shot across the bow” to AHB. The metaphor is apt, as we don’t fully understand the capriciousness of the internet seas. Is AHB a pirate or a friendly vessel? He or she may be an honorable, upright person who is motivated by injustice. But like any historian, I would like a little more context.

All the best,

Tim

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2 Comments
  1. Fascinating. This is really a document of contemporary history, as well as documentation of the history profession as we know it. Because I am, frankly, not paying that much attention to the gossip of the profession lately, I do appreciate the insight from this post/comment and related posts. The issues are relevant well beyond our profession.

    Like

  2. Toby,

    Of course you're right. For my part, I have a deeply ingrained—if sometimes temporarily suspended, usually under the influence of alcohol—dislike for gossip. And of course all of us participate in the endeavor in low levels; it's human nature.

    My problem is with a site devoted to history gossip and written under pseudonym. That's why I've expended some keyboard energy on the subject.

    – TL

    Like

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