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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Seriously, WTF?

Those of you who teach can probably sympathize with my number one problem in the classroom: getting students engaged. I teach a course that is not generally thought of as exciting and, as a consequence, I have to use heroic efforts to trick my students into paying attention.* Mostly this works but, I admit, I long for those rare days when students are so engaged that we can just discuss ideas rather than grind through them. Many of you probably have the same issue.

Which is why I admit that I was quite surprised to learn that a professor at Dartmouth actually tried to sue her students for asking her too many questions and engaging in too much debate. Seriously:

Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of "French narrative theory" that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will "name names."

The trauma was so intense that in March Ms. Venkatesan quit Dartmouth and decamped for Northwestern. She declined to comment for this piece, pointing instead to the multiple interviews she conducted with the campus press.

Ms. Venkatesan lectured in freshman composition, intended to introduce undergraduates to the rigors of expository argument. "My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful," she told Tyler Brace of the Dartmouth Review. "They'd argue with your ideas." This caused "subversiveness," a principle English professors usually favor.


After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so – actually, empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms. Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several of his classmates applauded.

Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior was "fascist demagoguery." Then, after consulting a physician about "intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the pending litigation.

Read the rest of the article if you like but, frankly, it spends as much time sneering at academics and the educational project as it does questioning Professor Venkatesan's** behavior. More usefully, there is an interesting interview with her posted elsewhere that is, if anything, less biased. Sadly, it doesn't really portray her in a better light. Particularly, there's this exchange which is just plain baffling to me (FYI: "TDR" is short for "The Dartmouth Review," the campus paper that is conducting the interview):

TDR: There is one specific incident where I heard from one of the girls in your class who was pretty outspoken, and one day she hadn’t spoken for a while and you said, “Could we have a round of applause for this girl, she hasn’t spoken in ten minutes?”

PV: She was probably the most abrasive, the most offensive, the most disruptive student. She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it. That class actually had a lot of potential, there were some really bright kids there, but every time she would do a number of things that were very inappropriate. For instance, I had basically gotten a hold of Blackboard technology, but I was making some mistakes too because I was new to the system, and every time that some link was wrong or some link wasn’t set up right, [girl x] in the beginning of class would point this out to everybody. Then what happened was, I was lecturing on morals and ethics and she just gave me this horrible look, and I was pretty disturbed. I just said what is going on here? The problem with [girl x] is that she can’t take criticism. She can’t take the fact that there is something wrong with her work. Now, some people are like that, a lot of people are like that, unable to take criticism, but the fact of the matter is that I have the PhD in literature, I make the assessment if someone has talent for philosophy, literary theory, and literary criticism. A student might say, well, the hell with you I’m still going to become a literary critic, I had to do that, there were people who criticized me while I was a student, you’re not a good writer or whatever, but I said well I’m still going to go ahead with my goals, but I never made any personal attacks on them or made life difficult for them or was rude to them. I just did the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism, and [girl x] is the kind of student who does not know the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism. She thinks the way to go about doing it is to go to my superior or to try to undermine my ability to teach the class. One of the things that she did, this is also really interesting, was that she would always ask me how to spell things. That was her thing. She would say how to do you spell this? How to you spell that? I mean—what am I supposed to do?—so I would tell her. One time Tom Cormen was sitting in the class, and she asked me, how many T’s are in Gattaca. This was the kind of question she was asking, “how many T’s are in Gattaca?,” and I was about to answer her and Tom Cormen pre-empted me, “two t’s.” I’ll leave you to interpret it.

TDR: No. No, I don’t understand that.

PV: I have to tell you: it means tenure track.

TDR: Oh, okay.

PV: Because I wasn’t tenured track.

TDR: Oh, okay, yes.

PV: They were trying to intimate that I wasn’t ready for tenure track.

TDR: Yes, okay, I didn’t realize that’s what that meant.

And if paranoid ranting about tenure track issues isn't enough to make your very brain detonate, there's this:

TDR: I have a few questions about your educational background and how it relates to the courses you teach, and some other specific questions. Yesterday in a lot of the interviews you granted, you referred to “the clapping incident”, and I was just wondering if you could explain to me what exactly that was.

PV: Sure. It’s basically we were talking about The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant. I believe I talked about how the scientific revolution—what effect it had on women of the period. In the context I brought up the witch trials of the Renaissance, and I was trying to make to make the claim—it was kind of a paraphrasing of Merchant’s argument, it’s not necessarily mine—that—I really want to get this right, so give me a second—what exactly did I say? I made the argument that—I’m trying to put this in context now—I made the argument that in many cases science and technology did not benefit women, and if women were benefiting science and technology, it was an aftereffect. It was not the goal of science and technology. It was a very feminist claim, and you may not agree with it. But that was Merchant’s argument; it wasn’t my argument, and I’m not a feminist scholar, so I was really making an argument that wasn’t mine and paraphrasing.

But there was one student who really took issue with this—and he took issue with this, and he made a very—I’d call it a diatribe, and it was sort of like, well—science and technology, women really did benefit from it, and to criticize patriarchal authority on the basis that science and technology benefited patriarchy or men, was not sufficient grounds for this type of feminist claim. And he did this with great rhetorical flourish; it was very invective, it was a very invective sort of tone. And I think what happened afterwards was that some people—I can’t name them, and I don’t know how many there were, but it was a significant number—started clapping for his statements. It was a very humiliating moment to my life; it was extremely humiliating, that my students would clap against me, when all I was trying to do was talk to them about arguments and argumentation, in the light of what I had been trained with. In other words, it’s kind of interesting that when you are trained in graduate school, it’s sort of like, you know, you’re trained in this kind of—I don’t want to say it’s political—you must be aware that most college campuses are very liberal, right?

TDR: Oh yes, certainly.

PV: Yeah, and the training which you receive, it’s very much slanted toward a particular political point of view. And it’s almost unstated—I’m not saying that this is good or bad, I’m just saying that this is the case—but certainly political framework is absorbed into academic material, and you must be aware of that by reading, you know, arguments by academics. You know, they talk about things such as Marxism—that’s just the intellectual way of thinking about it. But maybe to the general public, these are issues that are not considered objects of general discussion. You know what I mean?

In other words, talk about, you know, in French theory—we talk about Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan was a very radical psychoanalyst, but he’s considered almost like a god, Jean-François Lyotard… Bruno Latour—highly regarded in the field of science and technology studies. But these students aren’t aware of the framework in which I was training. They’re not; they’re just coming into college. So right there, there’s a discrepancy between what I know and how I was trained and their worldview. Do you see what I’m saying?

TDR: Yes.

PV: So there was immediate friction, because basically the concepts that I was trying to bring to them were concepts I was not inventing on my own. They were concepts that were part of the field, and I was trying to bring it to the table. It offended their sensibilities, because the whole course of “Science, Technology, and Society” was about problematizing science and technology, and explaining the argument that science is not just a quest for truth, which is how we think about science normally, but being influenced by social and political values. Now I’m not telling you this to convince you of this. I’m just saying that this is the framework with which I approached the course—that I wanted to bring this view that science and technology; there’s an ethics behind it. This type of argumentation—the reason I did that in the context of expository writing, I thought “by reading arguments, they will learn how to form arguments, think better, and write better.” That was my goal, because when you think better, you write better. All this offended their sensibilities, and there’s ways of responding of arguments that offend your sensibilities. The way not to do it is to be abrasive, rude, and engaged in this type of rhetoric. And that is why I had a lot of difficulties in dealing with the students in the class. What effectively happened was that my voice was taken away, and it was taken over by a lot of students. And I know that one of the students complained to the dean that he stopped paying attention in class. And I said “Well, of course they stopped paying attention, because the class had been taken over by a bunch of students who were just discussing it by themselves on their own, and it became very boring, because they didn’t have the argumentation permitted to them. They were just discussing without any framework, so that’s why the class was somewhat degraded by the end, and people complained because of that, but I felt pretty much restrained—constrained. I couldn’t negotiate the class because it had gotten to this level, that my voice and my authority were effectively eliminated from that class.

I’m not trying to dramatize it; I’m just trying to tell you how I felt about it. And that’s, that’s my point of view. That’s my sense of what took place. It wasn’t in any way what I was trying to take away from the rigor of the class; in fact, the opposite of that. I really wanted to enforce the rigor, whereas I was met with a lot of resistance.

TDR: I’ve spoken to some of the people involved in this specific incident. Is it true that after the whole applause incident, you said that it was a good discussion and you were pleased with the way things turned out?

PV: That’s not true.

TDR: That’s just what I had heard, so you deny that?

PV: Yeah, I deny it, I completely deny it. I was certainly not in the frame of mind to say something that would take that much decorum, actually, to take that much graciousness.

I don't want to jump on the bandwagon about this woman. I've been in the classroom, I've had incredibly abrasive and disruptive students, I know how difficult it can be. Given that I did not witness these events, and do not know that much about it, I do not want to leap to the obvious conclusion that she is a startlingly incompetent teacher. That said, I would usually be very excited to have a group of students who were interested and engaged enough to actually argue with me. And you know what? If your students don't come to the class with the same background that you have... that's because they're students. The whole purpose of teaching is to pass information on, not to preach to the converted. Maybe students are rude sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, but at the end of the day we are supposed to teach them, not act like little tin gods.

And aside from that I am just too stunned to have anything to say.***

* For the record my teaching evaluations are very good. It just so happens that I teach a difficult class.

** I'm having a hard time determining her credentials, but I somehow suspect that the Wall Street Journal calling her "Ms." rather than "Dr." or at least "Professor" is not accidental.

*** Also, in perfect honesty, all hell broke loose yesterday and continued into this morning so I'm just not in a very bloggy mood.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

May (not) be accidental:

Priya Venkatesan, Ph.D.

"After obtaining a BA from Dartmouth College, I have an MS in Genetics from UC Davis and a PhD in Literature from UC San Diego."

Thursday, May 29, 2008 4:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd heard about this, but not seen the interviews quoted. I think your comment about the paranoia was on the mark.

Friday, May 30, 2008 3:37:00 AM  
Blogger GW said...

The classroom has sold out to "Walmart". These few stupid, opinionated, disrespectful American students are pissed because they are being challenged to think and have to work at getting a grade. They opened the package and did not get what they paid for.

I'd also sue the Department of Education.

Teachers are not clerks that pass along information. They are professionals who have a right not to teach if there are none to be taught.


Monday, June 02, 2008 9:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not sure what you mean by the classroom being sold to "Walmart". Teaching at a State university I haven't had any interference in how I teach my classes. The university doesn't really care as long as I show up, and teach my students something.

And, at least at research universities, teachers are primarily "clerks that pass along information". In doing so it is often our job to challenge students' values and present them with new information. Whether or not they're receptive to it is irrelevant. Sure, it's nice when they approach the material thoughtfully, but they have no obligation to do so. That's why we have grades: to measure how well students have mastered the material.

I'd also disagree about the responsibilities of teachers. We are professionals, but we do have a contractual obligation to teach our classes--whether they want to learn or not.

All that being said, the Department of Education is probably a better target than the students themselves. Students are typically (at least at my university) under-prepared. And this is primarily the fault of High Schools that don't teach skills necessary to succeed at a university.

Although I'm skeptical that a court would be receptive to that sort of structural argument.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008 12:45:00 PM  

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