No one gossips about other people's secret virtues.
February 22, 2011 8:32 PM Subscribe
How do you deal with rampant gossip in an academic context?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a first-year PhD student in a field that has a few different sub-fields spread out over different departments, ranging from humanities to social science. My department (History) is on the humanities side, and I'm one of very few people within my department in this particular field. Most of my in-field peers are on the more social science-y side. I'm working on a long-term project that is more grounded in the social science area, but includes students from all the relevant fields (my department and an even more humanities-y literature-type department). The students from the social science-y department have significantly more experience in the methods we're using.
I really love the work and have been devoting a lot of extra time to it (including learning the technical methods as well and as fast as I can and doing lots of outside research), and as a result I've gotten public and private praise from fellow students and from the professors in charge. I do really like my fellow students, but I'm getting something else from them: constant uninvited gossip about the other students working on the project. I'm hearing about other humanities students who aren't picking up the technical skills fast enough, social science students who are jealous of other social science students, people from both sides who don't care enough, basically just everyone casting doubt on everyone else's motives and abilities. And then everyone acts chummy face-to-face.
I understand that some level of competition is inevitable when a group of ambitious people working on the same topic is stuck together for a long period of time, and some of the criticisms I'm hearing are more or less valid, but the gossip and two-facedness is kind of overwhelming. I'm not much of a gossip myself-- I think that most people do the best they can, and that it's unnecessarily mean to pick apart people who are genuinely trying. I don't offer gossip, but I can see what makes me an attractive person to vent to: I'm decent enough at the work that I'm not slowing anyone down, and because of the way the field is broken down departmentally, I'm probably not going to be competing with these people for jobs. But it's still messing with my head and making me a little paranoid-- if these people are so willing to tear down their peers to me, who they barely know, what are they saying about me to other people-- or worse, the professors?
So far, I've been dealing by responding as little as possible when the gossip starts, offering alternative explanations for some perceived slight ("she's just nervous; she didn't mean to challenge your work; she's trying"), and changing the subject. Gossip just seems so entrenched in the culture of this department that I'm realizing that there's nothing I can do to make it stop. And hey, while my department's culture is much more laid-back than this, it's academia, so I've got to figure out how to deal with the nasty whispers sooner or later. So, my question: what are some ways to keep your head on straight and continue to foster positive professional relationships when you're in a gossipy environment, academic or not?