May 5, 2008

"Each episode is a text of inescapable complexity . . . Our received notions of what constitutes a ride are constantly subverted and undermined."

Typical passage from a paper WSJ writer Joseph Rago wrote for lit-crit course. The subject: MTV's "Pimp My Ride." The grade: A. But "Pimp My Ride" is a text of inescapable complexity that undermines and subverts received notions of what constitutes a ride!

Rago rags on Priya Venkatesan — who is supposedly going to sue somebody she's holding responsible for the "hostile working environment" she encountered as an English teacher at Dartmouth College.

"The remarkable thing about the Venkatesan affair, to me, is that her students cared enough to argue," Rago says. Why bother? It's so much easier — and more deviously useful — to figure out what the teacher wants and give it to her — keeping any contempt that you have to yourself.

Now, there's arguing and there's arguing. It's so easy to laugh at Venkatesan — especially when she threatens to sue. But there is a kind of disrespect that can be very wrong in the classroom and that is not about arguing with the ideas. And it can come from race or sex-based hostility to a teacher. So I'd like to hear how the students argued with her. A good teacher should want debate, and it's disrespectful to the students to squelch it.

Rago rests heavily on the notion that lit-crit analysis is stupid and pointless. Why take the course then? If your school offers it and you take it, you can't appropriate the classroom for your destructive antics. I don't know exactly what the students did. Venkatesan seems like an unsympathetic, litigious whiner who's been demanding that students hold still while she indoctrinates them. Because she's suing, she makes it very hard for us to want to try to see it from her point of view.


vbspurs said...

This bit is, to use a counterculture phrase, right on:

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.

Figuring out certain professors is not hard. Almost all of us has pandered to the world view of one or another professor, because we want that A.

Of course, this is pure cynicism.

But when you meet up with a trenchant educator like this Priya Venkatesan, who countenances no sass from her audience, you either play the game, or in the case of the young man who dared to challenge her about her eco-patriarchy notions, you get sued (well, usually flunk out).

Ann wrote:

I don't know exactly what the students did.

Basically, they clapped when the guy challenged her. This caused her to decamp to the campus shrink's office and cancel classes for a week, citing deep mental stress.

Clearly this lady should immediately leave her new post at Northwestern, and go to the Coll├Ęge de France. There students (and the visiting public) are barred from returning to the classroom if they dare to speak up during a lecture.

Intellectual stimulus obviously means different things to different people.


Richard Fagin said...

Yes there are forms of argument with a professor that are disrespectful and disruptive. No doubt some of these are motivated by sexual and other forms of prejudice. Presumably the school has disciplinary procedures for dealing with those forms of misconduct.

If the school failed to enforce its own disciplinary rules, or didn't have adequate ones, the professor would perhaps have a claim against the school for enabling a hostile environment.

I'm having a hard time finding any basis for a professor to sue her students for creating a hostile environment, though. Doesn't she have the authority to kick em out of class and give em a failing grade? What could the students have done that causes the above reasoning to fail?

George said...

Thanks to this show the word "pimp" has lost its vulgarity, at least among high school students.

Thanks, MTV!

Richard Fagin said...

I forgot to mention that I got a D in Interrogating Heteronormativity 305.

Revenant said...

Eh, this is no more ridiculous than any other "hostile working environment" lawsuit. Once the courts threw out the old standard (roughly translated from the legalese: "quit being such a pussy and find a new job") we were already on the slippery slope to cases like this.

Spread Eagle ® said...

I'm having a hard time finding any basis for a professor to sue her students for creating a hostile environment, though. Doesn't she have the authority to kick em out of class and give em a failing grade?

Eggzactly. In the student-professor relationship the professor has by far most of the power and holds all the trump cards. If the professor nevertheless still manages to get themselves into the position of hapless underling, harassed by their students, they probably earned that status.

Ron said...

It's when they start drawing comparisons between Remembrance of Things Past and Beavis and Butthead, that I feel they all should be sued!

"ummmm....what?", sez Beavis.

dbp said...

The WSJ article indicated that it was a freshman composition course--so it may well have been a GUR.

The style of criticism is important to what side to come down on:

"Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. "

If the student just shouted, "what a bunch of BS"! It would be true (is is a bunch of B.S.), but not respectful. Now if the student had said something like, "Professor Venkatesan, how then do you account for the fact that life expectancy for women has gone up even more for women than men in the last couple of hundred years"? "Isn't living longer a benefit of scientific advancement"?

Perhaps the same level of logic that allows her to believe such tripe also makes her see reasoned debate as impermissible attack.

rhhardin said...

I'd like to ask her why she thought women are not interested in science and guys are.

Not counting pre-med, which always has had huge female participation.

Then ask when the courts became the course that what was traditionally nagging took.

Trooper York said...

Obviously he didn't bring the teacher the right gift. No wonder she sued.

Seven Machos said...

I would suggest that virtually all Dartmouth students figured out a long time ago how to game the system for A's. Obviously, a large part of that can be saying and writing what the teacher wants.

The fact that at least several of them debated the professor in class like that, rudely or not, suggests that she must have been saying things that were simply untenable.

Furthermore, the fact that she is litigating this does suggest a kind of craziness. This is career suicide.

sean said...

As I understand from this and other stories, the course in question is remedial freshman English. On the one hand, if they put you in this course, you don't have a choice about taking it, which kind of defeats Prof. Althouse's point. On the other hand, the course may be pass/fail, which would explain why the students were arguing.

Also, in fairness, it's hard for people our age to remember how idealistic people are when they are freshmen. As Prof. Althouse noted some time ago, she would never make a political statement that would offend her colleagues, nor would I, but some freshmen do want to speak their minds.

Seven Machos said...

Sean -- That would surprise me. I can't imagine that Dartmouth has remedial anything.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

I had a "Business Ethics" class a few years ago and it was taught by a full time proffessor, as opposed to most of our classes in this adult ed course work, who were part timers, and he and I argued for 5 weeks. It was a 5 week, 4 hours per week class schedule.

The interesting part of this is the gu who sat next to me, who was in my same study cohort and shared a first initial with me, got flunked by this alleged educator, while I got my usual 'A'. All I can guess is that he confused teh two of us in his grade book, as the other gentleman was just that- a complete gentleman bordering on suck up.

Since our course work was identical, as it was supposed to be based on the cohort system, the only difference was our in class participation, and this professor's ignorance cost my friend; he had to retake the course, lucily with a different instructor.

PatCA said...

Academics everywhere are now thinking, "Pimp my Ride"? Awesome! Why didn't I think of that?

Pogo said...

It's always been considered hostile to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

My son is currently "playing the game" in a high school freshman American history class. There they are told that all democrats are good, and all Republicans are bad. JFK was murdered in a CIA-Mafia-LBJ-Cuba conspiracy. FDR was the greatest President in history. Then JFK. American Indians were the victim of US genocide. Etc Etc.

But I have quit staying quiet, and now I argue the point. Every time.
From "Good Will Hunting":
"WILL: He used to just put a belt, a stick and a wrench on the kitchen table and say "choose."

SEAN: Gotta go with the belt there...

WILL: I used to go with the wrench.

SEAN: The wrench, why?

WILL: Cause fuck him, that's why."

I figure you can go along and collect the A and shut the hell up. or you can take a stand. Me? I'm damn tired of shutting up because these folks never ever give up. They're everywhere: in business, church, schools. It never ends, the PC multi-culti foucauldian socialist crap never stops.

They have infected the whole planet with this crap.

Time to say 'no more'.

Paul Snively said...

The willingness to make the effort to see things from someone else's point of view is earned, not required.

Zach said...

Freshmen who got into Dartmouth, but are enrolled in remedial English suggests natural science majors.

As a physicist, there are a few topics that are just intrinsically infuriating. Auras. Mystic powers of crystals. Comparing quantum mechanics to Eastern religion. Mostly, those views are held by nice people who don't mean any harm, and you can keep quiet. But arguing that science is socially constructed is like being a 9-11 Truther. It isn't just asinine and ignorant with undertones of paranoia; there are also undertones of hostility and anger that don't really flow from the topics under discussion.

Obviously, I don't have any evidence that that kind of thing was going on here. But there are more causes for deep-rooted hostility than race and geneder. If you make a habit of arguing that science is socially constructed around people who know better, you run a real risk of being told exactly what your audience thinks of you, your precious subject, the required reading, and the horse you rode in on.

Simon Kenton said...

I believe what I am about to do - depart Rago's text for the complement of externality, or in this case, aspects of contextualized 'fact' - is impermissible in the world of litcrit. But this woman's initial threats, at least, were to sue the students for their ineluctably and inescapably crypto-vituperative class evaluations. She's practically ... British ... in her SLAPP-happy attempt to stifle speech; instead of the libel laws, she has loosed the fateful lightning of the harassment avengers.

chuckR said...

"It isn't just asinine and ignorant with undertones of paranoia; there are also undertones of hostility and anger that don't really flow from the topics under discussion."

But it is organized. One of its goals is a Title IX for science/technology/engineering and math(STEM). If you don't meet your quotas, you'll need to change courses, faculty and research until you do comply. And then the hysterical (and I don't mean that in a good way) Ms. Venkatesan will have been shown to be prescient with her 'science studies'.

Maybe the study of law does require a high level of respect. Scientific investigations require a high level of politely calling bullshit and then duking it out. A lot of scientific research does turn out to be bullshit. If it weren't, we'd call it development, not research. Ms. V. should hie herself to the modern academic equivalent of a nunnery. Or butch up, or something.

Ralph said...

I can't imagine that Dartmouth has remedial anything.
Do they have a football team?
Channeling Cedarford: What about the affirmative action students?

A few years ago, I found out my alma mater, Davidson, had a several-day pre-orientation for incoming black freshman.

Seven Machos said...

Ralph -- It's funny you should mention that. Somehow, I have a few friends who played sports at Ivy League schools. All are highly successful professionals now.

I asked one of them once if the jocks at Ivy League schools are considered "dumb jocks" like they are everywhere else. The answer, basically, was, yes, but it's all very, very relative. Playing the sport helped get them admitted but they certainly would have gotten into an utterly fabulous school with their non-sports credentials.

Ralph said...

SM, I was (partly) joking.
Our quarterback was my freshman hall RA, president of his fraternity, a non-drinker, and became an MD (his father taught at Wake Forest Med School). Some of the linemen--not so swift.

John Lynch said...

Sometimes you have to take courses because they are the only ones offered that semester. Sure, you are agreeing to take the class. Yes, you should know what you are in for. But practically, you're stuck.

I got through a lot of classes with this mantra: I'm being graded on my understanding, not my agreement.

If I repeat back what they want, I pass. So I did. Grades have nothing to to with the truth. The truth is for me, and I don't have to tell anyone.

John Lynch said...

I'll add that if there is a discipline problem, a professor ought to be able to deal with it without suing the students...

Every prof has problems with students. Every single one. Why does this one require legal action?

I guess next time there is a classroom walkout or protest someone should sue! It's a hostile environment for someone!

Balfegor said...

Rago rests heavily on the notion that lit-crit analysis is stupid and pointless. Why take the course then? If your school offers it and you take it, you can't appropriate the classroom for your destructive antics.

Sometimes there's a certain amount of bait and switch, though. I took a class on Japanese Women Writers once, because I happened to have read a lot of Japanese female authors -- including almost all of the authors covered by the course -- and had generally enjoyed their work. It turned out I was the only person taking the course who took the course because he/she was actually interested in Japanese women writers and their work. About half the people taking it were taking it for some kind of feminist program of study, and the course itself turned out to be about half about post-structuralism and feminist discourse and the like. The remainder were mostly taking it for their distribution requirements for graduation. I had a fun time in the course anyhow, but not as much fun as I think I would have had, had we spent more time with the authors and the works and less time on theory.

Katie said...

Pogo wrote:

I figure you can go along and collect the A and shut the hell up. or you can take a stand.

...and isn't that the common critique of this (my) generation? That we defer to authority to get ahead at the expense of taking that stand?

Well, it would be David Brooks' critique, at any rate.

Roger Sweeny said...

Both Volokh and Above the Law have had comment threads about Barack Obama's law school teaching, with comments by people who either had him or knew people who had.

It is interesting that just about everyone was impressed by the job he did. No one complained that he pushed an ideology or tried to silence people who disagreed with him. This professor seems very different.