Whisper Network 2.0

Research panels, professional awards, job interviews, networking and "the list"? Female historians circulate a secret document of alleged bad actors during their major annual conference.

January 7, 2019
 

CHICAGO -- Those who attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting here last week saw something new in their registration materials: a policy that they were “expected to engage in consensual and respectful behavior and to preserve AHA’s standard of professionalism at all times,” at any officially sanctioned activity. Reporting, investigation and due-process procedures back up the statement. Possible sanctions for violations include an association membership ban, a kind of professional death.

To many, it’s a sign of how far anti-harassment and sexual misconduct campaigns have come in academe, especially in the last few years. Many women's advocates say that conferences across academe are high-risk times, given the social atmosphere and lack of institution boundaries. Professional organizations generally have been slow to take decisive action, however, in some cases citing a lack of authority.

But in what is perhaps a sign of what work remains, graduate students and others quietly circulated a list of alleged bad actors -- harassers, or worse -- among themselves at this year’s conference.

The document was started about two years ago to warn women about potential dangers at AHA. It’s grown significantly over time, to dozens of historians, by some estimates, and some literary scholars. (The Modern Language Association’s annual gathering also was held in Chicago this year, at the same time as AHA’s, and some historians are affiliated with language and literature departments.) Some of those on the list are big names; many are not. Some cases already are in the public domain. Others are not.

The list is closely guarded. A former graduate student who adds names to it but who was not at the conference declined to share the list for this story or otherwise comment, despite assurances that no names would be disclosed, accuser or offender. But it was advertised on social media ahead of the history conference and its existence was confirmed by several who had seen it.

One woman who added to the list shared why she did so.

“My reasons for contributing to the list were purely to protect other women from these men,” said the woman, who is now a junior faculty member, noting the same motivation drove her to file a misconduct claim with her institution. “There’s really nothing deeper than that.”

The list appears to be somewhat common knowledge. In one instance, a senior historian at AHA having a soft drink with a female colleague at a hotel pub was overhead telling her, “I won’t help you put on your coat, as I don’t want to end up on the list. In my opinion, it represents the worst of well-intentioned reform.”

But the junior faculty member who spoke with Inside Higher Ed, who did not want to be named for fear of possible retaliation, said that the list is not about those who make “an inappropriate comment or engage in some light conference flirting.” Rather, she said, everyone on the list is alleged to have sexually harassed, stalked or assaulted someone.

“These are not isolated events but relationships that are reinforced, often every day in our profession and at our universities.”

She and others also expressed concern about more publicity regarding the list, saying it could put those who contributed in emotional, professional, physical or legal danger. Others cited a confidentiality pact between accusers and the woman collecting names. Some cited the case of Moira Donegan, the creator of the 2017 “Shitty Media Men” list, who was sued by writer Stephen Elliott.

Elliott, who was accused of sexual assault on that Google document-style list, claims defamation and is seeking to expose the Jane Does who added to or circulated it. (That document started as a private one but became public.) The case is messy -- part of Elliott’s legal defense, for example, is that he rarely engages in penetrative sex because he practices BDSM -- and in many ways unprecedented, meaning it’s unclear where it will go, if anywhere. Many have rallied around Donegan.

As the writer Roxane Gay tweeted, “Donegan [created] an anonymous list that codified whisper networks that have long existed. There wasn’t a man on that list that women hadn’t already been warning each other about.” She added, “It is mighty bold for Elliott to lodge this suit as if the stories that have long been whispered about him won’t come out in discovery.”

Still, in academe, other lists have proved less controversial. Karen Kelsky, moderator of the Professor Is In, runs a Google document of crowdsourced incidents of alleged misconduct across academe. It doesn’t name names, but it’s possible to guess them from some accounts. Julie Libarkin, director of Michigan State University's Geocognition Research Lab, has accumulated hundreds of substantiated cases, including names, in a more official -- but incomplete -- list based on publicly available records.

These lists arguably inspired other lists. Indeed, it’s probably unlikely that history’s is the only discipline-specific one. And Gay was right when she asserted that whisper networks to protect women always have existed. Now women just feel an empowered urgency to codify them.

Such lists also may serve as deterrents to would-be offenders.

Historian Melissa Johnson recently defended her Ph.D. dissertation on gossip in 17th-century Massachusetts at the University of Michigan. Her research demonstrates that informal whisper networks existed even in early America and proved a “powerful tool for regulating behavior and allowed women without formal power to shape their communities," she said.

If lists aren’t somehow “visible to the men on them, it blunts that deterrent effect,” however, Johnson said. Also important is that whisper networks “weren't audible to everyone -- that is, not all women had access to the information, and lower-status women were much more vulnerable." Historically, that has been truest for nonwhite women.

The emergence of public lists, then, “helps democratize information in important ways," correcting "historical problems with the use of gossip to protect women and regulate behavior,” Johnson said. When lists are held by a specific gatekeeper, however, she added, “it can perpetuate the sense of outsiderness many women in academia already feel. And, frankly, it's not great feminist practice.”

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, noted the work the association has done around issues of misconduct. Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, also noted her association's ongoing efforts on this front. Neither said they could comment on a list they hadn't seen, however.

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