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They Argued With Her? In Academia!?

May 7th, 2008 · 5 Comments

Via PJ Doland, you really cannot make this stuff up:

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.”


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.

I think this and the Smith incident I wrote about below are both cases where in the background you’ve got something akin to the Foucauldian idea of power/knowledge, warped and applied in a way that I’d guess would have appalled Foucault himself. The basic idea, which I’m going to horribly bastardize, is that social power is exerted not just through obvious physical or economic coercion, but also in the ways information is categorized and used. One sense in which this is true is that a state’s ability to control a population is a function of the information (stat-istics) it can gather; another is that public discourse is conditioned by a framework that necessarily exists outside the discourse itself. Who gets to count as an “expert” whose views must be taken seriously? What forms of difference are expressions of a dissenting opinion, and which are treated as mere symptoms of a pathology? (Troublesome kids are now sometimes classified as suffering from “oppositional defiance disorder.”)

There’s obviously something to this notion, though Prof. Venkatesan’s professional specialty appears to be taking it to autoparodic extremes. Often, though, we see the idea deployed to argue, in effect, that speech is (often? always?) just coercion by other means; the traditional liberal distinction between speech and action is illusory. Speech that serves to marginalize a disfavored group, or to rationalize their unequal status, is therefore just disguised violence, and silencing the speaker just a form of self defense.

I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that I think this is a pernicious and self-defeating line of argument. Truth has always been a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the oppressed; treating “truth” as nothing more than a weapon, however, saps it of that power.

Update: Oh dear… the face of harassment, from a Dartmouth Review interview:

Priya Venkatesan: One of the things that she did, this is also really interesting, was that she would always ask me how to spell things. That was her thing. She would say how to do you spell this? How to you spell that? I mean—what am I supposed to do?—so I would tell her. 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.

Tags: Academia



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 lemmy caution // May 7, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    If Foucauldian power/knowledge is anything like Pink Floydian power/knowledge, I think the teachers are supposed to be the ones that oppress the students rather than the other way around.

    The smith incident is just a protest. It may be misguided but it has nothing to do with Foucauldian power/knowledge.

  • 2 Josep // May 7, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    “Truth has always been a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the oppressed; treating “truth” as nothing more than a weapon, however, saps it of that power.”

    I share your sentiment to a certain extent, but the last eight years have tended to emphasize the profound limitations of speaking truth to power.

  • 3 James // May 9, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Clearly, the student would have lied and helped misspell “Gattaca” if the teacher had been on the tenure track.

  • 4 Julian Elson // May 10, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Your first link to PJ Doland, while decipherable, doesn’t work immediately; I think it could use a colon.

  • 5 Ike // May 12, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Pathological narcissism; common psychological problem with women in professions requiring no knowledge of mathematics, especially in an academic setting. The principal clue is that she consulted with a doctor about her emotional disturbance caused by the behavior of her students. Only a disturbed personality could be caused genuine emotional distress sufficient to require medical diagnosis in these circumstances. Much ado about nothing rational.

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