When I was in law school I took Evidence from a prof who disdained the actual rules of evidence in favor of discussions of how we know what we know, and etc. One day he asked me a question, I gave a rather rulebound answer, and he said "Well, that's wasn't a very profound answer, was it?" I replied "Well, it wasn't a very profound question." People laughed.
He threw a piece of chalk at me.
At the time I was annoyed. But now I see it could have been worse. He could have threatened to sue me.
At Dartmouth, in Spring, a young lecturer's fancy naturally turns to thoughts of threatening students with litigation for hurting her feelings. Priya Venkatesan was a "Lecturer on Writing" and taught a writing class to undergraduates. Recently students in her class received some rather odd threats by email:
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.
But one warning is not enough. She followed up:
Please disregard the previous email sent by Priya Venkatesan. This is to officially inform you that you are being accused of violating Title VII pertaining to federal anti-discrimination laws, by the plaintiff, Priya Venkatesan. You are being specifically accused of, but not limited to, harassment. Please do not respond to this email as it will be used against you in a court of law.
Priya Venkatesan, PhD
Oh, and this:
As a courtesy, you are being notified that you are being named in a potential class action suit that is being brought against Dartmouth College, which is being accused of violating federal anti-discrimination laws. Please do not respond to this email because it will be potentially used against you in a court of law.
Priya Venkatesan, PhD
Ms. Venkatesan's definition of "courtesy" differs somewhat from mine.
So what did the students do? Well, it appears that they were not sufficiently respectful of Lecturer Venkatesan's approach to writing and to science. She notes elsewhere her ambition to bring the sensibilities of literary criticism to science:
My interests in graduate school were mainly theoretical, as I textually analyzed certain aspects of scientific communication. However, for me, a question remained: Is there room for literary theory within the framework of the laboratory? While conducting molecular biology research in the lab of Dr. Christopher Lowrey, I have found the parallels between literature and science all too striking. Further, I have determined that being a literary theorist could have advantages in the laboratory—not only in enhancing scientific productivity, but also in more accurately understanding scientific activity.
…and so forth, in that vein. Frankly, I'd prefer if scientists associated with, for instance, my health care view certain biological concepts as actual and not "socially constructed." The distinction between "dead" and "alive", for instance, or "saline solution" and "chlorine." Just sayin'.
Anyway, the frosh in her writing class did not accord her the respect she believed she deserved as a non-tenured "lecturer" in writing:
As an example of Venkatesan’s rejection of views different from her own, the student highlighted Venkatesan’s cancelation of class for a week after the class applauded a student who contradicted Venkatesan’s opinions about post-modernism.
Venkatesan said the incident occurred when she was lecturing about “The Death of Nature,” a book by Carolyne Merchant, and the witch trials of the Renaissance. The student went on a “diatribe” about the inappropriate nature of challenging patriarchal authority, Venkatesan said. Vakatesan respected the student’s right to express this opinion, she said, but the manner in which he vocalized his views and the applause afterward were disrespectful and offensive.
“I was horrified,” Venkatesan said. “My responsibility is not to stifle them, but when they clapped at his comment, I thought that crossed the line … I was facing intolerance of ideas and intolerance of freedom of expression.”
Venkatesan contacted Cormen about the event, she said, but claims she received no support from him. She canceled class because the incident caused her “intellectual and emotional distress,” she said. This event, which occurred on Feb. 1, would likely be included in a list of grievances relating to a potential lawsuit, she said.
It's possible that rather overwhelmingly poor evaluations might also add to her discontent.
The students' failure to respect her was apparently exacerbated by a lack of respect from peers:
Venkatesan also said she was exposed to a “barrage of offensive behavior” while working as a researcher in the medical school. Venkatesan, whose specialty is the intersection of science and literature, said many of her academic interpretations of science in the context of literary theory during laboratory meetings were received in a “hostile,” “demeaning” and “anti-intellectual” manner by her colleagues.
But no doubt Venkatesan can find a lawyer who will tell her that she has a protected right to be taken seriously, even if her ideas are deeply silly.
The Dartmouth Review did an interview with her. What emerges, to be blunt, is a cant-and-doctrine-addled nitwit with grievous self-esteem issues and a freakish vision of the proper relationship between students and teachers. She seems to think that students — even at an elite university like Dartmouth — should be there to sup quietly and respectfully at the meal of leftover-Derrida twaddle that an untenured lecturer dishes out:
The students manipulated the situation so that they totally undermined the academic system. The whole academic system was undermined. The whole integrity of the course, the whole academic integrity of the course was undermined because it never became about the students meeting my expectations, it became about me meeting their expectations. They abrogated that right. They abrogated, they turned the tables around. Bullying, aggressive, and disrespectful.
It became no longer came about them meeting my expectations, and this through the process of totally undermining my professorial authority, questioning my knowledge in very inappropriate ways, so that it no longer became about the proper academic way about them meeting my expectations. No, it was about me meeting their expectations, because what were they going to do if I didn’t meet whatever expectation they had, whether it would be, I wasn’t white, whatever, I was different, I talked about ideas that were strange, I came off as very eccentric. I can’t make things up, I can’t read their mind. So they would use any type of vulnerability. They would use this and write these horrible evaluations that hardly reflected my efforts and quality of my teaching.
So she claims the hostility was based on her race. Does she have evidence for that? Oh, "evidence" is such a socially constructed tool of the white patriarchy:
I think that’s a really good question and I kind of have to step back and say that I think, and this is really the only comment that I’m going to make, is that I think that discrimination is very hard to prove, and I think that my claim is going to be very hard to prove because I think that discrimination is very subtle. I think that right now because there are so many laws out there, slavery is outlawed, we have the Civil Rights Act, we have all these laws in place to protect minorities, to protect women, to protect the elderly, so we have these laws in place. No one made a comment about my ethnicity. That did not happen, and I have to say that it did not happen. So what is the basis of my claim? I think that the basis of my claim is that the behavior, like I said in which the tables were turned around, was partially motivated by race. I am going to be the first one to say that is going to be very difficult to prove in a court of law, but I think if I get my story out there and tell them this is my assessment of what happened, then I think that’s a social good.
What was wrong with the students, aside from being racist in a way you can only detect if you're a lecturer who applies literary theory to science? Well, to be frank, they just didn't know their place. Their place is to shut up, not argue, and RECEIVE HER WISDOM. If they disagree, that's FASCISM.
What happened was that I went into class after that whole clapping incident, and I said. ‘What you did was horrific. What you did was really bad.’ Not bad, I didn’t accuse them of being bad, I said what you did was unacceptable. They started arguing with me. I said fine. You think you know everything. You think you know everything without the knowledge base to boot, without the training, you think you have a command of all the knowledge in the world at this stage in your life, then I’m sorry, that is fascism and that is demagoguery. When I made the two words fascism and demagoguery I looked at the picture on the wall. I made sure that I did not look at the students, and that I did not make any personal attacks on them.
The fact of the matter is that by being so arrogant about their command of knowledge about arguing with me about every point that I was making and that’s really arrogant. That’s very arrogant because frankly, and I’m not trying to be an academic elitist, but frankly, they don’t even have a B.A. They’re freshmen. They’re freshmen. The maturity that they had, and I think that’s what it is, I think it’s a lack of maturity, I don’t think it’s any character flaw, I just think it’s a lack of maturity and when they grow up they’ll find that it’s really tough to succeed in the real world and I really will start respecting my professor.
So — how the Hell did this entitled, self-righteous, third-rate thinker wind up teaching at an Ivy League school? That's a question for Dartmouth. I'm sure the Right would love to attribute it to the whole leftist-academy thing, but frankly I'm never inclined to ascribe to conspiracies what can be explained by stupidity and indifference. They hired her without doing due diligence as to whether she's a nut.
Further portions of the interview suggest that Lecturer Venkatesan might be a few post-structuralists short of a faculty party, as she believes that students and other faculty are deriding her through obscure Ethan Hawke references:
PV: 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.
PV: I’m kind of making this leap because this is the kind of subversiveness that was going on in that environment. That [girl x] would ask how many t’s are in Gattaca and that Tom Cormen would respond, “two T’s” as if I had no grasp on tenure track. ..but with [girl x], something’s going on with her. I’m not a doctor, but she’s not all there.
And yet — in America, she can find a lawyer to help her sue them, and force the university to incur huge fees, and suffer no real consequences.
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