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Regarding the Plenary Incident at SHA2021

I’ve been debating about posting this essay for a day or so, for fear of drawing even more attention to myself than I’ve already gotten. However I’m also getting frustrated with the amount of people (mostly on Facebook, Reddit, and news site comment sections) who have misinterpreted the context of the incident that happened between myself and Robert Schuyler at the SHA Plenary Session on January 6, 2021. I’ve explained the circumstances to several journalists, but have been refraining from making any real personal comments about this until now. At this point I don’t really care if it changes people’s minds about the situation — this is really aimed at relieving some of my own anxiety about the situation and the continuing backlash. I’d like to take readers through the wider context of the short video clips that have been spread across the internet, in the hopes of showing how deeply concerning this incident was.

I was invited by the Society for Historical Archaeology to speak on a plenary panel for the annual conference. This was not a business or committee meeting, as some people seem to believe. To briefly explain, a plenary session is usually the formal opening session of a conference, where invited speakers give keynotes speeches or participate in a moderated panel discussion. It is usually moderated, with a mixture of set questions and discussion topics relevant to the overall conference theme.

I and five others (Justin Dunnavant, Terry Klein, Alexandra Jones, Barbara Heath, and Andrew Robinson) were invited to serve as a discussion panel. The plan was that we would each answer both predetermined and organically generated questions about our respective areas of expertise and experience as historical archaeologists, with a particular focus on the impacts of the pandemic. At the beginning of the plenary the moderator, Dr. Della Scott-Ireton, announced who we were and our backgrounds. She then asked the audience to hold any questions for a potential Q&A session at the end, and started with a general question directed at all of us

After we all answered that first question (about what we thought the greatest impacts of the pandemic had been on our work), Dr. Scott-Ireton pivoted to asking targeted questions for each panelist. My first questions centered on my role as Access and Inclusion coordinator for the SHA. She asked about my work at past conferences, my hopes for the future of my role, and my opinions on the accessibility and challenges of online conference formats. I had prepared an answer discussing my work creating an Access Package for the Boston Conference, and how future coordinators should approach making one for future conferences. I spoke about how I envisioned the role changing in the future, and my suggestions for improving it. These included establishing an accessibility committee and budget, payment for junior scholars who may serve in positions on this committee, and a focus on including the voices of archaeologists of color in this role. Since I had also been asked by Dr. Scott-Ireton about the online conference and accessibility, I made sure to discuss the pros and cons of online formats, and ended by making the point that just because something is in an online forum does not make it inherently more accessible.

After finishing these prepared statements, I paused for Dr. Scott-Ireton to ask any follow up questions, which is generally the moderator’s job in a plenary panel. However, before she could do so Dr. Robert Schuyler unmuted himself to ask Dr. Scott-Ireton if he could comment.

While Dr. Scott-Ireton said “Sure” in response to this, I believe it was more of an automatic reaction than anything else, as I know she (and the rest of us) were confused and shocked that any of the audience members were even able to unmute themselves. We had been told that only the meeting hosts were supposed to be able to unmute audience members, but this was apparently not the case.

Dr. Schuyler began his comment stating that he superficially agreed with my statements about online conferences, but stated that he had a difficult time logging into the platform and cited the low attendance to the plenary panel as a negative consequence of online conferences. He very forcefully stated that we needed to encourage members to attend next year’s conference in Philadelphia — a fact I don’t disagree with. He spoke about this for nearly a minute, with no interruption, but then changed focus and began to ask a second question on an entirely unrelated topic. Dr. Schuyler wanted to know statistics on membership retention for the year, and was concerned that the pandemic and online conference had destroyed membership numbers and renewals.

Anyone who has attended a plenary session at a conference knows that they are not the forum for such questions, which are more suited to the annual Business Meeting or even the Finance Committee Meeting. I have personally never witnessed a plenary session being interrupted in this way, especially not one which had clearly stated rules regarding questions at the beginning.

As Dr. Schuyler continued to speak, I felt as though no one was going to stop this derailment of the plenary session, and I decided to respond directly to him myself. I briefly stated that I didn’t think this was the place for his comments [about membership retention], as I was addressing accessibility concerns. As everyone has seen in the videos circulating, Dr. Schuyler did not like being redirected by me. He immediately responded with a claim of ‘freedom of speech’, with a raised voice and irritated tone. I spoke over him, in an attempt to reclaim my position as a panelist; I pointed out that I was the invited speaker, and had been given a speaking platform by the SHA. I think it is incredibly important to be very explicit about why something is wrong in this kind of situation, because otherwise it may be interpreted as simply an angry or irritated response.

In response to this Dr. Schuyler raised his hand in a Nazi victory salute and said either “Sieg heil to you” or “heil to you” (the audio is unclear), apparently in reference to being ‘silenced’ or ‘suppressed’ by me. Dr. Schuyler has not disputed these actions.

At that moment I was so shocked that I couldn’t believe what he had done, I thought I must have imagined it. I simply responded with an incredulous “Excuse me??” and stared while Dr. Scott-Ireton and the SHA’s executive director, Karen Huthcinson, took control. They answered his questions briefly, and attempted to move on. Dr. Scott-Ireton first asked if I had any additional comments to make, and I managed to get out a sentence about how Dr. Schuyler had inadvertently proved my earlier points about the need for accessibility and diversity in our field before I briefly left to collect myself.

I was crying. I was upset. This was not the first time I had been spoken to like that by a man, but it was the first time it had happened while 150 of my colleagues were watching on a Zoom call. I’m a PhD student, and this was my first ever invited talk at an international conference. I was the youngest person on the panel, and even though I felt confident in my work I still felt a bit out of place. That’s imposter syndrome for you.

Over the past few days I’ve made the mistake of reading some of the comments in various forums, and I’ve noticed some common questions from people who weren’t at the conference and would like more context. Some have wondered whether there was an altercation earlier in the meeting between Dr. Schuyler and I, or even if I had some kind of ‘academic beef’ with him. Before January 6th, 2021 I had, to my knowledge, never spoken to Dr. Schuyler, and was only peripherally familiar with his work. The first words I ever spoke to him were in that plenary session, after he had interrupted the panel discussion. Additionally, the short incident caught on video was not the only negative actions Schuyler took during the meeting. For almost the entirety of my answer about my work on increasing accessibility and the online conference, Schuyler could be seen visibly shaking his head, sneering, and laughing derisively at my responses. He also attempted to interrupt and comment later in the plenary session, right after another of my prepared answers/statements, but was quickly muted.

Others have wondered why it matters that I am disabled and queer, or how Dr. Schuyler could have known this. Well, earlier in the plenary I had specifically introduced myself as a white, queer, disabled early career researcher in order to establish my personal positionality for the audience. I had been talking openly about how my identity informed my work for the SHA as the Access and Inclusion coordinator. So, fully aware of the fact that I am queer and disabled, Dr. Schuyler chose to express his discontent with my reclamation of space with Nazi symbolism. The Nazi Party targeted many people during WWII, with the largest and most devastated groups including Jews and other religious/ethnic groups, as well as queer and disabled people.

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Schuyler has not denied that he used a Nazi phrase and salute, but maintains that he was trying to express his discontent with being silenced by me. Questions of whether I ‘silenced’ Dr. Schuyler aside, the immediacy of his reaction was shocking. I barely finished a sentence before he invoked his right to ‘freedom of speech’, and by my second sentence he was throwing up his arm and shouting me down with a Nazi victory cry.

Some other people in various parts of the internet have wondered why no one spoke out in the meeting. I think there were several factors. Some of my fellow panelists may have been uncomfortable doing so, and should not have had to put themselves in the line of fire to defend me. I’m sure that others were confused, shocked, upset, and distracted. What the videos don’t show are the dozens of comments audience members posted in the chat, immediately calling for Dr. Schuyler to be muted and for the moderators to take control of the meeting. Many of my fellow archaeologists in the session were extremely upset that Dr. Schuyler had interrupted the planned session to ask his own questions and make unrelated comments, and said so in the chat. Some of my tears actually came from gratitude at others recognizing the seriousness of the situation I was suddenly in.

As for the moderator Dr. Scott-Ireton and Executive Director Karen Hutchinson, I believe their perceived inaction was a combination of shock, technology issues, and lack of training for how to handle such a situation, which I don’t fault them for personally. The SHA has directly addressed this fact in their statements and decision, and will be instituting training for moderators and session chairs for future conferences. I am very pleased with this decision, and hope it prevents something like this from happening again.

Finally, one point I really wanted to address is that I was not upset with the fact that Dr. Schuyler disagreed with me, in any way. In fact my comment just before his interruption alluded to the fact that online forums can be difficult for many people to access, including those who are less technologically literate. I am very empathetic to his struggles, and had he approached me in my capacity as Access and Inclusion coordinator for the conference I would have happily set up a meeting to discuss his concerns and incorporate his feedback into the next conference.

So, I wasn’t upset about him disagreeing with me at all. I was upset about an audience member interrupting an invited speaker (me) to add unsolicited comments and ask off-topic questions. As a woman I was upset that an older male colleague had interrupted my speaking time to bring up his own opinions. I was upset on behalf of my fellow panelists, who had not yet been able to answer the questions they had been invited to discuss, which focused on everything from educational engagement during the pandemic to climate change effects on archaeological sites. I was frustrated that our panel was being derailed like this. If this was an in-person conference my fellow panelists and I would have been on a stage in a conference center, and Dr. Schuyler would have had to physically walk up and take away a microphone to speak.

These facts, more than anything else, are why I chose to speak up and assert myself. It was a scary thing to do, but something I felt was necessary, especially as someone who has been interrupted by men in conversations and meetings more times than I can recall. I wanted to model an assertive response for other ECRs, and show that this type of unacceptable behavior needs to be confronted directly. I recently made a vow to myself to try and take back some of the time and space I have given up to make others comfortable at my own expense — this was just one of the first chances had to act on that vow.

I hope this essay has cleared up some of the commonly repeated misinterpretations about the situation, and clarifies a few things. I am pleased so far with the action the SHA has taken and which the RPA has initiated. I’m carefully monitoring Penn’s response to this, and I do believe that Dr. Schuyler’s actions warrant removal from his positions at the University. His first reaction to being redirected by a junior colleague after he has interrupted her was to shout, and the second reaction was to accuse her of being a Nazi. I have seen comments from former students and colleagues at Penn stating that this is not the first time Schuyler has been dismissive, abusive, or intolerant. I’ve received multiple emails and messages to the same effect. These past incidents, and his recent actions at the SHA plenary, would be unacceptable in any workplace, but especially in academia. As Melina Seabrook and so eloquently put it in our open letter to Penn;

“We all have a responsibility to create and sustain collaborative, collegial, and equitable research and educational communities.”

It’s time Penn, and other institutions of higher education, acted on that responsibility.

I will finish this essay by asking you to consider signing this open letter, to aid in putting pressure on the University of Pennsylvania. Please also consider signing this petition created by Penn undergrads who do not feel safe with Schuyler remaining in his positions.

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