In most of academe, professors know not to begin a scholarly talk with humor that is both sexist and has nothing to do with the topic of the talk.
But that apparently isn’t the case online, where a professor’s post last week to the PLANET Listserv (until now a respected place of discussion for scholars of planning, geography and related fields) set off a debate and led 118 professors to quit the forum on Friday.
While the joke began the debate, many of the professors who quit were as outraged over the reaction (or lack of reaction) to it as by the original attempt at humor. While some members of the group were quick to condemn the joke, many others accused those of taking offense of overreacting and some defended the joke.
The joke is about a woman who has had 25 children with three husbands, and the idea that in death, her legs are "finally together." The complete joke -- which will likely disturb some readers -- may be found the end of the article.
The joke was posted by Richard Klosterman, professor emeritus of geography, planning and urban studies at the University of Akron. He has posted other jokes to the Listserv and labels them as jokes in the subject line.
Almost immediately after he posted last week, people started to express their anger. But also almost immediately people started to object to the objections.
One professor wrote, “For the record, I vote against sanctimonious self-righteous outrage. Dick's leaving would leave PLANET lesser. All those offended by this joke or that, your leaving would leave no mark.”
Another wrote that if scholars didn’t want a Listserv that mixed serious discussion with humor (as defined by those posting the humor), they should go create their own discussion forum. “If you complainers out there want a purely professional Listserv, then create one! You've been told by others what PLANET was, and there are too many of you who have decided that you know, better than the creator and host of the Listserv, what purpose it should serve. You are moochers -- or, in the parlance of economists, free riders. That gives you no status or grounds for complaint.”
Klosterman eventually posted an apology, but many didn’t view it as a full apology. He started by saying, “I apologize for my most recent joke. I am very sorry that people found it offensive and demeaning to women; I certainly didn’t mean it to be either of those.” He went on to say that he clears his jokes with his wife, who is a “feminist” (he put the term in quotes) and that “she still can’t see what is offensive to women in my joke.”
He also went on to defend the idea that an academic Listserv should be a place where people can share both the serious and nonserious. “I agree that a big part of the problem is differing perceptions of what PLANET is, or should be. When I started sharing jokes nearly 20 years ago, PLANET was a loose network of academic friends created and maintained by Bill Page [a professor of urban and regional planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo]. I still think of it that way and over the years I’ve used it to share things I thought my friends might enjoy. I guess I also assumed that, as friends, they’d forgive me if I occasionally shared things that I shouldn’t. It is now clear that many people on PLANET see it as the formal face of planning academia that shouldn’t be polluted by frivolous things like jokes and should maintain the highest standards of political correctness.”
Via email, Klosterman said he had nothing to add to the statements he posted to the Listserv.
The 118 professors who issued a joint statement on Friday announcing that they were leaving PLANET said their departure was about much more than a joke -- but was about male professors not realizing that forms of scholarly communication now should serve diverse populations, and that what some see as jokes others experience as a form of exclusion.
The issue is not unique to planning. In philosophy a few years ago, women objected to a tradition known as the philosophy smoker, in which search committees and job candidates mingle over drinks -- a setting that defenders said was a valued tradition and that many younger academics viewed as awkward and inviting of unprofessional conduct. Or there was the case of the prominent scientist who posted on Facebook a critique of female scholars' appearance -- something he viewed as funny but many found offensive.
The 118 professors who quit PLANET wrote that it's not enough for people to say that scholarly forums have traditions that some value. “Any forum that is intended for communication with our professional community must embrace inclusivity; regardless of our individual feelings about the relative merits of individual comments, all members should be treated with respect,” they wrote. “We are committed to the principle that no person should feel diminished or devalued as a result of their participation in a forum that purports to represent the profession.”
The statement from the 118 professors went on to say: “All those who have signed below (and perhaps many more) have been truly astonished and disappointed by the overt contempt that has been launched by a vocal few at some of our colleagues who have been brave enough to call out sexism where they see it. It started with a sexist joke, but that wasn't the worst of it. The defense of the joke, the hostility toward those who were offended, and the need to shut down the conversation by telling those objecting to the joke to leave the Listserv is unacceptable in a forum that is supposed to serve the planning community as a whole. We agree that PLANET has become an ‘old boys club,’ where most women, younger scholars and other marginalized groups are not, and perhaps never have been, welcome. We have essentially been shouted down.”
Further, the statement said: “We are the present and future of this discipline, and we are committed to open, inclusive, welcoming and respectful dialogue among diverse professionals. These are values essential to our discipline. We take both the teaching and the practice of them very seriously. In solidarity, those of us who object to and are no longer comfortable with PLANET as a venue for our professional community are leaving and actively working to support new and inclusive alternatives.”
Mai Thi Nguyen, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is among those who signed the statement, and she is also involved with efforts to create a new alternative Listserv, for which she said there is strong interest. She said it was important to remember that while PLANET and similar lists are private, those with clout end up playing a key role in various fields. "This Listserv has been the principal source for job announcements, calls for papers and conferences, and academic dialogue," she said.
Page, the founder and coordinator of the Listserv, responded to an email request for comment by sending what he sees as “a representative response of what is being said on PLANET about the statement of the 118 that you reference.”
The response: “I am disappointed that 118 of the best voices on PLANET have chosen to leave rather than to stay and help to make this online community a better one. By my count there are approximately 1,400 subscribers. Several of them behaved badly this week. Most of them did not. Most of us would be pleased to hear what many of the 118 have to say about this matter, and, more importantly, what they would have to say about many significant planning-related issues in the future. I am sorry that many of our valued colleagues have chosen not to participate in this large and unique international community of planning scholars, and, should any of them read this, I hope many of them decide to come back.”
The joke, verbatim, follows. It is printed here so those wishing full context for the above controversy may have it.
Judy married Ted; they had 13 healthy children. Sadly Ted died. She married again, and she and Bob had seven more lovely children. Bob was tragically killed in a terrible car accident, 12 years later. Judy remarried a third time, and this time she and John had five more fine children.
Judy finally died, after having 25 wonderful children.
Standing before her coffin, the preacher thanked the Lord for this very loving woman and said, "Lord, they are finally together."
Ethel leaned over and quietly asked her best friend, Margaret, "Judy’s had three husbands and 25 children. What do you think he means by saying they’re finally together?"
Margaret replied, "I think he means her legs!"