Priya Venkatesan, Dartmouth ’90
Joseph Rago, at the Wall Street Journal, is running a bit late in covering a recent political correctness flap at Dartmouth, but I’m even later since I only learned of this news story from him.
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 exposÃ©, 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 â€“ 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.
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.
The original story, Dartblog 4/26 quotes Ms. Venkatesan’s emails
—– Original Message —–
From: Priya Venkatesan
To: [REDACTED]@Dartmouth.edu ; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008 [time redacted]
Subject: Class Action Suit
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
— Forwarded message from “Priya Venkatesan” —
From: “Priya Venkatesan”
To: < [REDACTED]Dartmouth.EDU>,
Subject: Re: Class Action Suit
Date: Fri, 25 Apr 2008 [time redacted]
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
Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2008 20:56:35 -0400 (EDT)
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.
Priya Venkatesan’s academic goal:
After finishing up my studies in literature, I entered a molecular biology lab at DMS with the intention of seeking parallels between scientific practice and literature. 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?
Priya Venkatesan left Dartmouth and wound up at Northwestern. She announced that she was withdrawing her law suit the students, and would avenge herself on them via a novel, but she was still planning to sue Dartmouth.
Dartmouth Review interview 4/30.
Dartmouth Independent 5/1 update and bio.
One female student was a nose-blower,” says Priya Venkatesan, who, until just a few weeks ago, was a professor in Dartmouth’s writing department. A 1990 graduate of the College, Venkatesan spent the better part of her twenties earning a Masters in Genetics and a PhD in Literature. But those were different days. Now, Venkatesan finds her thoughts occupied by that student who “incessantly disrupted class with her nose-blowing.” Or the one who interrupted her lecture on bioethics with “a real evil look that made me feel very uncomfortable.” Or the one who loudly declared that Lyotard was “cheesy.”
A casual observer might conclude that Venkatesan is on the edge of a nervous breakdown, frantically trying to confront her demons that sometimes appear to her as students. But Venkatesan has no apparent demons; in fact, she seems like she has had a very normal, undramatic life. Raised halfway between New York City and Albany by traditional Hindu parents, Venkatesan suggests that her heavy inculcation in Indian culture may have played a part in her ardent desire to excel academically (but then again it may not have – such is the nature of the self-described “postmodernist in the laboratory”). …
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.