May 28, 2005, 7:44PM
SMU lecturer takes heat for telling blog
The 'Phantom Professor' says it was an outlet and could be a movie
By THOMAS KOROSEC
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Dallas Bureau
• The Phantom Professor blog
DALLAS - For most of the past two semesters, nobody knew the identity
of "The Phantom Professor."
The educator's anonymous Web log, set at an unnamed university "in
the South," spun tales of spoiled-rich "Ashleys" with their $500
sandals and $1,500 handbags, eating disorders, plagiarism and drug
use, legal and illegal.
"At this school it seems like every kid is on multiple medications,"
the professor wrote, describing her charges as "barely literate,"
prone to emotional problems and "terrified of displeasing Mommy and
Surrounded by students sporting French manicures and plans for spring
break in Cabo, the blog's author told stories like the one about "a
certain member of a Middle Eastern royal family who got a new
Mercedes by convincing a frat buddy to crash his one-year-old model
into a wall" or how one stall in a certain ladies room was known as
No names were used, but this spring at Southern Methodist University,
students and faculty began recognizing themselves in the phantom's
prose. A student in SMU's corporate communications and public affairs
department discovered the blog had quoted the content of e-mail she
had sent to one of her teachers. It called her "clueless."
An assistant professor had no trouble identifying herself in another
short posting about a faculty member who was "fresh from a mediocre
Midwestern University with a Ph.D. in something no one cares about."
Earlier this month, Elaine Liner, an adjunct professor who taught
writing and ethics classes in SMU's public relations department since
2001, revealed in an online publication that the blog was hers.
Liner, who writes freelance theater reviews for a Dallas weekly, also
let it be known that in late March she was told her contract to teach
at the school would not be renewed.
"One of the ironies of this is that I worked in a building that had
the First Amendment carved in stone across its front," Liner said in
an interview last week. She said she is certain she was let go
because of her blog.
"I can't arrive at any other conclusion," said Liner, who was paid
$18,000 a year, no benefits, to teach two classes for three semesters.
School officials said Liner was not invited back for reasons other
than the blog, although they would not discuss specifics. Rita Kirk,
chairwoman of the public relations department, said she wanted to
move the department toward hiring more full-time faculty. Liner,
listed on a campus directory as a lecturer, is still working toward a
"It's unrelated to the blog," said Kirk. "Her trying to make it so
does not mean it is so."
Nevertheless, Kirk said she is troubled by Liner's writings. Some of
the postings were vitriolic and upset students and faculty, she said.
"When a student talks to a professor, they assume they are doing it
in confidence. You have an ethical responsibility as teacher," she said.
The school has no written policy on either blogs or confidentiality,
according to several faculty members.
Kirk said a university lawyer reviewed Liner's blog and concluded
that it hid the identities of its subjects well enough that it did
not expose SMU to potential lawsuits for libel or slander.
Kirk insists the university did nothing to infringe on Liner's free
"Nobody enjoined her from writing anything," she said. "I think her
blog is still up, although you won't find a lot of what she
originally posted up there now. This is hardly an issue of free speech."
Clark Castle, editor in chief this past school year of the Daily
Campus, the school newspaper, said students had mixed reactions to
the blog and to Liner.
"People either loved her or hated her," he said.
As for her blog, he said, some students were hurt by it, others saw
it as funny and painfully true.
Castle said he thought Liner's "undercover role" betrayed students'
confidences, and he said he found evidence that she embellished her
stories to make students look even more foolish.
The newspaper editorialized last month that the blog was
"inappropriate and unprofessional."
"I never used any names or my name. I changed details so nobody could
pin it on who exactly this was," she said.
Liner said she began the blog last fall as a writing exercise.
"I always wanted to write down the strange things my students say and
the odd little culture on this campus, so I just made up the name
'The Phantom Professor,' " she recalled.
The online journal was empowering for a professor who taught
afternoon classes, after the tenured faculty had already left for the
"I was invisible, and I think that is what drove me to the keyboard,"
she said. "If you're gonna ignore me, I'm gonna sit here and write
about everything I see."
In her very first installment, Liner's phantom acknowledged that her
job "could be in jeopardy for revealing what really goes on in these
not-so-hallowed and ivied halls."
Many of her postings were about liquor-addled jocks or well-to-do
airheads or, as she put it, the "Ashleys who half joke about being in
college to earn a Mrs. degree, with their Prada handbags and their
SUVs (brand new all filled with high octane charged on daddy's
plastic) and their size 0 derrieres kept warm with pastel Juicy
Couture sweats that show just a hint of dorsal cleavage."
Liner conceded, "I made fun of the social attitudes there and the
class divisiveness and just some of the silly youthful things that
In other postings, however, Liner discussed how she enjoys teaching.
"I even like some of the students," she wrote, going on in other
chapters to laud her more earnest and bright students.
"I saw a lot of pain among the oddball students who I naturally
gravitated to," she said. "I wanted to elevate them into feeling
special, and on that campus they don't."
The 51-year-old former TV critic for newspapers in Corpus Christi and
Toledo, Ohio, said she never told another teacher or student that she
was the phantom. She confided in a small group of "journalist
friends" who "started telling me, 'Keep doing this for a year and
you'll have a book.' "
"Every writer wants to find something only they write about," Liner
said. "I've tried writing novels. I've written plays. In the blog I
have about 50 little stories now. None of them seem malicious to me
Since Liner has gone public, she has received hundreds of e-mail
messages, nearly all of them supportive, she said.
"A lot of them are from people at other schools saying, 'You could
have been writing about this campus.' "
Not all response has been positive, though. One SMU professor whom
Liner skewered in her blog wrote in an online discussion,
"Unfortunately, our students, those who are rich as well as those who
are poor, are simply undergraduates with an average age of 19.
"Many of them are not as well equipped to see their faults, their
personal problems or those of their family written about so
cavalierly and publicly by someone they trusted. Call them babies,
call them immature, but they cry when someone they believed in
Since her story broke, Liner said several agents have called and she
is actively working to sell her story.
"I heard the two words every writer waits a lifetime to hear," she
said. "Movie deal."
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