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!