Lately I seem to keep bumping into anthropologists studying gossip. Even the San Francisco Chronicle is writing about the trend. But while the Chronicle article emphasizes the role gossip can play in policing community behavior, the gossip I’ve personally encountered in academia seems to often serve a different function. Namely, gossip is what allows the very different worlds of professors and graduate students to interact.
Not unlike the upstairs/downstairs world of British aristocrats and their servants, so well depicted in the movie Gosford Park, professors and graduate students inhabit the same space in very different ways. It is, for instance, quite difficult to put together a good thesis committee if you don’t know the intricate history of departmental politics from before you arrived in a program. It might be very relevant, for instance, that one faculty member crossed a picket line fifteen years back, while another was leading organizer of the faculty union. Similarly, the faculty are curious about the lives and interests of the students they will be working with. Classroom performance alone is not necessarily a good indicator of which students are ambitious enough to succeed in a competitive marketplace. Graduate students can also become important allies in departmental battles.
As a result, a knowledge economy develops in which professors and graduate students trade gossip. It also serves as a way to bridge the gap created by unequal power relations. Giving graduate students the inside scoop on other professors at least creates the illusion of treating them as equals. I was either not very good at such gossip, or I worked with professors who were more reticent, so I ended up depending on fellow graduate students who were better able to trade in gossip with their advisors. Or maybe I just say that because the gossip I didn’t know always sounded much more interesting than the gossip I did know?