As they scramble to move their classes online and figure out how to teach from home while their campuses are shut down, some college professors across Texas have found yet another challenge to contend with: internet trolls.
Last month, colleges and universities nationwide shut down their campuses and sent students home in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Professors, now unable to conduct their classes in person, began recording their lectures and holding class discussion sessions online.
But with their lectures now online and more easily available to anyone, some faculty members are worried they could be open to attacks from bad-faith actors who could use pieces of lectures out of context to support their arguments about political bias in academia.
"It's definitely an annoyance," said Brent Sasley, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Last month, Charlie Kirk, founder of the right-wing political action group Turning Point USA, put a call out on Twitter for students to send the group videos of “blatant indoctrination" in their classes.
“Now is the time to document & expose the radicalism that has been infecting our schools,” Kirk wrote. “Transparency!”
Kirk's organization campaigns against what it describes as rampant liberalism on America's college campuses. Their most notable protest was a 2017 demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, during which members of the group sat in a playpen, wearing diapers and sucking on pacifiers. The demonstration was meant to make a point about safe spaces on college campuses, but, perhaps predictably, it mainly resulted in the group, and Kirk himself, being savagely mocked online.
The group also maintains a "watchlist" of college and university faculty members who it claims "discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom."
Sasley, who teaches Middle East and Israeli politics at UTA, said the subject matter of his classes makes him a likely target for political activist groups that are seeking to "expose" college professors who teach things they disagree with. For years, activist groups on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have kept blacklists of professors they say are on the wrong side of the conflict, he said.
But while the risk of running afoul of one of those groups isn't new, the fact that nearly every college class in America is now being conducted online gives the groups more material to work with, Sasley said.
That risk has affected the way Sasley is approaching his online classes. When he's teaching classes in person, they're typically heavy on discussion. He tries to raise arguments from each side and approach each issue from several different angles. But now that he's had to place all those classes online for the time being, he's had to cut most of those discussions out.
Part of the reason for the change is the new format, he said. Online classes are good for some things, but they tend not to lend themselves well to group discussions, so he's had to revamp certain parts of his classes to fit. But he also knows that, if he presents an argument from either the Israeli or Palestinian side by way of explaining one perspective, an activist group on the other side could take the video and edit it down to the point that it appeared he was making that argument himself, he said.
Activist groups' blacklists can be annoying for professors whose names show up on them, Sasley said. Some students may not be interested in taking their courses, because they perceive them as being biased. But they also bring up larger issues like academic freedom and who decides what faculty members are and aren't allowed to say in class. In more extreme cases, like when an activist group publishes a video of a professor saying something controversial, that faculty member could get called before a department chair or university administrator, and asked to explain, he said.
"You can get into a lot of trouble for that, and then you're forced to defend yourself," he said.
Kirk and his fellow travelers aren't the first people who have tried to enlist help from students in their campaigns against college professors or the institutions themselves, said Clark Pomerleau, a history professor at the University of North Texas.
In the 1970s and '80s, a conservative Christian group used college students to gather complaints against four lesbian professors at universities in California as part of a larger campaign against women's studies programs and women's centers on college campuses in the state.
In the case of Betty Brooks, a professor at California State University-Long Beach, a part-time student led the charge against Brooks and her class. The student was a member of an Evangelical Christian church whose pastor had argued publicly with Brooks, saying abortion rights advocates were "sinners" and calling gays and lesbians "sick." The student complained to the university administration that one of Brooks' classes had "lesbian emphasis" and that the campus' women's center didn't promote "traditional American values." The student tried unsuccessfully to pressure the university into hiring her as a "traditionalist" instructor.
Kirk's campaign to "expose" professors is a continuation of the same kinds of efforts, Pomerleau said. Technology has changed since the early 1980s, giving groups like Turning Point USA a wider reach and more resources to draw from, Pomerleau said, but their goals are essentially the same.
The main difference is that, while the campaign against Brooks came from a part-time student and a local pastor, Kirk is a national figure looking for dirt on college professors from anywhere in the country. University administrators may be less likely to take his complaints seriously, seeing him as an outside agitator rather than a member of their own communities or someone with ties to the university, Pomerleau said.
Rachel Gunter, a history professor at a community college in North Texas, said she's taking steps to limit the number of people who could find her lectures on YouTube. Her lectures are unlisted, making it impossible for anyone to find them unless someone else sends them a link. After two weeks, Gunter is pulling the videos off Canvas, the college's education management system, and making them private on YouTube.
But even with those precautions, there are ways for trolls to get hold of her lectures, she said. A student in one of her classes could simply send a link to a group like Kirk's. After that, there are any number of websites and programs that allow users to download videos from YouTube.
Gunter said she tries to bring as much historical context as possible to those issues during lectures and class discussions. The danger isn't so much that a group like Turning Point USA might take a video of one of her lectures and share the entire thing, Gunter said, but rather that they'll use the videos in bad faith, with all that context stripped away.
Nearly every class session she holds covers some controversial topic. Gunter teaches American history. Her classes cover slavery, lynching and Jim Crow. In a lecture last week on the 1920s, she covered American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, who campaigned in support of women's reproductive rights but also supported eugenics.
"We have to talk about these things. It's history," Gunter said. "And yet, depending on your political leanings, you may or may not like the way we talk about them."
History, and American history in particular, can be a politically fraught subject, Gunter said, because it involves the stories Americans tell about themselves and the way they understand their nation and society. Whenever one of her lectures covers a darker period in the nation's history, she knows it will be difficult for some students to hear. And anytime lessons from history run counter to students' political leanings — for example, that tax cuts generally spur economic activity but never enough to pay for themselves — she knows she might get pushback. But she's never had a student accuse her of lying or trying to indoctrinate them into one way of thinking or another, she said.
And anyway, she said, most college professors probably couldn't indoctrinate their students even if they wanted to.
"We can hardly get them to do the readings," she said. "We're not able, nor are we trying, to indoctrinate anyone."
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.