Fiscally nuts. Socially insane.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dartmouth Professor Goes Nuts

PJYes, really: Priya Venkatesan, who taught writing this year at Dartmouth College, sent around several emails to former students threatening to sue them under Title VII, the “anti-discrimination” portion of the 1964 Civil Rights act. 

Email is as follows:

Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2008 20:56:35 -0400 (EDT) From: Priya.Venkatesan@Dartmouth.EDU To: “WRIT.005.17.18-WI08″:;, Priya.Venkatesan@Dartmouth.EDU

Subject: WRIT.005.17.18-WI08: Possible lawsuit

Dear former class members of Science, Technology and Society: I tried to send an email through my server but got undelivered messages. I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [SIC] discrimination laws. The feeling that I am getting from the outside world is that Dartmouth is considered a bigoted place, so this may not be news and I may be successful in this lawsuit. I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluations and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.


Here is one of the discrimination evaluations:

Aside from the fact that I learnt nothing of value in this class besides the repeated use of the word “postmodernism” in all contexts (whether appropriate or not) and the fact that Professor Venkatesan is the most confusing/nonsensical lecturer ever, the main problem with this class is the personal attacks launched in class. Almost every member of the class was personally attacked in some form in the class by either intimidation or ignoring your questions/comments/concerns. If you decide to take this class, prepare to NOT be allowed to express your own opinions in class because you have “yet to obtain your Ph.D/masters/bachelors degree”. We were forced to write an in-class essay on “respect” (and how we lacked it) because we expressed our views on controversial topics and some did not agree with the views of “established scholars” who have their degrees.


Also, IvyGate notes that Ph.D. Priya cancelled class for a week after a class broke out in applause a student who contradicted her views on post-modernism.

IvyGate: Spontaneous applause during a class on literary criticism? Obviously, there is something very wrong with this picture, so outrageously shocking as to shake Venkatesan to her very core: In a class at an Ivy League university, students were paying attention. Worse: They were engaged, and they cared.


Anonymous said...

Semi-disclosure: I'm a woman of color making my way in the academy in the humanities. I don't spend nearly as much time on blog comments as work, so this won't be perfect.

People in my position do encounter racist students on occasion, and, sometimes, their evaluations, without being bluntly racist, are a product of their prejudices against us.

That said, most of us do not react in this way because it isn't productive to our careers, nor does it change the views of our students. If a student says something offensive/hurtful in class or on a paper, I'll get annoyed, but usually wait to comment until I've composed myself, and can articulate why the student's comments were irrelevant/inappropriate.* If a student says something so offensive it is absurd, teachers may commiserate with one another over email, or even over a beer. If something happens that is really unnerving, I'll get in touch with a mentor and seek advice about how to handle the situation. Indeed, some people in my position go out of their way to keep our personal politics out of the classroom. After an ugly semester in a writing class with a student who assumed I was grading their politics as opposed to their writing, I now tell my students early on that I'm grading them solely on their writing, and that both their political beliefs and mine are irrelevant. In writing classes, I also tell them that it is important for all of them to be able to become at least decent writers; if only because most anyone in college will eventually seek the types of jobs that require a cover letter, and far too many people incorrectly view writing ability as a mark of intelligence. In lit classes, (my field is a non-cannonical one, ie, the authors aren't dead white guys) I go out of my way to encourage my students to use the same modes of analysis that they would in any other literature course.


Anonymous said...

(continues previous)
Part of me feels bad for Venkatesan; perhaps she was not so fortunate as to have fellow teachers to commiserate with, or the sort of mentor that could provide her with guidance in such a situation. My first set of evaluations--the ones before I started making the, "it's about the text!" speech--were dreadful, but my department is fairly forgiving about first evals, assuming something entirely inappropriate didn't happen (ie, harassment, classes not going according to they syllabus, assignments not being returned, etc). Perhaps evaluations bear more weight at Dartmouth.


Anonymous said...

(pt 3 of 3; concluding)
That said, a big part of me is pretty p.o.-ed that Venkatesan has done this, and more so that she's getting press for it. On the blog where you linked, the comments quickly lost their specificity about this particular academic, and delved into comments about all academics of color, and/or those who work in the humanities who happen to lean left. All my life I've felt like I had to be better because I know that there are people who believe I don't deserve to be at whatever level of achievement I've attained.* Incidents like this one mean that this fall, I'll have more students who assume I'm an unqualified moron the moment I get through the door. Also, cases like this one reduce the validity--in the eyes many--of situations of racism inside and outside of the academy that are more serious. (In other words, those who haven't had to deal with racism in a personal, painful way are less likely to believe that it still affects people when someone does something like Venkatesan's lawsuit.)

Well, that's more than enough blog hijacking for this evening.

*This doesn't mean that I disagree with affirmative action, although that's for another conversation.

Will Conway said...

For starters, I hope the affirmative action conversation comes up - I am interested to get your take on that.

Speaking from my point of view, I can't claim to represent the country or even a portion of the country, but to be honest, every single one of my teachers earns their reputation with me - either positive or negative - on how they teach. Color has never been of significance.

Anonymous said...

With regards to P.V., I have little doubt that her reputation was, at the very least in part, earned. Those emails are evidence enough of the sort of erratic behavior she was capable of.

That said, it has been my experience that students definitely bring their prejudices to the classroom--it is tremendously difficult for us not to, frankly. Those prejudices can work on both the level of the subject matter, and on the person in front of the classroom. In both cases, I've seen some students change their perspectives throughout the semester, some not.

I don't think that all students make assumptions about their teachers based on that person's identity, but some do. I don't doubt your earnestness in arguing that *you've* never judged a teacher based on anything besides pedagogy, but I can't agree that you know the hearts and minds of each and every one of your classmates. I also don't think that people always do these things consciously.

As for the affirmative action issue, my comments are already too long, so I won't detail everything. Briefly, one aspect of this issue is its mirror: legacies. The ethics of legacy admissions aren't questioned nearly as much as affirmative action. Why?