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Listserv Tattletale
April 26, 2011 - 8:30pm

“For openers, I don't think you understand the difference between descriptive and normative statements, and you've obviously got a chip on your shoulder about male and female, and who knows what else. Your take on the article is simplistic, and trivial… As it stands, all I hear from you is angry woman in academia who's mighty self-righteous... Maybe we'll get lucky and others will say something worth paying attention to.”

A female graduate student contributed to a listserv thread regarding an article published in popular media. Her anti-racist critique didn't have the nuance of professors with decades of experience, but she made sincere, solid points. The above quote was the response of a tenured faculty member. When she posted a response clarifying her argument, she was met with more vitriol. A few listserv members responded to defend her. The listserv moderators responded with a statement about listserv protocol. Almost unbelievably, the faculty member continued his diatribe.

I subscribe to several listservs: departmental, disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. At each scale of listserv coverage, there are important announcements, calls for papers and opportunities for insightful conversations. However, there have also been disturbing exchanges. I have witnessed threats, derision, and blatant racism, including cad remarks about someone’s presumably non-white last name. The opening example was an exchange between people I've never met. Witnessing it made me sad and angry. I can only imagine the personal hurt and public shame that the grad student (may have) felt as well as the impact on listserv members who remained silent.

The faculty member's posts, seemingly akin to that of Internet trolls, might go as far as violating the sexual discrimination policy of the university server hosting the listserv. There are also (a lack of) political implications. Audrey Kobayashi states "such personal attacks serve absolutely no purpose toward effecting social change. Rather than target a society in which (presumably) we all have an interest in effecting change and improvement, they attack individual people, as though … by undermining the moral qualities of those individuals we also undermine their intellectual position…"

Deborah Tannen suggests that agonistic modes of attack are the prominent route of academic critique. If we look closely at how students engage in the classroom, most are simplifying the points that they or others are making. Class debate and larger academic discourse becomes about tearing down others' arguments, and it's a lot easier to tear down than to explore arguments and find nuance. It seems the strategies deployed on the listserv in abusive posts hold similarities to less contentious exchanges. I wonder if agonism is amplified on listservs, where maybe it's easy to forget that we are speaking to real people?

Research has demonstrated the impact of contention on online group dynamics. For example, “women-centered groups whose moderators place restrictions on the number or nature of messages that can be posted, particularly when contentious (challenging, insulting, etc.) messages are discouraged, tend to flourish, with large, active memberships and widespread participation." Who is less likely to engage from listserv discussion because of contentious or violent exchanges? Those who have been traditionally excluded from the academy?

On several occasions, I’ve read responses to abusive discourse that ask that the conversation take place off the listserv: to send private emails rather than listserv posts. Is it because those comments are seen as unnecessarily clogging up inboxes? Because contention is uncomfortable? Because it’s easier not to know about it? Do these individuals think that all speech is covered by the terms of academic freedom? Do we assume the right to say whatever we want?

My worry: To suggest private exchange as a solution is to propose that abuse is appropriate as long as no one knows about it.

Imagine receiving those emails without witnesses, without a community that will (hopefully) support you. And hierarchies online do matter. If you are a grad student, having a faculty member advocate for you, be in solidarity with you… well, it’s key. I don’t like an inbox full of invective, but I wouldn’t mind an inbox full of messages of support and productive engagement. Doesn’t support and productivity aid in nourishing academic community?

I wonder how these interactions influence how people interact off the listserv. Is this how we are being taught to interact in our departments? To interact with each other in private conversations? If these listserv interactions are partially constitutive of today's academic freedom, then what does that say about our present state of academic responsibility?

Bonnie Kaserman is a writer, researcher and artist raised in North Carolina. Her blog "(un)becoming academic" is featured on the website for the Canadian higher education publication Academic Matters. In both Canada and the United States, she has been dedicated to Supporting Women in Geography, an organization enhancing the participation of women in the discipline.


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