The Gossip Scene

New academics need information, official and otherwise, writes Barbara Pinckus, but there can be costs for gathering and sharing it.
August 22, 2011

When I entered graduate school a few years ago, I didn't expect to be doing all that much talking and listening. Instead, I thought the bulk of my time would be devoted to reading and writing. But that was before I became acquainted with the gossip scene.

There was a lot going on so I had to remain attentive. And when I learned information, whether about funding or courses, instructors or classmates, I felt compelled to share it with my close confidantes. And, sometimes, my not-so-close confidantes.

Now, as I prepare to enter my first-ever faculty appointment, I’m trying to figure out how to leave behind this grad school baggage, including my proclivity to share and gain information at a rapid rate. It’s a practice the general public knows as "gossiping." I prefer the euphemism of "information gathering."

I learned firsthand at my graduate institution how gossip can result in swift censure when a dean summoned me for an immediate meeting. The reason? Because she found out I was talking about a colleague's sensitive academic situation behind this colleague's back. I learned about this classmate's quagmire from fellow students, who, in turn, learned about it from tenured faculty members. And the dean, apparently fearful that confidentiality was being breached, wanted to quash the gossip scene. She chose me as the fall person because I was pinpointed as the classmate with the biggest mouth. From this somewhat terrifying situation I gleaned a teachable moment: unless you share an airtight, trustworthy relationship with a colleague, do not speak to people ensnared in scandal. Because if such people are caught up in the emotions and drama of the moment they may report you and your curiosity to the dean.

I did not face any sanctions (talk is mostly legal, after all, and it appeared that the dean recognized my First Amendment right). However, that chilling episode has me reflecting on how to navigate the gossip minefield as a junior faculty member. I would like to avoid a similar ear-chewing from my new department chair and dean. But how is it possible to sidestep gossip in academe, where nearly everyone appears to keep tabs on everyone else? And where we’re always comparing notes?

According to those who research the subject, gossip is understood to be evaluative comments about an absent party. In other words, most of us are gossips, and we do it most of the time. (For a crash course in gossip research, I recommend the special issue devoted to gossip in the 2004 Review of General Psychology.)

British anthropologist R.I.M. Dunbar compares human gossip to primate grooming. Both are group-based activities that center on trust. And it often feels good, comforting actually, to disseminate and receive private information, because it makes you feel “part of the team.” Just consider this: How would you react if you were the last to learn a succulent piece of information that affected your network? I, at least, would feel left out, as if my confidantes didn’t care enough to clue me in to the developments shaping our environment. After all, who likes to feel unpopular? And a lack of information may indicate a weak connection to the power brokers.

As residents on the lowest rung of the academic ladder, my fellow graduate students and I honed our skills at investigation with a constant comparative analysis about the goings-on in our doctoral program. Indeed, it was through the grapevine that I learned which professors were investigated for intellectual copyright theft, which grad students were on the verge of being pushed out, and which faculty members were saying less than brilliant things about students on the job market.

This information taught me which professors to be wary of, and which students needed a drink. And I contributed to the grapevine when I expressed my panic over freeloading co-authors and when I expressed concern after overhearing undergraduates in an elevator threaten physical harm to a colleague who was not in the elevator. The purpose behind these intense information gathering sessions was nothing short of grad-school survival. This talk -- far from idle chatter -- helped us navigate a hidden terrain of obstacles that would not have otherwise been made apparent to us. While these conversations weren’t malicious (we weren’t spreading rumors but dissecting confirmed facts), the discussions nonetheless constituted the much-maligned but ubiquitous practice of gossip. After all, our discussions extended beyond the realm of fact when we formed opinions about personalities at the center of these events.

One of my favorite essays on gossip, which defends the practice, compares it to the scientific method. The book chapter, "Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip As Inquiry" (in Good Gossip, edited by Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze'ev) analyzes its investigative process. Us gossips are constantly comparing data with the purpose of moving the investigation forward. And that’s what I think good gossip is all about: acquiring and sharing information, based on critically sorted evidence, which is continuously compared with other evidence from the field.

In my new appointment, I do not want to be labeled a "gossip," even if I fall under that label. I know such a label can affect the level of trust my colleagues place in me. Yet I also know the grapevine can offer helpful tips about unstated expectations and difficult personalities. For instance, I already learned that a faculty member near a certain cluster of offices in my new post expects that area to be kept spotless. This tidbit of information, while it may appear mundane, is in fact useful.

No snack crumbs will be left behind by this junior faculty member. Hopefully, this information will prevent the emergence of Snackgate.

While the academic year has not yet started, I've already noticed that I talk to my new colleagues differently in order to curtail the gossip blowup I experienced in my graduate program. From getting-to-know-you coffee dates and lunches I've learned some useful departmental information ranging from who's buying a house to which dean has a sympathetic ear. And I haven't even participated in the official new-faculty orientation yet. While I may pass on this information to others, I do not reveal its source.

Graduate school has taught me critical information relating to social systems. Once words become utterances there is no taking them back. Spoken words cannot be undone. These utterances have entered into the infosphere and may be contorted and disseminated as others -- and not necessarily the utterers -- see fit.

The safest thing of course is not to speak. But that's not fun. And you risk being labeled a recluse. So as I make the journey from paranoid grad student to professional junior faculty, I'll keep talking. But perhaps the bulk of what I say will be about myself. Which, after all, is classic academic technique anyhow.


Barbara Pinckus is the pseudonym of a researcher who earned her Ph.D. in communications. She will begin teaching at a university this fall.


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