Editors’ note: Though it plays with “advice column” in form, the goal of Yours Sincerely, An Uncertain Anthropologist is not to elicit prescriptive answers nor to develop universal disciplinary principles. The views and opinions expressed in the letters do not represent the breadth of perspectives within the field nor do they necessarily reflect those of the editors. By facilitating these exchanges, we do not expect to reach consensus or offer certainty. Instead, the aim is to create a space for grappling with ethical uncertainty and to invite ongoing dialogue within our professional and intellectual communities. Read more about this series and the call for letters here.
I have a dilemma. What do I do when I no longer want to cite or teach someone’s work but they are considered an important scholar? For example, I can think of someone whose work is foundational for the research I do, but I personally know them to be a bully. Others are big names in anthropology who I do not personally know, but who have been accused of violations such as sexual harassment. Do I just take these people out of my writing and teaching without comment? What is the ethical approach given the fuzziness of this situation?
Concerned about Citation and Syllabi
Dear Concerned about Citation and Syllabi,
This is such an important question, albeit one we were not publicly asking even a decade ago. For so long, abusive behavior was (mostly) tolerated in academia. In response, women (especially) had “whisper networks” to share who was inappropriate, or creepy, or cruel. We felt sorry for those colleagues who were targeted by them. We learned that when it happened to us, we were expected to continue to work with our abusers, to collaborate with them and teach their work and cite them. We were expected to be grateful for their attention or mentorship. I regularly cited one such scholar in my field—he was a “big name” after all, someone who controlled things. And then the #MeToo movement emerged, and I realized I no longer had to pretend this person had not sexually harassed me when I was a graduate student.
The day I realized this I wrote to the editors of a journal in which I had an article about to be published. My article was complete; it had already gone through copyedits and proofs, but I asked if the editors could take out one citation and I explained why. They wrote back immediately to tell me it was done. The citation was removed. This was twenty years after the incident. Acting on it had never seemed possible to me before.
Over the course of a career, one accumulates knowledge of more and more transgressors and transgressions. I have personal stories of being bullied and threatened by men both senior and junior to me. Colleagues I know well and trust have similar stories. The longer you are in academia, the longer grows your list of known jerks, bullies, and sexual harassers.
We are in the midst of historic change on addressing such violations. For decades, we were encouraged to look the other way. “So-and-so? Oh, he is like that,” we were told. “He is brilliant, but difficult,” we were told. This is no longer acceptable. But what to do? Joining forces with others to organize, to demand change, to set new policies and expectations is crucial toward stopping such behavior. Addressing the canon, that collective sense of whose scholarship is valued within a discipline, is another step to take.
Syllabi and citations are simultaneously professional and personal statements. They reflect the genealogy of the field and the intellectual questions that we individually find compelling, but they should not be obligatory. They should reflect the version of the discipline that is both most accurate and most consistent with the future we want to create. I have taken books and articles by famous scholars off my syllabi. I have stopped citing certain individuals. I discuss this in some of the graduate seminars I teach. I say something like, “In past years, I taught the work of x or y for this topic. I no longer do so because of reason a or b.” There is always someone else whose scholarship you can teach. There is always someone else you can cite. This is part of rethinking academia and the production of knowledge. There are ways to be historically accurate in our thinking and in our intellectual genealogies that do not reward abuse.
It is up to us individually and collectively to come to terms with this issue. How, for example, do you determine whether an accusation involving people you do not know is true and actionable or not? Is social media, for example, a credible source? Is The New York Times? One thing is for sure: the professional is the personal is the political. Most of the conversations I’ve had about the purposeful absences in my scholarship and teaching have been private. This is because they stem from personal violations and thus require trust for me to disclose them. Small actions like these can add up. Do what feels right. There is no one whose place in the canon cannot be challenged, including by quiet removal.
Chair and Professor of Anthropology
University of Colorado, Boulder
Dear Concerned about Citation and Syllabi,
Thank you for your question. I share your concerns about the ethics of inclusion and exclusion of authors and their works.
On what basis does one decide to exclude or include a work of scholarship or a citation, and what is best disclosed about such decisions? I begin with practices of exclusion. Your examples entail exclusion predicated upon offensive behavior, specifically sexual harassment, and bullying. Upon what criteria do we accept allegations and what might be the nature and extent of proof necessary to do so? And what actions are appropriate to take? I don’t doubt the veracity of many claims but advise careful consideration before reaching and acting upon conclusions.
While I have not faced a dilemma equivalent to the question posed, in a 2005 article on autoethnography, I included an example of exclusion on the part of local scholars and nation builders (not me personally) in the newly independent country of Botswana (1966). Isaac Schapera was the primary anthropologist to work in Botswana during the colonial period. Despite his encyclopedic output, he and his work were excluded for years by local scholars. When I conducted my early fieldwork in the late 1970s, I was surprised that local social science university graduates had not heard of his work. By consciously not recognizing Schapera and his oeuvre, and by not establishing an anthropology department at the University of Botswana, the nation builders of Botswana were engaged in a decolonial project. However, local views of Schapera and his work, especially on the part of University of Botswana academics, were to change radically. His work in its remarkable breadth, detail, and recognition of the impact of colonialism and migrant labor was subsequently lauded and became part of the local canon by the 90s. Research projects, museums, scholarships, and even a local street were named in his honor and, in 1985, the University of Botswana awarded him an honorary doctorate. As local Chiefs began to reinstate initiations, they turned to Schapera’s work to guide them through the ritual process (initiations had been banned under colonial rule). He was invited to attend one of the first revived initiations in 1980. Much of his work was written before 1950; it is a product of its time and there are colonial, antiquated and at times, misogynist tones, but an anthropologist can easily identify and “read through” them and they can be used as teaching moments for students to recognize such biases as they encounter them elsewhere, including in contemporary texts and media. My account is not to judge Botswana scholars and nation builders but to observe how perceptions change, how sources included or excluded at one point in time can change, how local canons can change and how such decisions are rooted in the politics of the time.
As I reread my 2005 article mentioned above, I realized how much my own anthropological subjectivity had changed overtime. In the same article, I also critiqued my late 1970s self and other western researchers in Botswana at the time. We were young, enthusiastic, and naïve: we acted and advocated for policy and development initiatives as if we knew better than the locals. In our arrogance and self-importance, we disregarded many local officials seeing them as complacent and under-qualified. I cringed at our youthful narcissism and hubris.
Exclusion of a source or author entails responsibility on the part of the excluder, especially if the source is considered by some, even yourself, to be foundational in the field. What ethical responsibilities do we have to our readers, especially to our students, if a source or an author whose work is foundational is excluded from a syllabus or publication without mention? Further along, a student could be tripped up if they are unaware of relevant material that was excluded for reasons based upon recently discovered aspects of the author’s behavior. Perhaps this is less the case if a line of argument relies upon an absent source. However, this might raise accusations of plagiarism. I have no categorical answers but believe that for a foundational work, a responsible author could include an explanatory footnote or find some other way to disclose the decision to the reader or listener. Replacing an excluded source with an adequate alternate source that does the same work might provide a solution. But questions remain. Is it more ethical to disclose the basis upon which the choice to exclude a source is made, or not to do so?
What changes about a body of work once the author has been accused of offensive behavior? Is the content invalidated or just the author? What should the reader know? As I noted, our decisions have possible consequences beyond those that are immediately apparent to us. Do we compromise our students’ education if we exclude a work about which they may later wish that they had known? Do we compromise their education by excluding without comment or explanation—by not inviting them to reflect upon the ethical considerations and criteria for inclusion and exclusion? At the current moment, anthropologists are deeply engaged in debates and conversation regarding exclusion. These discussions saturate the media, blogs, books and journals, conference presentations, the content of anthropology textbooks, and more. With respect to the canon, discussions affirm our understanding that canons are made and remade on a regular basis. Decisions about exclusion are contested and, as in the case of Schapera, they evolve in different ways over time. And they are political: by whom and how is power exercised? While we are unlikely to reach consensus on the content, scope, or order of what should be included, we can observe that as some items or topics are eventually removed, different content replaces them, and not in a random fashion. Hence, my main point is that we cannot discuss exclusion without also considering inclusion.
I find the ongoing project of wider recognition and inclusion far more exciting. Anthropologists are sharing syllabi, writing textbooks, participating in movements such as Cite Black Women, altering grant criteria, recommending new journal citation practices, promoting collaborative work with colleagues in our field areas, and carrying on robust discussions to catalyze a broad-based movement for greater inclusion and acknowledgement of the historical and contemporary power dynamics that have contributed to exclusion. I applaud these measures that expose and redress the power dynamics that have excluded voices of historically marginalized people and groups while at the same time avoiding name-calling and personal shaming. I also welcome our discipline’s strengthened emphasis on engaging, collaborating, and citing scholars from the regions or fields within which we work and carry out research.
By excluding and including we exercise our own power; we make decisions of consequence.
We must work to maintain a high degree of academic and personal integrity, ethical practice, and a critical awareness that some things that might have appeared appropriate or important a few decades ago may be less so now and vice versa.
Past President, American Ethnological Society
Professor Emeritus, International Development Studies and Anthropology
Dear Concerned about Citation and Syllabi,
These are important questions and ones I’ve been considering in my own teaching and writing lately, too. Last winter, I was following news from Harvard that John Comaroff had been formally sanctioned by the university for sexual harassment. Like many others, I was angry to read an open letter from other Harvard faculty questioning the sanctions and expressing support for Comaroff. As I read through the list of signatories, I was dismayed to see the names of people I had long admired and respected.
But I wasn’t thinking about my specific citation and teaching practices until I saw Paul Farmer’s signature on the letter. Farmer’s work is foundational for my research, and my career has been shaped by projects he supported and made possible. Most immediately, I was in the middle of teaching a Medical Anthropology course and we were scheduled to discuss Farmer’s work later that month. As the open letter was disseminated and details emerged from a lawsuit focused on Harvard’s failure to take complaints of sexual harassment seriously, networks like #AnthroTwitter filled with renewed calls to stop citing and teaching the work of abusers and their apologists.
I wasn’t sure what to do about my class. It seemed hypocritical to teach Farmer’s arguments about structural violence and social justice while ignoring the harm that signing that letter had done. I considered keeping the syllabus as it was and expanding our class discussions to include the reports about Comaroff, the open letter, the Harvard students’ lawsuit, and broader abuse in anthropology and academia. I was already engaged in similar conversations with graduate students and other faculty, but I was hesitant to lead this discussion in my undergraduate course. The course had 250 students, and I was teaching it remotely because of the pandemic. I already felt disconnected from the students and I worried that I needed a lot more preparation before I could guide the conversation in a way that both made sense to those with little background in anthropology and avoided triggering or re-traumatizing those who had personal experiences of sexual violence and harassment. I decided instead to quickly rearrange my syllabus, replacing the upcoming activities that focused on Farmer with other materials, and I planned to think more about it in the future.
Farmer died suddenly the same week I’d intended to teach his work. While he, like most of the other signers, had retracted his support for the open letter, he hadn’t had a chance to publicly discuss it or, as I hope he’d have done, work to repair the harm. (He did briefly comment and apologize in response to a question about the letter at an event on global equity and social justice.) The decision I had been thinking about somewhat abstractly suddenly became very personal. I wasn’t close to Farmer, but many people in my personal and professional networks were. My worry over a class reading felt different in the face of my friends’ grief. My sense that it was unethical to ignore the open letter’s harmful consequences was coupled with a deep sense of loss. I wondered if I’d made the right decision.
Reflecting on the course later, I was reminded of an anonymous letter pointing to the ripple effects that sexual harassment has on other academic relationships and its role in shaping the discipline itself. I think this ripple effect is part of what makes the questions you raise so challenging. The harms created by abuse or harassment are not all equivalent, to be clear, but none of us can remain separate from them. Academic citation and intellectual engagement are always entwined with the field’s personal and relational aspects and the power structures that underlie them.
So how do we ethically navigate this situation? No simple answer applies in all cases, but here are some ways I’ve been thinking through these questions and some tools I’ve found helpful.
First, your question points to the need to consider our citational practices more broadly and to reflect on why we are citing or teaching particular people’s work. Do we cite someone simply because they’re always cited? We must ask how “important scholars” came to be identified as important in the first place and whose contributions were erased or marginalized in the process (see, for example, work from the Cite Black Women Collective). As Christen Smith points out, there is “a structural relationship … between gender violence and citational erasure in the academy” (Smith 2022). Some became powerful figures by pushing others out of the field.
At the same time, many of these figures have profoundly shaped our own scholarship and ways of thinking, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We might consider alternative approaches that cite influential work without ignoring the broader context. For example, Savannah Shange explains that “I still cite andrea smith (I KNOW!) with a footnote at the first mention saying that she has been called out as a pretendian with links to the intramural conversation among indigenous folks about her. To me its more using the citation to keep the story of this moment alive.”
When designing a syllabus, we can begin by thinking about the broader goals of the course, how a potential reading fits with those goals, and whether we can achieve the same goal without it. Alex Petit-Thorne offers a valuable series of questions to ask ourselves as we make these decisions, encouraging us to consider the impact on students of engaging with particular work. Our responses might differ depending on the specific course—students and instructors often have different goals in introductory, upper-division, and graduate courses.
In our roles as reviewers and editors or as members of job search and tenure evaluation committees, we must also consider how citational practices intersect with disciplinary gatekeeping. I recently spoke with a graduate student wondering whether to include a core article by John Comaroff on a sample syllabus they were preparing for the job market. The student wanted to engage with the material ethically while also demonstrating their knowledge of the area they would be hired to teach. These shouldn’t be contradictory, but publishing, hiring, and tenure processes often mean that ignoring “important scholars” can have serious repercussions, especially for those already marginalized.
Ultimately, we should cite and teach the people whose work contributes to building the field we want. That doesn’t only mean citing people whose theoretical or methodological contributions are significant. It also means citing and engaging with people whose ethical commitments and everyday practices contribute to a more just anthropology.
Associate Professor of Teaching, Department of Anthropology
Vice Associate Dean, Faculty Development and Diversity, School of Social Sciences
University of California, Irvine
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Jenks, Angela. 2023. “Dear Concerned About Citation and Syllabi” (Response to “Yours Sincerely, Concerned About Citation and Syllabi”). In “Yours Sincerely an Uncertain Anthropologist,” edited by Paige Edmiston and Alexandra Dantzer, American Ethnologist website, 13/02/2023, [https://americanethnologist.org/online-content/collections/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/yours-sincerely-concerned-about-citation-and-syllabi/].
McGranahan, Carole. 2023. “Dear Concerned About Citation and Syllabi” (Response to “Yours Sincerely, Concerned About Citation and Syllabi”). In “Yours Sincerely an Uncertain Anthropologist,” edited by Paige Edmiston and Alexandra Dantzer, American Ethnologist website, 13/02/2023, [https://americanethnologist.org/online-content/collections/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/yours-sincerely-concerned-about-citation-and-syllabi/].
Solway, Jacqueline. 2023. “Dear Concerned About Citation and Syllabi” (Response to “Yours Sincerely, Concerned About Citation and Syllabi”). In “Yours Sincerely an Uncertain Anthropologist,” edited by Paige Edmiston and Alexandra Dantzer, American Ethnologist website, 13/02/2023, [https://americanethnologist.org/online-content/collections/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/yours-sincerely-concerned-about-citation-and-syllabi/].