'The Phantom Professor'
No one at Southern Methodist University knew -- for sure -- who The Phantom Professor was. The professor's blog, like those of many untenured academics, was anonymous and the university was never named.
Sure, readers learned that the Phantom Professor's college had a lot of wealthy students, many of whom dressed alike, and many of whom weren't particularly good writers. But that doesn't really narrow it down. And the Phantom's university was one where many adjuncts, like the author of the blog, felt invisible and ignored -- not exactly an unusual quality.
But at SMU, at least some students and faculty members (and the university's legal office) did become aware of the Phantom Professor and the many similarities between incidents at the Phantom's campus and at SMU. And in SMU's Department of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, people recognized themselves and their colleagues. And word got around that the author was probably Elaine Liner, a popular writing instructor and a theater critic for a local alternative newspaper.
At about the same time this spring that people were guessing that Liner was the Phantom, she was being told that the university no longer needed her services after the spring semester. Liner and her many student fans think that SMU is punishing her for expressing pointed opinions about the university.
"I cried when I heard that she wouldn't be back," says Carrie Ince, a junior. "She's inspiring. She's engaging. She really cares. And she got fired for using her freedom of speech."
University officials don't see it that way. They won't talk about the specific decision not to continue offering courses to Liner, who had taught at SMU since 2001, but they say it had nothing to do with the blog and that they didn't know for sure that the author was Liner. But they acknowledge that they were worried about the blog.
Rita Kirk, the department chairwoman, says that she received complaints about the blog from students and parents, and that she consulted with university lawyers about what to do about it. Kirk describes herself as a strong First Amendment supporter, but she says she worries that the blog violated students' privacy rights and upset some students. "People need to remember that words can hurt," Kirk says.
Liner, who agreed to go public with her identity for the first time for this article, says that her blog was about telling the story of academic life, warts and all. Liner started the blog in the fall of 2004, around the same time that she encouraged her students to try blogging. "I felt I had so many great stories to tell about students, and this would be a way to start writing them," she says. Liner says that she told a few journalist friends about her blog, but spoke to no one at SMU about it. Her goal was to someday write a book about her teaching experiences.
The name of the blog represents her feelings as an adjunct. "You see a lot but you feel a little invisible. You feel like a phantom floating around the campus," she says.
So she set about writing entries about her experiences -- stories students would tell her about life on campus, stories about snooty professors who were rude to adjuncts, and more. "I just have this compulsion to tell stories," Liner said. "I wanted to write from the deep inside, to be the person in the back of the faculty meeting or the person listening to what was going on. I wanted to write about what people don't know about colleges."
And indeed she writes about plenty of material that you won't find in viewbooks. Student views of sex and sexual harassment. Use of Illegal drugs. Student stress (up to and including hospitalization). Crime on campus. Students who don't know how to write well. And more. (After Liner was told this semester would be her last, she took much of her site down, but has since restored a large sampling, which you can read from the link at the top of this article.)
And the Phantom Professor didn't just report, but added plenty of wry commentary, especially about dealing with wealthy students at SMU. Phantom called the wealthy female students "Ashleys" and didn't hold back the sarcasm about them, sometimes noting whether a student she was discussing in a posting was or was not an "Ashley."
While Liner never confirmed to students in class that she was the Phantom Professor, many said that they heard about the blog, started following it, and began offering her suggestions about subject matter. Liner says that she didn't make fun of Ashleys for the sake of doing so, but because she identifies with other SMU students. She says that the university commendably offers scholarships to many low-income students, who arrive at a campus where it is hard for them to navigate the social scene.
"I loved discovering students who felt disconnected from their experience here and who were so happy to find someone who 'got' them," Liner says. "They don't drive the same cars as the Ashleys and they don't carry thousand-dollar handbags. I've had so many young women come to me and say, 'I don't know what to do here.'"
When she wasn't writing her blog or writing articles for various Texas publications, Liner was by all accounts a caring and demanding teacher. Her evaluations from students were high and several students interviewed say that they loved her classes even though she was tougher on them than were many other instructors. "She tore up my work, but I learned to become a better writer," says one student who does not want to be identified for fear of offending professors in the department.
Many students who are Liner fans say that they love the blog. Brooke Beals, a senior, says that the first time she read Phantom Professor, it was a little uncomfortable. "She tells the brutal truth, and I had a lot of emotions," Beals said. "But she's a writer and that's what she does and it should be supported."
Added Beals: "Everything in there is true."
Some of Liner's supporters are even among the groups she mocks. "I am one of the Ashleys. I fit the profile totally," said Ince. "But it's true. You do see the same kinds of girls walking around this campus in the same clothes."
Kirk, the department chair, said that not all students were as agreeable, and some of them -- and some parents -- were deeply hurt. Some students "felt that they could recognize themselves," Kirk says.
The reason she contacted the university's legal department, Kirk says, was fear that the blog might be violating federal privacy laws for students. But beyond the law, Kirk said that there was a question of ethics.
"When I'm a student and I talk to a professor about my grades or my health of my family, I assume I'm doing so in confidence," Kirk says. And she also says she was worried about comments about the Ashleys, even if they didn't focus on any one student. "I would hate to think that one of my professors was making fun of me," Kirk says. "It showed a distaste for the university."
Some students share that view. The Daily Campus, the student newspaper, published an editorial in which it said that the Phantom Professor was "superbly written," but called the author "ornery" and said that the blog was "inappropriate and unprofessional." (One response to the editorial asked, "Perhaps the Peeping-Tom nature of the blog -- the nameless and faceless author lurking around the cyber underworld like the Phantom of the Opera, watching our every move -- is a bit unnerving. Or is it the thought that someone, an insider, is exposing SMU’s skeletons to the rest of the world?")
Kirk says that she never asked Liner if she was the Phantom Professor because she had "no reason to challenge her directly on it." If she had known Phantom's identity for sure, Kirk says, "I can't say it wouldn't have entered into the process" of evaluating her.
While Kirk declines to say why Liner wasn't being asked back, she says that the department was trying to replace adjuncts with full-time professors. But she acknowledges that the department will still be using adjuncts and that it is not clear that a full-time professor will be picking up Liner's writing courses.
Liner says that she was "always sure to disguise identities and to alter details significantly that might pinpoint any particular student. Boys became girls and vice versa."
She speculates that some students may think that Phantom Professor was mocking them when in fact it was just a student with similar characteristics. "You might classify some of the 'Ashley' stories as even more blatant composites, but the sorority girls do tend to blend into one thin, blurred blond," Liner says. "Some of the stories are so common among SMU kids -- the rampant bulimia, the outrageous budgets for clothes and cars, the airheads, the illiterate jocks and the plagiarizers -- that any number of students who knew me or didn't might identify with them."
Liner says that many times students told her things in confidence and that she never violated those confidences. "It has never been my intention to embarrass or 'out' anyone," she says. "I thought I was just writing funny, odd, touching little stories about my experiences on a campus and in a classroom. These are my stories, what happened to me. Any embellishments have been to add a touch of satire, some humor, a punch line. I write about stereotypes, recognizable sorts of characters that populate academia."
After she was told she couldn't continue at SMU, Liner took a hiatus from Phantom Professor. But she wrote recently that she's been flooded with ideas from students who want her to tell about their experiences -- such as "the cute male professor known as 'hot pockets' and the undergrad girls who swarm his office hoping to earn 'extra credit'" or "Ladies' room Stall No. 6 -- aka Purge-atory."
Wrote the Phantom Professor: "Thank you, one and all, for the submissions. We've only just begun."