Patricia Adler had been using student volunteers dressed as prostitutes as a teaching tool for 20 years—but suddenly, it was a problem. Late last semester, the tenured full professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder was subject to an unusual institutional audit of a lesson plan. This is almost unheard of—and, to an overwhelmingly popular veteran teacher and scholar such as Adler, highly offensive.
As a result of the their sudden concern that the skit could violate the university’s sexual harassment policy, CU–Boulder’s administration briefly threatened (before being roundly condemned by the American Association of University Professors) to bring Adler’s pedagogical methods before the IRB, or Institutional Review Board, a body that exists almost exclusively to approve research (not teaching) using human test subjects. But in the course of the kerfuffle—at the height of which, Adler told me, she was sure she would have to resign—she also came before a different, and worse, IRB. I mean the IRB that every contemporary professor fears: the Internet Review Board.
For although Adler told me that during the controversy she received upward of 400 supportive emails per day—all of which she answered—the thousands of unsung sociology experts on the Internet also had to weigh in, in the form of (big surprise) vitriolic comments and blog posts. “I finally had to tell my husband to stop reading them,” she laughed.
“Sociology is a pseudoscience which has successfully pursued government subsidies in tuition dollars for decades,” explained a concerned scholar-commenter on National Review’s website. “It is akin to getting a degree in practical witchcraft.” “Someone please explain why there is a class called ‘Deviance in U.S. Society,’ ” demanded another. “What was asking students to dress up as prostitutes doing as part of a college curriculum in the first place?” asked blogger and secret trained sociologist “Stupid Girl.” “Everything sounds like a good idea when one is sitting in the faculty lounge discussing ideas which will never have any real consequence,” crowed this right-wing blog about CU’s sexual harassment policy. “However, when the progressive agenda worms its way into the public policy there are always unintended consequences.”
In the end, despite the objections of strangers, Adler’s course and methods were ruled sound, and CU–Boulder eventually made the right choice to allow one of its best professors to go about her business; Adler has now, to the relief of her students, canceled her previous plans to resign under duress. But the episode’s ripples go beyond her CU “Deviance” course, and highlight a different kind of deviance: the truly perverse notion that the comment boards of the Internet, where reasoned debate and good ideas go to die, can now dictate what is acceptable to teach in college.
Indeed, many professors have in recent years run afoul of the new IRBs, and the consequences have been harsh. In 2011, Don Giljum, an adjunct at my own employer, was “encouraged” to “resign” after obviously doctored footage of him allegedly inciting labor violence appeared on Breitbart. A nuclear train wreck arose when the evangelical Internet got wind of a Florida Atlantic University professor who asked his students to step on a paper bearing the word “Jesus.” And woe unto poor Stephanie Wolfe, the West Liberty University professor who implored her students not to treat Fox News as a credible source. This is insane. We don’t treat the outrage of people on the Internet as reasonable employment evaluation in other professions! Trolly comments about Al Roker don’t get him fired from the Today show. The learned proclamations of “@IHateObama4Life” didn’t, to my knowledge, alter the language of the Affordable Care Act.
On the syllabus of every college class in America, we assure our young charges they are protected by FERPA, that godsend of a law that makes it so that when a student’s helicopter parent calls, I get to say: “I’m sorry, Mrs. Jocasta, activity in my class is confidential. I can neither confirm nor deny that I know your son.” The college classroom is supposed to be a safe and secure private space, where students feel encouraged to express themselves and question everything. Similarly, the college course is a carefully curated intellectual journey, in which the instructor and students develop their own context, their own rapport, and often even their own shorthand.
But while FERPA is there to protect students (who self-violate all the time), who is there to protect the professor from the teeming hordes of the ill-informed? As I spoke to Adler on the phone, she was preparing to go teach in front of her usual 500 students—and, no big deal, four TV cameras. (Students’ faces will either be blurred out, or they will sign a release that waives FERPA.) She was “nervous,” she told me, about media in the classroom, because like many of us she likes to joke around, but fears that anything she said could be taken out of context. Then, she said, a quote “could be printed to look like the opposite” of what she meant.
All this brings to mind a dirty old saying, from the very milieu whose intricacies Adler was nearly axed for exploring. What I mean is this: Most college professors realize they are unqualified to do your job, and so they’re not going to expect to get you fired thanks to their righteous comment-board indignation about a single moment of your workday. And yet, when five minutes of a lecture offend the delicate sensibilities of someone who doesn’t know or care what sociology is, suddenly everyone in America wants to be on the curriculum committee.
Never mind the fact that most professors hold doctorates from reputable programs, that their syllabi are approved by department chairs, and that their classes are often observed and evaluated by peers who—like the professors—know what they are doing. They know, in fact, better than you do, even if what they’re doing seems unacceptably risqué to your tender virgin eyes.
Yes, there are intermittent moments of poor judgment, and even incompetence—but these exist in all professions. And, as long as the AAUP is around to go postal on them if they overstep, I begrudgingly admit that administrations usually know how to discipline their own employees—and when to leave them be—without the intervention of an online mob.
Yes, Internet buttinskys are as widespread, tenacious, and attractive as cockroaches—but in most professions, their screeds don’t force massive changes, or cost people their jobs. Nor should they. Internet commenters should literally have the least influence possible on anyone’s job. Really: How would you feel if online randos who don’t know you dictated your employment status? Hell, if they dictated mine, I’d be dead.