May 11, 2005
Perils of academic blogging
At SMU, a popular adjunct professor has been fired--or, more precisely, "not renewed"--and the word is that her firing had a lot to do with her blog. Elaine Liner has taught writing as an adjunct at SMU for several years; she is also a local theater critic and, until recently, she led an active anonymous life online as the Phantom Professor, an outspoken critic of the academy whose tales of campus life ultimately hit a little too close to home for her colleagues. Though Liner never told anyone at SMU that she was the Phantom Professor, and while she never named names or identified her place of work, her descriptions of SMU's campus culture and her portraits of students and colleagues were accurate enough that people at SMU began to recognize their school, their friends, their teachers, and even themselves, in Liner's words.
Liner may not have named names, but she did write about specific people, often quite critically, and she did so in a way that raised concerns among SMU administrators about whether she was violating the privacy of students. In a February entry, for example, Liner describes a student she dubs "Kortney":
I'd dub her one of the Ashleys -- those plastic girls tottering on $500 sandals, clutching their $1500 handbags -- but try as she might, she'll never quite fit the mold. Her weight for one thing. Girls on this particular campus hover at near-skeletal levels. Kortney is on the chunky side. My generation's parents called it "baby fat." She's not really fat, not in the real world that doesn't measure by Paris Hilton standards, just fleshier than most of her classmates. Rubenesque, you might say. I think she's pretty and will only get prettier as the years add up and her baby fat melts away.
I meet Kortney for nonfat lattes. She's worried about her grade, not in my class but in the class of one of my now-former colleagues. "She hates me!" says Kortney. "Everything I do is wrong in there!" She pulls out a sheaf of papers that the teacher has marked up during the semester. The mistakes are little ones -- odd spacings, misplaced modifiers -- but for each one, the other teacher has deducted 10 points. Every paper is topped with a big red "F."
I don't know what to tell Kortney. What I'd love to say is that it's not all her fault, that this other professor has had a shitty life lately. She's freshly divorced, bitter that her kid has sided with the ex. She's also packed on about 40 pounds over the past two semesters. My amateur psychology says the teacher sees herself in the student and is punishing herself by proxy by failing the girl.
What I say instead is, go talk to Professor X. See what you can do to salvage your grade. Be calm. Don't tune up to cry.
And take her a box of Godivas.
Liner's is a pointed and revealing and interesting portrait of both the student and the colleague; it's also the sort of thing bound to make administrators squirm. In other, more recent entries, Liner promises to tell the stories of "the rape victim denied morning-after pills 'for religious reasons' by the pharmacist at the campus health center," "the cute male professor known as 'Hot Pockets' and the undergrad girls who swarm his office hoping to earn 'extra credit,'" and "Ladies' room stall No. 6, aka Purge-atory." Liner is clearly playing the edge with her blog, which relies heavily on the transgressive quality of posts devoted to the sorts of things professional decorum dictates teachers avoid discussing in public--the private lives of their students and colleagues, the private opinions a teacher may harbor about either students or colleagues, the unsubstantiated stuff of the local rumor mill. That SMU decided her blog crossed the line is not particularly surprising.
SMU both does and does not admit to firing Liner for writing such a revealing--and inevitably damning--blog: Though administrators deny that the decision to renew Liner had anything to do with the blog, even going so far as to deny having ascertained that Liner was really the author of the blog, they also admit that they were deeply disturbed by the blog, that they had received complaints about it, and that they had gone so far as to consult lawyers about it. As an adjunct, Liner has no job security, and effectively does not enjoy even the semblance of academic freedom; SMU is free to choose not to continue to employ her, and it is free, too, not to offer her any explanation. As it happens, SMU administrators are offering an explanation that is patently unbelievable--they say they discontinued Liner because they want to begin replacing adjunct professors with full-time tenure-track professors, but they have no plans to assign Liner's course to someone on the tenure-track.
Meanwhile, Liner is continuing to write, though less phantasmatically, in her guise as the Phantom Professor. She is also planning a book about her experiences at SMU.
I don't think that being fired for blogging is surprising when one is blogging about the workplace in the way that the Phantom Professor did. If one is writing material that is damaging to one's employer (even when using thinly disguised pseudonyms), one can expect the employer to retaliate, especially if the blogger has no job security.
What would bother me more is someone getting fired for expressing political--or otherwise un-work-related--views on a blog.
Like Matt said, I don't see any reason why people should expect to a) use their job as a source for dirt for their blog (or other writings) and b) keep their job.
The fact that tenured professors are the tiny majority who _can_ legitimately have that expectation (although it's not clear to me why "academic freedom" confers the right to violate privacy without consequence) doesn't change that fact.
Also, it doesn't astonish me that an instructor who openly loathes half the students, strokes the other half and ridicules the former (by name!) in conversation with the latter can become a huge favorite of the latter.
cynically, and as a former adjunct, I have to wonder whether the PP would happier continuing to adjunct or having a book deal and a story to tell...if it were me, I'd choose the book deal in an instant.
As a professor who blogs, I'm actually pretty much horrified by the Phantom Professor's revelations about students. (Don't get me wrong, that's a funny and sharply observed post, but she should write a novel instead!) It happens that I wouldn't write about colleagues anyway (that's not the point of my blog) but it seems to me a breach of confidentiality to report on what students say in the classroom, let alone in a private conversation with a professor where they have every reason to expect your discretion. I have been surprised how many times I've read a professor's blog--a blog with the professor's real name attached--that comments on the poor performance of a job candidate, for instance. It gets back to the question of whether some bloggers misunderstand the public nature of the medium. But Matt's comment here is surely the most to the point, Phantom Professor must be angling for a book deal!
SHe's been "dooced"! Fired for blogging. But, she might have tried a tich harder to disguise her colleagues--and while other faculty members are fair game, students aren't.
Dooce--google it and read the story.
"...it seems to me a breach of confidentiality to report on what students say in the classroom, let alone in a private conversation with a professor where they have every reason to expect your discretion."
Isn't that comparing apples and oranges? A one-on-one alone during office hours is one thing, but why would anyone think they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the statements they make in class? If I, as an attorney, were talking with a client in the presence of third parties (that I knew were there), those communications would not be privileged. I've never even heard of the idea that classroom comments should be considered private.
"I meet Kortney for nonfat lattes."
That's not classroom. That's more descriptive of counseling sessions. If "Kortney" is identifiable to her friends, this is pretty sad.
I'm dismayed that a school from which I hold a master's degree would be so petty as to send on her way a well-liked professor who apparently likes teaching, simply because she called 'em like she saw 'em, and just because they could.
I'm equally dismayed that a professional adult charged with the responsibility of working with students seems to regularly engage in stereotyping and denigrating them. Neither Liner nor SMU smell particularly rosy after this.
Had she not spilled the beans on a private converstation with a student (assuming that this is not a "synthetic" student representing her frustrations), I'd be supportive of her in this instance. But she crossed a line in this case.
I think this is a an example of horrible, immature judgement that could have had tragic consequences. What if "Kortney" recognizes herself--and becomes severely depressed when she realizes what her beloved professor really thinks of her? I am going to use this example of irresponsibility when I give a talk this week on blogs and their uses and misuses.
Sherry, will you post your talk somewhere so it can be broadcast throughout the land? Or at least started on one of those neverending email chains? (Just kidding about the latter. I hate those things.)