In 2017, as news reports about Harvey Weinstein began, one of the people interviewed said, “Everybody knew, but nobody was saying so.” ‘Everyone knew’ because of information passed through informal communication networks called whisper networks. For my dissertation, I did an in-depth qualitative study on whisper networks, which are informal communication networks that women use to keep each other safe from sexual harassment and sexism.
Although scholars in communication studies have studied sexual harassment, silence, and risk, few have examined how safety is built through informal networks. I conducted semi-structured interviews with women who had participated in whisper networks in their organizations to determine the purposes whisper networks serve and how they form and function. I did an initial thematic analysis of the interviews to observe emerging themes and overlapping ideas. Then, using grounded theory’s iterative coding methods, I developed overarching theories about whisper networks’ purposes and how whisper networks form in organizational structures, including universities, churches, political offices, and the service industry.
Whisper networks and sexual harassment often coexist, but my research focuses on whisper networks as informal communication channels instead of direct experiences with sexual harassment. My research shows that women who use whisper networks tend to be highly qualified and influential in their organization, confident in their standing, good at their jobs, and passionate. Unlike the popular narrative, they do not avoid reporting harassment due to a lack of confidence. They care deeply and will report formally, but they use whisper networks because they know that formal reporting systems are often slow and ineffective. In other words, they use whisper networks because it is often the only way to keep colleagues, students, and co-workers safe.
In the classroom, I encourage students to think critically about communication, whose voices are centered, who is erased or overlooked by communication practices, and policies, and apply user-centered research and messaging to address structural inequities. I have taught advanced communication courses in business communication, technical communication, research methods, and internships for women and gender studies and introductory courses in persuasive communication and written, oral, visual, and electronic composition. As a guest lecturer for the upper-division organizational communication course, I talked about sexual harassment policies in organizations and how to create internal communications that help individuals and teams deal with sexual harassment issues. I presented multiple guest lectures about creating a WordPress Site to exhibit written, oral, and visual projects, and taught doctoral students about the academic publishing process in a peer review course at Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.
In addition to teaching communication courses, I teach and mentor a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers as the Vertically Integrated Teams coordinator for the Catt Center for Women in Politics. I created the Canvas course, wrote and implemented course objectives, structured course policies, and built team and individual assessments. I collaborated with the program director on teaching research methods, including qualitative and quantitative research, content analysis, surveys, interviews, and human subjects training. Many of our students have been first-gen or from minoritized communities, and the exposure to formal research will help as they enter their profession or apply to graduate school. The team presented their research at local and national conferences such as the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE), Ready to Run® Iowa, and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR).
When students leave my class, I want them to know that their ability to communicate well is worth their time and effort. Communication can be learned, practiced, and utilized in ways that build community, organize action, and make their lives better. I create an environment where students practice, make mistakes, ask me questions, work with each other, and broaden their perspectives. To initiate that safe space, I weave in free-writes about times they have made mistakes, survived the embarrassment, and learned something new. I often join them in the free-writes by writing on the board and showing them that everyone makes spelling errors and sentence fragments in initial drafts. By allowing them to see me as fully human, students are more comfortable asking hard questions, less inclined to hide behind embarrassment, and open to discussing where they are lost.
Students often come to class with a belief that assessment is meant to catch and penalize them. Tests have been used to punish them instead of empowering their growth. To build a foundation of future success, I teach them to use rubrics throughout the creative process and as a way to analyze their formative drafts. I present rubrics along with assignment details and ask the class how they would improve the rubric based on what they have learned. When students spend time reflecting on what they have learned and how to transfer it to their projects, they feel more confident and in control of the outcome. They learn to build and live up to their own expectations instead of relying on someone else’s judgement. Students focus on doing work they are proud of, and they are more excited to add their projects to their portfolios.