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Women in Tech Shaped eLearning History, but Controversy Lingers Over What Happened on the PLATO Team

By Cait Etherington
December 02, 2018

On November 28, Joy Rankin posted an article on Medium that essentially served as an open letter to Michigan State University. In the letter, she offers an explanation for her decision to leave her tenure-track position at the institution. The story is a bit long and convoluted, but in a nutshell, Rankin’s decision to leave is at least partially connected to a dispute about the history of online learning and the role of women played in the development of PLATO–the first online learning network.

Joy Rankin’s Account of Women on the PLATO Project Team

As Joy Rankin explains in her November 28 post on Medium, back in March 2017, she participated in an conference hosted by California’s Computer History Museum. At the conference, she gave an approximately 20-minute talk on women’s participation in PLATO–an online learning network developed at the University of Illinois in the 1960s to 1970s. As she explains, “The talk was based on the extensive research I had undertaken for my book A People’s History of Computing in the United States. At this conference, I was presenting for the first time a focused analysis on gender and PLATO, seeking feedback from the audience of fellow academics at the conference. I pointed out some ways in which circa 1960–75 PLATO reinforced American Cold War gender roles. I briefly discussed and analyzed evidence of women complaining about harassment on the PLATO network in the 1970s, pointing out that social media misogyny has a long history.” While none of this may sound controversial, the talk and its content ended up at the center of a larger controversy.

While Rankin says most conference attendees were enthusiastic about her discoveries, not everyone was happy. As Rankin notes, “In May, a man named Brian Dear posted a very long blog post about my short conference talk. He publicized his blog post on his personal website under the title ‘When Historians Attack.'” In the post, Dear, author of The Friendly Orange Glow, essentially argued Rankin had gotten the facts all wrong. Despite coming across hundreds of notes from workers on the PLATO project that pointed to hostility toward female consultants, Dear alleged that Rankin’s research was deeply flawed.

An article on the scandal published on the Inside Higher Education site on November 30 cites Dear’s critique of Rankin at length: “Rankin’s presentation makes assertions about the PLATO system, its developers, its users, and its online and offline culture at [Illinois] in the 1960s and 1970s, that paint a decidedly negative picture, one where Rankin declares PLATO suffered from ‘endemic misogyny’ and that she likens to a ‘fortress of patriarchal heterosexual power in American computing … Such a description stands in stark contrast to the picture described to me by roughly 1,000 PLATO people over the course of more than thirty years of research.” Notably, Inside Higher Education also reports that Dear interviewed several women mentioned by Rankin in her talk and “the women appeared to disagree with Rankin’s interpretation of their comments or actions.”

Misconduct Allegations

While writers and researchers frequently have debates over historical accounts, what happened next in Joy Rankin’s case is a bit more unusual.

First, a woman who had worked on the PLATO team in the 1970s who knew Dear contacted Rankin’s university and launched a complaint about her research. Then, based on the complaint and Dear’s blog post, which had been widely circulated online, an official at Michigan State University launched Research Misconduct Allegations against Rankin. Normally, such allegations are only launched in more series cases (e.g., when a researcher has deliberately harmed a research subject in a study). In the end, as Rankin notes in her own November 28 Medium post, the investigation found, “There is no evidence whatsoever that Rankin’s work in any way commits Misconduct … Rankin drew conclusions from her research with which Dear takes strong issue. That does not make them the product of Misconduct.” So, what was really going on?

To make another long story short, when Rankin presented her paper back in 2017, she had already launched a sexual harassment complaint against a colleague. The alleged harasser, a tenured professor and associate dean, happened to have a lot of power in her institution given his associate dean role. Rankin suspects that the research misconduct allegations were launched as a form of retaliation and had little to do with the substance of her research.

While Rankin may no longer have a tenure-track position at Michigan Start University, she is certainly still an active researcher. Rankin’s new book, A People’s History of Computing in the United Stateswas published by Harvard University Press in October 2018.