Yakking Back: Anonymity’s Heyday at Bennington

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Jorja Rose ‘17

Amid concern that Yik Yak, an anonymous social networking app, is promoting a culture of hostility and causticness that emanates into the daily lives of students, the administration has begun investigating the possibility of banning the smartphone application over the school’s wi-fi network.  The topic took up the entirety of the most recent full body House Chair meeting.  As students and administrators alike process this suggestion, it is telling to look back at anonymous forums that have operated at Bennington College in the past.  The school faces a unique predicament when it comes to anonymity.  Because of our small size, community members may be recognized through their sentiments even if their names are omitted.  Rumors make faster headway when even a vague description gives readers a solid idea of the intended subject.  But the same attributes that today raise concerns about social toxicity have, in the past, provided an opportunity for constructive anonymous platforms.

The Bennington College Archive provides full access to hundreds of “galleys,” the publication of which spanned from 1957 to 1979. The one-page documents were written up on a typewriter and distributed to everyone on campus. Some have signatures, some have initials, and some are altogether anonymous. With titles ranging from “Snack Bar Crisis” (published 1965) to “Institutional Racism” (published 1968), the galleys address housing overflows, gender, the desire for more lecturers, the banishing of campus pets (there is a particularly heartfelt letter written by Rotter the dog), racism, drug abuse, and anything else that Yik Yak users could likely dream up.  Impassioned and thoughtful, the galleys speak to a time when those with a concern to voice actively sought out an anonymous or semi-anonymous forum.

Pastiche was a student-run newspaper with issues published in 1968 and 1969.  A letter to the editor appearing in the third edition relates an act of racism committed against a Black student and her family by a campus safety officer who refused to let their car pass by the campus safety booth and yelled at them to “hurry and back the hell out of here.”  The letter demands that Bennington College reevaluate its own claim of racial tolerance.  The letter is signed, “The Faction.”  

The Vanguard, another student newspaper, which ran from 1978 into 1979, also published anonymous letters to the editor.  One such letter from March 28, 1979, begins, “I’m writing to express my relief that the President has finally gotten together with the College community and let us know what the hell is going on.”  Another, from April 17 of the same year, opens, “Regarding your commentary on punk rock in your last issue: I think punk does not even deserve the publicity you are giving it, for by giving it any space at all you are conceding there is some worth to it.”  The author’s name is withheld upon request.  In some ways, these letters best mirror the tone that has sparked worry in students and administrators over Yik Yak.  They project anger, or confusion, or an intermingling of the two.  Still, the setting is a more curated one, and anonymous letters appear alongside signed news items.

These archives shed light on an important realization: The condition of anonymity does not foreclose the opportunity for accountability.  The chance to publish without attaching one’s name might facilitate thoughtfulness rather than demolishing it, fostering a dialogue around uneasy topics.  The questions raised about Yik Yak can easily be translated into a number of requests.  One is that the school opens up a serious anonymous forum once again, where valid concerns might be teased out from unfounded ones.