In "Gossip," a seminar created by MacArthur Associate Professor of English Maria Fackler, students learn that gossip can represent everything from spiteful treachery to a light and intriguing invitation to a picnic.
The 13 students enrolled this spring investigated the roles gossip plays in a wide range of fields, such as psychoanalysis, journalism, politics, television, literature, history and film. They also studied ways in which it can be negative, positive and neutral.
Fackler emphasized, "Gossip often gets a bad rap as something negative pejorative, or punitive. But it's often just a common means of social networking."
The term "gossip" came about in medieval times, and originally referred to a sponsor at a baptism. The meaning has evolved significantly, however, and Fackler's class worked to complicate critic Particia Meyer Spacks's definition of "serious" gossip as "that which takes place in private, at leisure, in a context of trust, usually among no more than two or three people."
The seminar met once a week for three hours. Students discussed gossip's role in readings, such as William Shakespeare's Othello and Jane Austin's Emma, and its use in pop culture like in the TV series Gossip Girl, or in the trial of Oscar Wilde. They explored questions such as "Can you gossip in the first person as a means of self-promotion?" Each student also gave a class presentation on a "gossip artifact." Past topics include gossip's role in building the church community, and gossip's role in the Petraeus scandal.
Fackler requires her students to practice what they've learned during the semester by devising a group project. In 2009 her students organized Davidson's first flash mob. This spring the class organized a "Picnic En Blanc." Both events were secretly coordinated.
"Events like the flash mob or the picnic are great exercises in how quickly gossip can spread in a closed community," explained Fackler. "Students are often surprised by the effectiveness and pervasiveness of gossip. Once you recognize it, you see and hear it more often, and you become aware of the tonal and social cues that accompany a conversation's shift into gossip."
For the 2009 flash mob, students circulated a rumor about "Rave 11/11," building intrigue around the idea that something would happen in the Vail Commons dining hall on November 11. The students in the seminar secretly planned the surprise dance, and built curiosity about the event through word of mouth, email invitations, and chalk messages on the sidewalks.
"People didn't know what 'Rave 11/11' was about," said Fackler. "They just knew to show up in a particular place at a particular time on a specific date."
In the end, more than 600 people responded and watched the dance!
Word of this year's "Picnic En Blanc" was spread through word of mouth, tweets, and anonymous paper invitations that included a link to a Facebook event page. Staged amid fluttering white helium balloons, on a picture-perfect spring day, those who responded lounged on blankets spread across the lawn, enjoying refreshments and music from a student jazz band. More than 100 students, faculty and staff donned the requisite white clothes and participated in the event. "I'm pleased with how the picnic turned out," commented senior English Major Vincent Weir. "At a stressful point in the year when students have a lot of work, it's nice to enjoy one another's company with an occasion like a picnic."
Fackler first got the idea for a gossip course while doing research for an article titled "'I'll Google It:' Gossip, Queer Intimacies, and the Internet." The article, published in the academic journal Modern Drama, investigates how new social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook are influencing public discourse, changing conditions where gossip arises, and ultimately changing the way gossip occurs.
Having learned in the classroom about the power of gossip, Fackler hopes her students might implement it for positive social change. "Whether in literature or everyday life it's much easier to see gossip negatively than it is to see it positively," Fackler said. "But gossip is also about group cohesion, community building, and helping people understand the social mores of the group to which they belong. It can serve important purposes, such as helping subordinated groups to communicate. That can be a powerful tool."
Fackler is now examining the evolution of gossip in the digital age. She said, "The Internet has affected both the ways in which gossip circulates, and the ways in which Internet users understand, practice, and consume gossip. With a still developing and largely unpoliced code of ethics, the Internet forces users to renegotiate continually the boundaries of public and private. As such, it presents the ideal conditions for gossip, quite apart from its speed and efficiency in circulating tittle-tattle. These changes make now a better time than ever to study gossip and its impacts."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
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The "Gossip" class lucked into a lovely day for its "Picnic en Blanc" and smooth jazz on Chambers Lawn.
Members of the class dressed appropriately for the occasion.
Corinne Hester '13 at the center of a picnic balloon bouquet.