Monday, May 05, 2008

The Quiet Tragedy of Postmodern Education

Ah, you laugh. Some of you, yes. You do not take the current crisis in our educational system seriously; you do not yet believe that major damage is being done. Amidst your hyperbolic cries of 'censorship!', amidst your cogent and measured analyses of rhetorical excess, it is easy to lose sight of the sordid underbelly of academia. One forgets, all too often, to consider the inevitable--that one day, persons with Ph.D.s in postmodern literary study are bound to encounter someone with a BS detector.

And the results can be tragic.

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.

The horror of the Undergraduate Seminar is vile enough; one can scarce imagine the carnage that results when said Ph.D. attempts to inflict the rigors of her training, in strict accordance with its own principles, upon the practitioners of empirical scientific research.
According to Venkatesan, the entire lab was "hostile to (her) type of academic discourse" (that is, trying to incorporate literary criticism into molecular biology). She alleges that Christine Richardson, a research technician in the lab, treated her with absolute contempt, always responding to Venkatesan's requests for assistance with either dismissive gestures or complete silence.
Yes, it is all to easy to forget that once, postmodernist theorists were children. There was a time when they were capable of normal social relationships; when they communicated in sentences devoid of phrases like 'interrogates the teleological paradigm', and did not resort to paranoid accusations of racial and sexual discrimination when confronted with an interpersonal conflict.

Because, darlings, professors of postmodern theory are not born. They are made. We send our offspring off to university with the best will in the world, expecting that they will be instilled with the tools to navigate empirical reality, not inculcated with the compulsion to undermine it.

We mourn, all too often, for the destruction of the best minds of our generation; we forget to consider the perils of the mediocre ones. But it is fully possible that without her education, this unfortunate woman could have become a productive member of society. And now...

The waste. The tragic, tragic waste.


Anonymous said...

Too bad the case is only civil and not criminal. The disruptive noseblowing student should definitely do hard time. She was clearly motivated by racial, gender and/or allergenic prejudice. They should lock her up and throw away the kleenex.

I've got to get back to problematizing technology now. Sadly, subverting the dominant paradigm just doesn't cut it anymore.



Chris Rywalt said...

I see this as being a lot less about postmodernism and a lot more about American colleges and racism. From the article in the Dartmouth Independent I get the impression that Venkatesan is completely insane. But also I am reminded of my own undergraduate days and how we used to heckle the teachers we didn't like. And I'm reminded of how tired we got of dealing with teaching assistants who didn't speak any form of English comprehensible to Americans. Indians ("South Asians") were especially troublesome because in theory they spoke English but in practice none of us had any idea what they were saying. So I can imagine Venkatesan did face some racism.

I had more thoughts (and more coherent ones) but they're not coming right now.

Anonymous said...

Chris, she was born and raised in New York state so I doubt she has an incomprehensible accent. Then again, some Brooklynese can be pretty impenetrable.


Anonymous said...

This is an excerpt from an interview with her in The Dartmouth Review. I know it's very long, but it gives you an idea of her reasoning skills and her state of mind. Whole interview is at

TDR: There is one specific incident where I heard from one of the girls in your class who was pretty outspoken, and one day she hadn’t spoken for a while and you said, “Could we have a round of applause for this girl, she hasn’t spoken in ten minutes?”

PV: She was probably the most abrasive, the most offensive, the most disruptive student. She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it. That class actually had a lot of potential, there were some really bright kids there, but every time she would do a number of things that were very inappropriate. For instance, I had basically gotten a hold of Blackboard technology, but I was making some mistakes too because I was new to the system, and every time that some link was wrong or some link wasn’t set up right, [girl x] in the beginning of class would point this out to everybody. Then what happened was, I was lecturing on morals and ethics and she just gave me this horrible look, and I was pretty disturbed. I just said what is going on here? The problem with [girl x] is that she can’t take criticism. She can’t take the fact that there is something wrong with her work. Now, some people are like that, a lot of people are like that, unable to take criticism, but the fact of the matter is that I have the PhD in literature, I make the assessment if someone has talent for philosophy, literary theory, and literary criticism. A student might say, well, the hell with you I’m still going to become a literary critic, I had to do that, there were people who criticized me while I was a student, you’re not a good writer or whatever, but I said well I’m still going to go ahead with my goals, but I never made any personal attacks on them or made life difficult for them or was rude to them. I just did the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism, and [girl x] is the kind of student who does not know the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism. She thinks the way to go about doing it is to go to my superior or to try to undermine my ability to teach the class. 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.

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.


Chris Rywalt said...

She was born and raised in Poughkeepsie, but in an Indian neighborhood. It's easy to come out of that with an accent. Maybe not an entirely incomprehensible one, but still.

I remember as an undergrad -- not even a freshman, but a junior -- absolutely torturing this one professor we had. And he was a white male, although he had an accent. Not a thick one or anything -- just enough of one to make caricatures easy. He and the class as a whole didn't get along -- he was an electrical engineer and therefore felt it his prerogative to condescend to mere computer science majors. We had invaded his class due to a change in the curriculum; for one semester, instead of having all EEs, he had every third-year CS major. The very first class he asked us to raise our hands: "How many of you are computer science?" All nineteen or so of us raised our hands. "Computer science makes no sense to me. There is no science." By which I think he meant, since we were studying entirely man-made objects, there was no "real" science involved. (Which is strictly true, I guess -- CS is really just math with electricity.)

Anyway, as a class we made his life difficult and he made ours difficult, like a donkey trying to train a mule. Finally, near the end of the semester, I couldn't take it any more and I blew up at him. (There's a funny story here I'm not going into because the details are eluding me at the moment.) If he'd been like Venkatesan, he'd have sued us for sure. Instead he just did his job, graded us fairly, and went on his way.

My point, I guess, is that, first, undergrads can be really rude and cruel and nasty to their instructors. I expect it's even worse at a sweatshirt school like Dartmouth than at an engineering school like mine; and I can only imagine its being even more worse in a useless department like English than in a hardcore engineering course. And my other point is that South Asians are discriminated against somewhat (although they really have no call to complain the way, say, blacks in America do). I think by and large you don't hear from them as much as you might; I once asked an Indian friend of mine why the Indian community didn't get upset over portrayals like Apu in The Simpsons (who is, after all, voiced by a white guy). My friend replied, "We're all too busy working."

Then again, Venkatesan may not have been prepared for the infighting of academia. She may have thought she was being discriminated against when she was just being treated as an equal -- that is, with viciousness.

Anonymous said...

Of course racism and discrimination exist and no doubt Venkatesan has experienced some in her life. Chris, I honestly think you just love to be contrary. When women talk about the sexism they experience and how white males are privileged, you argue against that and say that you have received no special privilege. And you talk about how your wife has excelled in her male-dominated field without evidence of discrimination.

Yes, undergrads can be rude and cruel (and I agree, probably especially so at the ivies), but this woman obviously doesn't know how to take control, to assert her authority over a classroom. I feel a little sorry for her because she sounds a bit unstable and not emotionally or psychologically prepared for the stresses of academia. BUT, suing her students? That's ridiculous and even she knows it (she has been going back and forth about whether she is really going to pursue legal action, saying she doesn't know if she has a legitimate case or not). One of her examples of discriminatory behavior on the part of her students was an "evil look" that one girl gave her.

Of course South Asians experience discrimination on occasion, like every other minority. I've heard people say, in my presence, "oh, I tried to jew him down on the price," in fact, the first time I heard this, I didn't know what it meant and asked the person who said it to explain it to me. But I don't go around claiming discrimination every time someone is mean to me. Hell, we jews have it pretty good in the US compared to many other places in the world.

I'm wandering off the topic here, but really, I think if I had written here taking her side, you would have responded taking the students' side.


Pretty Lady said...

Chris, I have to agree with O, here. This woman should never have been teaching, and it has absolutely nothing to do with her ethnicity. She can't put together a coherent, logical train of thought, she has no insight into other people's perceptions, and she is incapable of rational communication. And Dartmouth put her in the position of TEACHING UNDERGRADUATES.

If this woman had given me this line of BS in my freshman English seminar, I would have abused her as well. You seem to forget that college students are paying boatloads of money to be so abused, and expect to get something useful out of the enterprise. Putting an incompetent fool in charge of a college classroom is fraud. It's the students who should be suing the school. I'm glad that they had the wherewithal to complain, that the administration listened to them, and that she is no longer teaching there. She shouldn't be teaching anywhere.

Chris Rywalt said...

PL sez:
She can't put together a coherent, logical train of thought, she has no insight into other people's perceptions, and she is incapable of rational communication.

And here I thought you'd been to college! If every university in America fired everyone teaching a course based on your skills assessment, there'd be three teachers left for the whole damned country.

Which is of course hyperbole. But, seriously, academia is the refuge of the incompetent. Has been for years. Whether it's the Teaching Assistant from China who actually shoulders the burden of teaching the entire course for an absentee (i.e. "research") professor or the professor who is only interested in their narrow field -- or, better yet, the professor who's fabricated their entire raft of credentials -- the institution of College Professor simply isn't what it used to be. If it ever was, actually.

I keep meaning to sit down with my wife and discuss What's Wrong With College Today. I mean, America -- once upon a time -- had the best universities in the world. And we squandered them. (Much like we did with our healthcare system.) Now we can't seem to run a university at a profit without raping the students and gouging the government for handouts. It's pathetic.

Anyway, I'm wobbling way off topic. My point was to say that this Venkatesan has something of a point, even if she's insane and getting her point across the wrong way. Americans are disrespectful towards their teachers (whether abusing them in the classroom or not paying them enough) and also disrespectful towards South Asians. Did this particular teaching South Asian deserve it? Maybe.

But when I think back to my undergrad days, man, did we torture our poor teachers.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the educational system is problematizing, to be sure.

There are many very real instances of sexual harassment and racial and ethnic discrimination, but when ridiculous claims like this get publicized and frivolous lawsuits filed, it makes everyone crying "racism" or "sexism" look bad. This woman's actions are hindering, rather than helping the cause of fighting discrimination. So it's not only a travesty of higher education and offensive, it is counterproductive.

It does make me glad I went to a state school and didn't pay boatloads, as PL put it, to be abused in this way. Don't get me wrong, we were fed plenty of pomo deconstructionist crap at UC Berkeley (the veritable wellspring* of such practices), but at least we didn't pay too much for the privilege.


The frenchies wrote the texts, but I don't know whether French universities actually taught Fourcalt, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, et al. or simply imported them to the US.

Chris Rywalt said...

I think what I was trying to say, originally, was that I don't think Postmodernism is the problem here. She may be crazy, or she may be right, but either way, it's not because she's into Lyotard.

Chris Rywalt said...

And, actually, reading the page on Lyotard on Wikipedia makes me think he's pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

She was hoisted by her own Lyotard.


Pretty Lady said...

No, Postmodernism just amplifies the problem into complete absurdity. The problem is that, as you say, academia has become the refuge of the incompetent, as has postmodern rhetoric. When you get postmodernism plus incompetence plus the hysteria of the over-educated, mediocre mind under stress, you get high absurdist theatre.

In any case, racial and gender discrimination are the LEAST SIGNIFICANT FACTORS in this mess.

And O, my friend the Career Philosopher studied Foucault at the Sorbonne, so yes, sadly, the French are inflicting their philosophy upon their own. Possibly this is partly responsible for the emergence of the National Front, a right-wing extremist political faction in France. One of the comments on the Dartmouth interview you linked to quotes an essay that connects the right-wing backlash in this country with left-wing debility, brought about by the pervasiveness of postmodernism thought and rhetoric.

It's all connected. There's no such thing as an isolated system of corruption.

Franklin said...

I noted on another blog that Venkatesan would likely disgrace any intellectual pursuit, not just the already disgraceful pursuit of postmodernism. I'm sure she didn't end up as a practitioner by accident, though.

Did you notice that the class she was teaching was garden-variety English Comp? Classy.

Anonymous said...

Franklin, what other blog? I want to read more about htis. thanks

Anonymous said...

Franklin, what other blog? I want to read more about htis. thanks

Larry said...

The problem isn't post-modernism, the problem is that this woman doesn't "get" post-modernism. She merely wants to substitute her own meta-narrative for the currently dominant one. Post-modernism requires skepticism of _all_ claims of "objective" truth and _all_ claims of epistemic privilege, not just the ones you don't like. In many ways it is just a return to where we left off at the end of the Renaissance, with the skeptical humanism of Montaigne and others, modernity has just been a 300 year detour in the development of human thought. Undoubtedly her students realized that she was a fraud and a poser (they always do) and responded accordingly.

Larry said...

and various eruptions when students indicated skepticism of literary theory

Perfect example of what i was talking about, post-modernism requires that one be skeptical about literary theories as well as scientific ones. By being skeptical, her students were being more post-modern than she was!

Franklin said...

The other blog was that of David Thompson.

Modernism demands skepticism as well, with the aim of explaining the data. Pomo demands skepticism as an end in itself. This allows you to frame anything as anything else, ie, criticism from your students as harassment. There lie dragons.

Larry said...

Not quite, modernism requires systematic doubt, ala Descartes, but then certainty once something is "clear and distinct", to adopt Descartes' language. Post-moderns recognizes that "clear and distinct" are subjective judgments that not everybody might share and that one might still be in error even if you see something "clearly and distinctly". There is a difference between Cartesian systematic doubt and the epistemic humility that post-modernism (and Renaissance humanism) requires. By demanding that her students treat her claims as being epistemically privileged, as being beyond criticism, the professor was actually acting very modernly.

Franklin said...

Descartes doesn't represent the whole modernist project; Kant would require more than a "clear and distinct" perception to establish certainty. But handling this in terms of the scientific method, asking students to privilege her claims was just anti-rational. All things bear examination to see how well they correspond to the truth. If you frustrate examination or negate the existence of truth you end up with freedom to assign frames as suits you. It doesn't necessarily follow that this kind of framing supports a blinkered political agenda, but in practice in academia this is exactly what happens.

Carol Diehl said...

I get nervous when the media jumps in to vilify teachers. So much of what happens in a classroom can be misconstrued when taken out of context. Yes, there are stupid teachers, but students can also be bullies. I don’t think there’s enough information here to make a clear case either way.

Franklin said...

Here's some more information if you're still undecided. This is clearly someone who will hang herself given enough rope.

Larry said...

I never said Descartes was the sum total of modernity, he did however do more than his share in getting it started and in making the break between Renaissance thought and modern. Whether pursued through rationalism, empiricism or, like Kant, something in between, the modern agenda was always a search for certainty, to determine what we can know beyond a doubt and how we can know it. Now, except for a few solipsistic trivialities like "I exist", it is clear that the modern project has failed, there is nothing we can know with absolute certainty.

There are, however, no shortage of modernists wearing post-modern clothes, like this teacher, who only want to substitute a meta-narrative that they like for the currently dominant one that they don't like. This says nothing about whether or not post-modern thought is, in general, valid.

Franklin said...

This person's primary drive is solipsism, not modernism. Claims to certainty don't belong exclusively to modernists by any means - the real champions here are the theists. So if certainty makes her a modernist, it makes her an even better theist.

But really, the main vector here is the culture of inherited abuse that goes on in the academic humanities and the safe haven it provides to some monstrously sloppy thinking. The picture she has so carefully constructed of her own victimization relies on exactly the kind of language that one has to use to earn a graduate degree in a modern language in a politically motivated department. It is easier and more valid to deal with this language as nonsense than as postmodernism.

Again, I think she would disgrace any intellectual pursuit, but she is a typical sour fruit of the postmodernist branch. You see enough of these people, and it would be foolish not to wonder about the validity of the discipline. Particularly once you read what they have to say.

Franklin said...

By the way, saying that the modern project "failed" is like saying that mathematics became false after Goedel. That absolute certainty will forever elude us doesn't relieve us of the responsibility of working towards it, nor does it free us to ignore the knowledge that comes out of the such, and it absolutely doesn't permit the arbitrary framing of experience, which is what fattens the postmodernist library.

Larry said...

This person's primary drive is solipsism, not modernism

Granted, but its not as easy to separate solipsism from modernity as you seem to think, given modernity's emphasis on autonomy.

Claims to certainty don't belong exclusively to modernists by any means - the real champions here are the theists

Modern theists, who have adopted a modern definition of "faith" (look in a good Bible dictionary for a different view of "faith"). As my post-modern pastor said a few weeks ago "Doubt is not the opposite of faith, the opposite of faith is antipathy". Generally pre-modern Christians were much more able to admit doubt, see John Chrysostom, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich for examples. For more contemporary examples see the "Radical Orthodoxy" theologians, Milbank, Pickstock, Ward, etc.

Claims to certainty don't belong exclusively to modernists by any means - the real champions here are the theists

Lots of trash is passed off as post-modern, post-colonial, post-whatever, this doesn't mean that many post-modernists don't have valid things to say. Somebody mentioned Foucault above, but also Derrida and Lyotard. Lots of crap has been written in the name of modernity, too, but that doesn't mean that every modernist philosopher is a fool.

That absolute certainty will forever elude us doesn't relieve us of the responsibility of working towards it

You also don't "get" post-modernity, there is no place of absolute certainty available to us. To God there may be such a place, but not for us. There is no "there" to be working toward. Everything is the product of a subjective point of view and individual experience and presuppositions. Any knowledge that we think we have only has whatever meaning we assign it in a specific context or narrative or worldview. There is no such thing as a non-arbitrary "framing of experience" and the modern story or stories are just as arbitrary as any other story we, or others, use to determine meaning. Try to convince somebody with a magical world-view of the validity of science sometime to see what I mean.

Larry said...

"Doubt is not the opposite of faith, the opposite of faith is antipathy"

Should read "... the opposite of faith is apathy". Sorry about that.

Franklin said...

Step off of a high building into the open air to see what I mean - gravity is not a product of "a subjective point of view and individual experience and presuppositions." I "get" postmodernism just fine, thanks. I just happen to think it's fundamentally mistaken and doesn't correlate to how the world really operates.

Regarding solipsism, at least modernism gives you a mechanism for disproving your ideas. If all knowledge is arbitrary framing, then you never have to suffer the challenge of data that don't fit your model. Your should sue your students for anti-intellectualism and harassment because you felt subjected to a hostile environment in the classroom - no need to check in with them to see if there was really a problem. And getting corrected on the spelling of "Gattica" by your employer - two T's instead of one - is a message that you're not ready for tenure track because the abbreviation of "tenure track" is TT. (She really thinks this.) No claim is too outrageous or nonsensical. Solipsism says that you can account for the existence of your own mind and nothing else. Postmodernism says that all knowledge is arbitrary framing. Neither one can deal with facts residing outside of consciousness. They're practically made for each other. She's not practicing some kind of failed, "modernist" version of postmodernism - she's postmodern to the core. I find her completely consistent here. She also seems like a bit of a failed specimen of humanity, which is a separate problem, and I don't blame pomo for that.

Just as modernism doesn't have a monopoly on certainty, theism doesn't have a monopoly on doubt. That drive to keep questioning is very much part of modernism. In art, which is the only field I claim any expertise on, modernists practice self-criticism, by which we mean a probing inquiry into the nature of what we're doing for the sake of maximal quality. You assume as a modernist artist that any component of your method, from conception down to materials, are targets for immediate jettisoning if it will make your work better. The postmodernist attitude that follows this says that quality is an artificial construct (and arbitrary, like all knowledge), and is therefore not worth working for. You should see all the crap that gets made with that assumption.