Class Actions

Professor Watchlist won’t silence teachers any more than administrations and job insecurity already do

In 2016, deep in the paroxysms of our ongoing culture war, it’s tempting to think of the internet as a battleground: a space where strategies can be enacted, where fog can be generated or dispelled, where advances can be made and territory taken. Shortly after Donald Trump won the election, the conservative organization Turning Point USA announced its launch of a website called Professor Watchlist. The site’s About page, which is three paragraphs long and gives the impression of having been written in about 15 minutes, lists the group’s goals: to document, above all, instances of professors discriminating against conservative students, but also instances of professors advancing “leftist propaganda in the classroom” or “demonstrating liberal bias in the classroom.”

When I read about Turning Point USA’s offensive, I chose to enter the fray. I went looking for a specific resource in the field — the Twitter username @professorwatch — and finding it undefended, I seized it.

Not that this was a grandiose operation: I had the idea while I was in bed and grabbed the account before finishing my first cup of coffee. But once I had the account, I was faced with a question that required a little more effort: Was there something worth doing with the account beyond merely denying it to those who might want it? Could it be used to undo some of the damage that the Professor Watchlist people were doing in the world? And what were they really trying to do, anyway?

We’ve seen these sorts of things before. Hans-Joerg Tiede, a member of the American Association of University Professors, recently spoke to Inside Higher Ed about the long history of organizations interested in extending influence over the classroom, such as the American Legion (in the 1920s) and Accuracy in Academia (in the 1980s). More recently, the impulse to catalog, track, or expose leftist professors has made itself manifest in books (David Horowitz’s The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, for instance) and in online resources such as NoIndoctrination.org, which was active from 2002 to 2010. But I figured if I was going to steal a specific group’s Twitter handle, I should make some effort to learn what that particular group was actually about.

Despite its professed concern for what happens “inside the classroom,” Professor Watchlist spends nearly all its time and energy documenting activity that goes on outside the classroom

It may not surprise you to learn that, despite its professed concern for what happens “inside the classroom,” Professor Watchlist spends nearly all its time and energy documenting activity that goes on outside the classroom. None of the write-ups I saw revealed anything that could remotely be called abuse of power or a pattern of discrimination.

Some representative instances compiled on the site include:

  • A black female professor, who tweeted about trying to give preferential treatment to businesses run by people of color.
  • A white male professor, who resigned in protest, unhappy with the conservative political direction his department was taking.
  • A female professor, who made posts critical of Israel on her Facebook page.

Nearly every write-up on the list follows this same basic pattern, and from it we can extract the unspoken argument that fuels the whole site: If someone holds radical or even liberal ideas, this must inevitably carry over into classroom bias. By this logic, the expression of a political point of view can be taken as evidence of a pattern of discrimination. One thing transforms into another: This is the magic trick Professor Watchlist performs over and over again.

Like all magic tricks, though, it falls apart under close scrutiny. It hinges on a claim that the Professor Watchlist people don’t even bother to try to prove, that behavior outside the classroom bears directly on behavior inside it. This makes the claim that conservative students are discriminated against by the people on this list seem a cynical co-opting of the language of identity politics to cudgel and intimidate those who exercise their freedom of expression.

So if the Professor Watchlist is a cudgel, a weaponized collection of data, it brings us back to the idea of the battleground. Once we’ve recognized the enemy weapon in the field, how do we destroy it, jam it, render it less useful? On Twitter, people had started to subvert the #professorwatchlist hashtag as a way to contest the territory. I suggested using it to promote good work that professors were doing both inside and outside the classroom. Others seized upon it to promote a related hashtag, #trollprofessorwatchlist, which encouraged people to either (a) report themselves in a gesture of solidarity, (b) report great teachers from history (Socrates, Christ), or (c) report fictional professors drawn from pop culture (Harry Potter faculty, “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future, “the Professor” from Gilligan’s Island). The fact that Professor Watchlist had left their form fields open to all manner of inputs instead of, say, requiring users to select from a drop-down list of actual universities (as, for instance RateMyProfessors.com does) left them especially vulnerable to a profusion of redundant, misleading, pranksterish, or openly false reports.

Watching this exuberant generation of noise, conjured out of nothing by a crowd on the fly, I was reminded of the rich tradition of obfuscatory techniques, many of which are usefully cataloged in Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum’s recent Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. In a section on “making analysis inefficient,” they quote cultural historian Ben Kafka writing admirably about how “the proliferation of documents and details” can present opportunities for resistance, and they ultimately advocate “a chorus of unhelpful Yeses” in instances “where one can’t say No.”

It’s heartening to consider the obvious utility of these strategies against the Professor Watchlist project. But once we’re through glitterbombing this particular system with meaningless chaff, we might want to pause and consider other forms of professor surveillance already in operation and less susceptible to this kind of disruption. These systems produce their own weaponizable collections of data, but they may go less remarked upon given that they don’t arrive wearing the clownish fright-wig of the contemporary Right.

Compared with Professor Watchlist, RateMyProfessors.com may initially seem relatively benign. It benefits, in this regard, from its parent corporation, MTVU, a college-themed sister version of MTV distributed to on-campus housing. Academics may not consider MTVU, which is owned by Viacom, to be their ally, exactly, but given that neither MTV nor Viacom are committed to establishing an explicitly conservative ethos — given that they don’t need to offer disclaimers that they aren’t directly affiliated with hate groups, as Turning Point USA has had to do — may allow a site like RateMyProfessors to appear apolitical.

By the logic of Professor Watchlist, a political point of view is evidence of a pattern of discrimination. If someone holds radical or even liberal ideas, this inevitably carries over into classroom bias

Though we know, of course, that bias — true bias, of the sort you could support with data —rarely declares itself in advance. It would be surprising if we couldn’t discern the emergence of patterns of, say, gender bias in RateMyProfessors’s more than 15 million ratings, and sure enough, Benjamin Schmidt, a scholar of “history and data” at Northeastern University (where I also teach), has demonstrated that RateMyProfessors reviews, taken in the aggregate, use words like “smart” or “brilliant” more frequently to describe male professors (also, to be fair, “idiot”), and words like “warm,” “cold,” and “shrill” more frequently to describe female professors. He has built an interactive tool to play with, where you can enter a term of your choice, and see how it breaks down by gender and among disciplines. Given Professor Watchlist’s interest in instructor bias, I entered “biased” into the tool, and the corpus revealed that in nearly every discipline (one exception is the gendered field of education) the word “biased” shows up more in the evaluations of women. Dispiritingly but perhaps not unpredictably, the term is deployed most frequently in the evaluations of women in political science, and second most frequently in sociology. This is despite RateMyProfessors’s specifically instructing its users, right on its ratings page, that they should not “claim that the professor shows bias or favoritism for or against students.” (One assumes this is to protect themselves against lawsuits, which opens up another strategy that one could consider deploying against Professor Watchlist.)

I don’t know if it’s just because we’ve adjusted ourselves to functioning within its pop-panoptic space over the past 17 years, or if the site has fallen out of favor with its student users in recent years, but RateMyProfessors no longer seems to loom all that menacingly in the minds of my colleagues. (To gauge from anecdotal data — namely, the frequency of my own reviews on the site — I would pinpoint its heyday to have been around 2008.) The reason for this could be simply that RateMyProfessors inhabits a space outside the institution, a space more or less clearly demarked as belonging to “the media,” so we can talk ourselves into believing that it doesn’t really matter to our bosses. After all, they don’t need to refer to some system run by Viacom to get an assessment of how we’re doing, not when they have their own internal systems of student evaluations. And as far as pernicious, ingrained, obfuscation-resistant collections of data go, these systems are among the best: the most effective, the most totalized.

Studies suggest that, like the RateMyProfessors rankings, student evaluations too reveal predictable patterns of gender bias (and likely biases regarding race, age, and sexual orientation as well), and yet it’s mandatory for instructors to submit to their assessment. Student evaluations are deeply embedded in the body of educational institutions both logistically and ideologically — so much so that one can’t even begin to critique them without seeming like one is trying to defraud students somehow, deny them an oversight that feels somehow to be “rightfully” theirs. Even as I write this I feel the need to perform within the ideological space they inscribe: I want to showcase their deliciously quantifiable numbers, the ones that prove that I’m a good instructor, or at least above average. These numbers are available to the system; they help me to keep my job.

The evaluations at my institution — a system called TRACE (Teacher Rating and Course Evaluation) — don’t ask whether I demonstrate a liberal or conservative bias; they don’t ask whether I’m attempting to indoctrinate students, although they can essentially derive the same information from the bland “Did the instructor treat students with respect?” It is hard to object to this kind of question. It is hard to want to describe the collection of data represented by student evaluations as weaponized, even though contingent faculty like myself are dependent on them for our reappointment and even though marginalized faculty suffer the most from the ways in which they are implemented. Like all things that serve market-driven neoliberalism, student evaluations at first glance seem inoffensive, neutral. It’s only once we remind ourselves to see that ideology, to name it, to critique it, that we see how well-suited it is for shifting education “from a public good to a private good subject to consumer demand.” (I quote here from the catalog description of Lawrence Bush’s Education for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education, to be released in January 2017.)

The evaluations at my institution don’t ask whether I demonstrate a liberal or conservative bias; they can essentially derive the information from the bland “Did the instructor treat students with respect?”

So, yes, those of us who are educators already operate on a daily basis as agents whose activities are extensively quantified by non-educators, yielding a collection of pseudo-objective data that’s riddled with bias, difficult if not impossible to combat with obfuscatory strategies, and which serves a capitalist market system that many of us would privately claim to detest. (Outside the classroom, thank you very much.) Given this state of affairs, one wouldn’t think the appearance of a sloppy, oafish, cartoonishly villainous site like Professor Watchlist would require any action at all. One wouldn’t expect it to feel disquieting. And yet, somehow, it does.

It’s worth saying here that, in most of the important ways, Professor Watchlist will fail. It will fail in its stated objective to document classroom abuses of power because it’s not actually interested in doing that. And it will also fail in its hidden objective to function as a weapon, because, as far as weaponized collections of data go, theirs is especially susceptible to obfuscation and to consequent destruction.

But there is one way it may succeed. In its very sloppiness, its oafishness, its cartoonish villainy, Professor Watchlist establishes for itself a kind of anti-ethos, a thorough reversal of cosmopolitan ideals, with the sturdy, familiar virtues of a liberal education all rejected as liabilities. We are living through a sloppy, oafish, villainous moment, and Professor Watchlist — successfully! — functions as an emblem of them, a standard raised high. This is part of why its appearance feels disquieting, part of why Rebecca Schuman, writing at Slate, describes “the timing” of the site launch as “grotesque.”

To approach the site, to expend critical thought on it, even to bother with kicking it to pieces, means going through the depressing process of acknowledging that this anti-ethos exists, that it holds sway in the world, that, for the moment, it controls the terms of the discussion. It’s going to be hard, over the next four years, to have a conversation about gender bias in student evaluations or about the conditions of part-time contingent faculty or about doing the hard work of making the tools of a liberal education more accessible to marginalized populations. It’s going to be hard, because it’s hard to have difficult conversations when it feels like you’re under assault; it’s hard to look critically at your colleagues when it feels like it’s time to lock arms against the oafish villains roaring at you.

I log in to @ProfessorWatch a couple of times a day now, and I continue to contemplate what to do with it. The account is now followed by a strange mix of liberal academics who are wise to what I’m up to with it, and far-right people who very much aren’t. I browse the public timelines of universities and I occasionally retweet something that I see as an example of good scholarship or of good university governance in the hopes that the far-right people will maybe recognize that they’ve been had, but I’m increasingly realizing that it doesn’t work that way. These posts don’t even tip my hand: To my ideological opposites, anything I hold up for admiration just looks like something being held up for scorn. A group of professors takes a public stance against hate speech: some laud this as a heroic act, keeping the flame of civil democracy alive, others, eager for their turn to be the oppressed class, see it as a craven act of suppressing “Trump-inspired speech.” I tell my writing students that the question of audience is of key importance, but I’ve been vexed so far in figuring out a way to fruitfully address this Twitter audience, so deeply and thoroughly riven. This is the torn landscape in which I’m currently trying to orient myself, working to figure out a way not only to speak but also to act. I may not have the answer yet, but at least I’m willing to learn.

Jeremy P. Bushnell is the author of two novels: The Weirdness (2014) and The Insides (2016), both published by Melville House. He lives and works in the Boston area.