Students Ungrateful? Sue Them.

Priya Venkatesan will go down in history as the Dartmouth professor who decided to sue her students because they gave her lousy course evaluations. A few days later Venkatesan, who was hired by Dartmouth in 2005 to teach four sections of Writing 5, the semester-long standard freshman-composition class, told reporters she was withdrawing her planned lawsuit, largely because, as the New York Post reported, she couldn’t find a lawyer to take her case, in which she intended to charge students in her fall and winter classes this year (and also Dartmouth itself) with violations of federal civil rights laws banning discrimination on the basis of gender and ethnicity.

Vetnkatesan also sent e-mails to some of her students, accusing the 18- and 19-year-old Dartmouth freshmen of “harassment” and advising them that their responses would be “used against” them in “a court of law.”

Venkatesan was quickly dropped from the Dartmouth writing program’s teaching roster, and she has recently taken a teaching position at Northwestern, which evidently hired her before the news broke about her student-suing propensities. But the question is: why did Dartmouth (or Northwestern, for that matter) hire her to teach writing in the first place. From all evidence Venkatesan hasn’t a clue as to construct a clear English sentence. She does, however, have a Ph.D. in “literature,” which means that she plowed through and regurgitated the piles of French postmodernist theory expressed in incomprehensible jargon that are the standard course fare nowadays in literary studies. Here, for example is the Amazon description of Vanketsan’s undoubtedly dissertation-based book, Molecular Biology in Narrative Form (the 39-year-old Venkatesan also has a master’s degree in genetics):

Molecular Biology in Narrative Form is a groundbreaking, interdisciplinary study that shows a connection between molecular biology and French narrative theory, and, from a unique perspective, bridges the gap between two disciplines that seem mutually exclusive. With many new insights on the link between science (in the form of DNA, a set of codes) and literature (in the form of language, another set of codes), this book looks at modern experimental science within the framework of semiotics. Priya Venkatesan reveals the extraordinary parallel between the work of scientists and the work of narratologists who develop narrative paradigms and analyze literary texts.

And here is an excerpt from a 2006 article by Venkatesan:

In graduate school, I was inculcated in the tenets of a field known as science studies, which teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth and that science is motivated by politics and human interest. This is known as social constructivism and is the reigning mantra in science studies, which considers historical and sociological understandings of science. From the vantage point of social constructivism, scientific facts are not discovered but rather created within a social framework. In other words, scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.

It all sounds like shades of the Sokal Hoax, the famous parody article that New York University physics professor Alan Sokal managed to get published in the postmodernist journal Social Text claiming that scientific theories were invented out of thin air to serve white male power structures. Except that Venkatesan actually seems to believe all that po-mo gobbledygook And according to her students’ evaluations, she fed it to her Dartmouth freshman writing sections and expected her enrollees to feed it back to her.

Here’s what one of them wrote in an evaluation of her course:

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’….

What all this bespeaks is Dartmouth’s obvious lack of interest in the quality freshman writing program, despite many claims to the contrary on the university’s web pages. As at nearly all universities, freshman writing instructors at Dartmouth aren’t on the tenure track (and have almost no hope of getting on); they are for the most part graduate students or underemployed M.A.’s and Ph.D.s working part time for a few thousand dollars per section. The work – reading and commenting on some 7,000 words per semester (the Dartmouth minimum) of each freshman’s writing – is backbreaking, and if an instructor has four sections of 18 students apiece (standard at Dartmouth and elsewhere) as Venkatesan did, that means a staggering 504,000 words to evaluate. Few sane people want to teach freshman composition unless they need to (in order to keep their grad-school fellowships, for example), so the hunt for teachers to staff the classes is essentially a hunt for breathing bodies.

Vanketesan was a 1990 Dartmouth graduate, she had that degree in literature, and she wanted the job. So Dartmouth hired someone who writes like this (taken from Vankatesan’s written response to an interview with Dartblog):

Essentially, I am pursuing litigation to see if I have a legal claim, that is, if the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior I was subjected to as a Research Associate and Lecturer at Dartmouth constitutes discrimination and harrassment on the basis of ethnicity, race and gender. This includes not just students, but a few faculty members that I worked with.

Count at least one grammatical and one spelling error on the part of this writing instructor, not to mention the stylistic infelicities that would make Strunk and White blanch. Not surprisingly, the students in Vankatesan’s writing sections mutinied, showing more concern about where their $40,000 a year in tuition was going than Dartmouth did.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

3 thoughts on “Students Ungrateful? Sue Them.

  1. The truly, truly depressing thing is that after getting a law degree in 1985 from an allegedly prestigious university and being a lawyer for the last 24 years, I can read her sentences and I believe I can even grasp some thoughts from them. I may think the thoughts are nonsensical but that I can even glean them is pretty scary.

  2. From above: From all evidence Venkatesan hasn’t a clue as to construct a clear English sentence.
    Her writing is far clearer than mine. *sigh* That means I have to clean up my style yet again…

  3. Here’s what Joseph Rago said in The Wall Streen Journal:
    The remarkable thing about the Venkatesan affair, to me, is that her students cared enough to argue.
    Amen. It gives me hope for the future that some students at least are willing to challenge the pseudo-intellectual garbage that often passes for scholarship in the humanities these days. In previous centuries, students sometimes beat up lecturers who did not give value for money. Perhaps Venkatesan should give thanks we live in more restrained times.
    I doubt, however, that William Strunk would use a word like “infelicities”. Just sayin’.

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