Dartmouth's 'Hostile' Environment
By JOSEPH RAGOMay 5, 2008; Page A13
Often it seems as though American higher education exists only to provide gag material for the outside world. The latest spectacle is an Ivy League professor threatening to sue her students because, she claims, their "anti-intellectualism" violated her civil rights.
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.
Ms. Venkatesan's scholarly specialty is "science studies," which, as she wrote in a journal article last year, "teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth." She continues: "Scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct."
The agenda of Ms. Venkatesan's seminar, then, was to "problematize" technology and the life sciences. Students told me that most of the "problems" owed to her impenetrable lectures and various eruptions when students indicated skepticism of literary theory. She counters that such skepticism was "intolerant of ideas" and "questioned my knowledge in very inappropriate ways." Ms. Venkatesan, who is of South Asian descent, also alleges that critics were motivated by racism, though it is unclear why.
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.
Such conduct is hardly representative of the professoriate at Dartmouth, my alma mater. Faculty members tend to be professional. They also tend to be sane.
That said, even at – or especially at – putatively superior schools, students are spoiled for choice when it comes to professors who share ideologies like Ms. Venkatesan's. The main result is to make coursework pathetically easy. Like filling in a Mad Libs, just patch something together about "interrogating heteronormativity," or whatever, and wait for the returns to start rolling in.
I once wrote a term paper for a lit-crit course where I "deconstructed" the MTV program "Pimp My Ride." A typical passage: "Each episode is a text of inescapable complexity . . . Our received notions of what constitutes a ride are constantly subverted and undermined." It received an A.
Where the standards are always minimum, most kids simply float along with the academic drafts, avoid as much work as possible and accept the inflated grade. Why not? It's effortless, and there are better ways to spend time than thinking deeply about ecofeminism.
The remarkable thing about the Venkatesan affair, to me, is that her students cared enough to argue. Normally they would express their boredom with the material by answering emails on their laptops or falling asleep. But here they staged a rebellion, a French Counter-Revolution against Professor Defarge. Maybe, despite the professor's best efforts, there's life in American colleges yet.