When It All Goes Wrong

Jonathan Bellman

Is this from The Onion? A Dartmouth teacher sues the university over student behavior in her class.
There is a man-bites-dog flavor to this story. Usually people (parents, faculty, right-wing talk show propaganda ministers) harangue their righteous listeners about litigious students, the pervasive sense of entitlement, the breakdown of authority, O Tempus O Mores. In the present case, what is the faculty member, one Priya Venkatesan, unhappy about?
It’s worth reading the article. She was teaching there on a grant, and is now going to Northwestern. She has a wonderfully varied background, which includes both scientific research and literary theory. She alleges a wide variety of personal affronts, both from colleagues (disrespect in the lab, etc.) and students: systematic disruptions of class, patterns of disrespect (one young woman who routinely coughed in a certain way, etc.). Predictably, the comments to be found on the web (a sampling may be found at the bottom of this article from the NY Daily News) reflect the usual hobbyhorses: concerns about left-wing propaganda, right-wing backlash, right-wing anti-intellectualism, cultural insensitivity (more respect for teachers is shown in India…but wait, she was raised in the U.S.!), miserable behavior of the rich kids at Dartmouth (there had to be an anti-elitism component to this—those kids probably eat arugula and Belgian Endive too), etc. etc. So we have a bunch of unhappy, finger-pointing people, and yet another pop-culture guffaw-fest about those wacky college profs. And higher education costs what??
A heavy sigh for all concerned. I do know how a class can go bad; the one Gen-Ed I taught at my institution in Spring 1994, a disastrous mismatch of teacher and course assignment, went down. I had taught similar classes elsewhere with real success, but the combination of my new-faculty-member’s expectations + extant student culture + a bad text + 140 people simply = disaster. There was something close to open rebellion, vicious student evaluations (my favorite, which I’ve probably shared already: “If he thinks he’s so great, he should probably get a job in a school for music”), a tiny minority of furtive supporters (a note slipped under my door: “Dr. Bellman, you don’t know me; I’m in MUS XXX, and am not getting a very good grade, but I know what you’ve been trying to do and I wanted to say thanks”). I do understand how such things can happen, and how the teacher feels when anything resembling teaching or learning is sabotaged by student resentment.
What is being left out of the Dartmouth discussion is humanity. Before students are left-wing or right-wing they’re students, almost exclusively young people, and young people (for which God is to be fervently praised) have the most sensitive shit-detectors (if you’ll excuse me; this is a WWII-era term I learned from my father) on the planet. Authority must be earned, and if it is perceived to be undeserved, watch out. If you throw around postmodernist concepts without explaining them (indeed, without even adequately explaining the word), watch out. If you treat students like small children who are to have your wisdom stuffed into them like little sleepingbag-sacks, watch out. If you show no evidence of having even the slightest sense of humor, about yourself or others or even your material, watch out. I don’t mean to trivialize anything or anyone, I mean a simple sense of humor. This is life; it’s a funny business after all, and nothing is funnier than kamikazes who sit in rooms and labs trying to learn stuff, poring over books and so on. Learning and self-improvement are noble and glorious and second to nothing as endeavors…and for all that, the whole education equation is still funny.
My outsider’s take on this is that the disrespect was bi-directional, but that the teacher started with some good, old-fashioned I’m-so-learned, eat-your-spinach-you-little-snots pretentiousness. This was followed by a sense of her victimization, and (ahem—given a certain Critical training) she immediately concluded that it had to do with her Indian background and gender. Nothing will enrage students the way that will (“You’re mistreating me because I’m a girl!”—the female students probably took the lead), and so nature took its course. It seems as if this misguided teacher, who truly is bright and accomplished and apparently maintains a cluelessness of epic proportions, listened to all the praise she got over the years for being bright. It’s like a mama's-pet bright kid who feels entitled to be “special,” favored, a know-it-all, etc.…addicted to praise, in other words. You’re expecting this to be tolerated and enabled by college kids? At Dartmouth?
Watch out for that tree!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to When It All Goes Wrong

  1. AR says:

    Judging by the two articles, Priya Venkatesan is not suited to dealing with American college students and department dynamics. But I wonder why would any department hire a person “trying to incorporate literary criticism into molecular biology”? This type of “discourse” is a recipe for disaster. I have seen philologists and anthropologists get murderous in each other’s company, but at least they can understand each other, if not actually accept the other’s right to exist. Combining literary criticism and biology cannot even be considered interdisciplinary endeavor, it’s more like an academic version of Star Trek, the fields are too far apart.

  2. Olivia says:

    I would add to this apt assessment of the rant that university professors who think that students should feel the same way about their disciplines as they do are always in for a major let down. With regard to the last comment, I’m a historian of science and teach scientific writing. While I don’t think postmodern literary criticism has any place there, students do it better when they understand that different scientific genres have different structures to achieve different types of goals.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    Disclaimer: I am not a psychiatrist. All the same, among Professor Venkatesan’s reported claims are a couple–the idea that mentioning a word being spelled with two t’s was a signal to the students about tenure track, and the “bedroom eyes” incident as specifically directed against Venkasetan–that suggest “ideas of reference,” a sign of paranoid delusion in which the patient believes that events are aimed at her, even things like the phrasing of a TV news broadcast or the sequence of letters on the license plates of passing cars. I don’t think this absolves Venkasetan’s students of cruelty–possibly given an ugly edge by racism and sexism–for ganging up on her, but I think she may also be somewhat unstable.

  4. Sara says:

    I can’t believe I read the whole ugly story. I agree with rootlesscosmo that Venkasetan must be unstable. I can’t believe that my students are any better or worse than Dartmouth’s in terms of “respect,” but I have very, very rarely had to deal with rude behavior in the classroom. If a classroom turned on me the way that Venkasetan’s seems to have, I would have to, like Jonathan mentioned, do some serious soul searching and reevaluate my classroom management techniques–not run to the nearest lawyer and litigate!
    I’m trying to think back to the last time I thought someone made “bedroom eyes” at a girl in order to hurt my feelings. Oh yes… that would be junior high.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Sara, some of this might be geographic. I taught your morning history class for ten years, and didn’t have problems either. (I do occasionally have a day when everyone in the upper division performance practices class seems squirrelly, but it always turns out to be jury day, or someone’s senior recital that six of them are playing in or something.) In any case, I remember far worse behavior when *I* was in music history class–but that was on the west coast, where (I guess?) we were less disciplined. It has been somewhat humbling to me to have been, as an undergrad, the wild man in the classroom…and to still be the wild man in the room, as a faculty member. Shouldn’t someone younger and more energetic step forward and take up the responsibility?
    Incidentally: you seem to be breeding musicologists among the undergrads. I’m going to call the social workers.

  6. hktk says:

    Have you read any of her writings? Some are readily available on the internet. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an expert on post-modernism or French narrative theory, but I found these writings to be indecipherable and pointless. If this is how she taught a freshman writing class, I can fully understand why the students rebelled, and I don’t blame the students for such rebellion. Tuition at Dartmouth is not cheap. Read her interviews and then tell me that she belonged in a classroom. Don’t blame the students because the instructor couldn’t teach the material, advanced her own controversial points of view, stifled discussion because it supposedly showed lack of respect and had seemingly paranoid responses to certain classroom incidents. This woman does not belong in a classroom and thankfully Northwestern currently has no plans to return her to a classroom.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Can’t disagree with any of this. I’m sure, however, that she won’t be happy at Northwestern either; I don’t think she’s wired to be happy.

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