She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it.

I feel so sorry for Priya Venkatesan, the Dartmouth professor who decided a few weeks ago to sue her students for harassment, and on soberer second thought decided not to. A lot could be said against her. I think, for instance, that an objective reckoning would probably conclude that she is not a good scholar. The account she gives, in the long interview posted on the web, of Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition is unsound – and it’s supposed to be her material. But few of the hundreds of readers commenting on the interview focus on anything so substantive. Instead there are arguments over whether Venkatesan is actually as hysterical as she sounds, whether she’s defensive, paranoid, or emotionally unbalanced, and whether it was her own fault that she lost control of her class so spectacularly. On the issue of whether she is psychologically fit to teach, there are opinions on both sides of the spectrum. But what’s most interesting to me is that her psyche is the issue.

There’s an unstated assumption here – or, rather, it’s an assumption only Venkatesan herself is stating. It is that college classes are sometimes difficult to keep under control, and that, to deal with the challenge, professors require not merely expertise in their fields and pedagogical training but, in addition, a relatively high level of emotional stability. And I have a sense that in many North American schools the challenge is growing, that more and more students expect you to prove your credentials to them, that a larger and larger minority enters college thinking that their opinions are just as good as the profs’ — and that, as a result, a higher degree of emotional stability is required. It remains possible, certainly, to win the respect of these students. Most of them, in fact, want to respect us. But they won’t give their respect easily, and some will continue to scoff behind their hands at any sign of weakness, poisoning the air of the classroom. If the professor makes a mistake in her sensibilities, if she vacillates, if she responds aggressively or defensively, she can lose a class for the duration of the term.

Should we have to earn our students’ respect? I am undecided. Back when I was an undergraduate, we had a different approach. We’d sit around in the common room at night making fun of our profs, talking about who was a drunk, who was a dweeb, and who was emotionally unbalanced, but when we came into the classroom we shrugged all that off. We thought: “well, he’s definitely loony, but let’s see what the old bastard has to say.” We were there to learn.

At the college where I now teach the situation is even better. The students are used to getting the best, and approach their classes in the assumption that their professors are first rate. Respect is palpable, and it’s easy to give it back to them. The students don’t waste class time playing games to prove how smart they are, and the professors don’t either. Still sometimes, even now, I get a group of freshmen one or two of whom have decided immediately, for mysterious reasons, that I probably don’t know shit. Then the first few classes feel like I’m swinging a dragon around by the tail. Once in a while I need to call on all my emotional grounding so I don’t freak out, and thus alienate the class.

Many years ago, when I was teaching at another place, I remember mentioning to my parents (both professors of long experience) that I thought two or three bad eggs could come close to wrecking a class. They stared at me, and together they said: “one.”

This is why my heart goes out to Venkatesan here:

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.

A last thought. There’s no proof of any racism operative here: Venkatesan admits she never heard anything that could be construed by any stretch to be a racist comment. But let’s not kid ourselves. Tall white men are a very great deal less likely to run into this sort of problem.

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9 thoughts on “She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it.

  1. God, poor woman. I think the isolation of the SLAC makes these things worse because you can just go cuckoo in your own head. Actually when I heard about her suing her students my first thought was: brilliant! And then I thought: or is that an Onion headline?

  2. I missed this whole story last month, but I think that you put your finger on its most interesting aspect: we and our friends, who saw education as a path of self-making (insert early modern account of _Bildung_ here), do not necessarily share a great deal with our students, many of whom believe that their process of self-making has already come to an end.

  3. Yeah. Thanks both. This story continues to hit a nerve with me. I am amazed that so few academics have expressed sympathy for her; all over the blogosphere they are making fun of her. Have they never experienced rage at a student whose arrogance makes them feel small and stupid?

    It’s true what I said: that it’s part of our job description to deal with this sort of thing. And we probably all deal with it pretty well. And because PV can’t, she can’t teach.

    Nevertheless, I would have thought that every academic reading her interview would have remembered leaving a class close to tears, and felt for her even if they couldn’t support her.

  4. While I do feel sympathetic towards PV, I am not altogether surprised by the story. I think this is not uncommon in academics – the particulars of any given event varying somewhat, but this “bully” mentality being somewhat endemic in the environment. There’s a really great book called “Eliminating Professors. A Guide to the Dismissal Process” by Kenneth Westhues. He is/was a University of Waterloo Prof and has his own story to tell. It’s wrapped around some other famous cases and talks about the commonalities of such events. It also opens your eyes to some of the subtle processes that University administrators use to get rid of undesirable Profs – while appearing not to be doing anything nasty at all (i.e. it is the victim who “can’t deal with being a Prof”.) Anyway, just FYI, and an interesting read for anyone in academics.

  5. What about students who bully other students and the teachers that ignore that behavior?

    I am thinking about a graduate quantum mechanics class at a big name school where the male students loudly compare breast cup sizes of the female students, and the professor that kept right on lecturing, facing the chalkboard instead of addressing the class.

    Does anything like that happen in liberal arts classes?

  6. So. Another variety of emotional instability, where the professor simply cannot deal with what is happening in class and choses the ‘high ground’ of the lecture. I don’t think it would normally happen exactly this way at a liberal arts college, since small classes and the expectation of at least some discussion force us to engage with the students at least sometimes.

    But I will tell you that, for my part, I try to jump on the sotto voce comment immediately, even when it doesn’t seem offensive. I joke with them (“do have to separate you two?” “hey, a little attention at the front here!”) and the upshot is I don’t have much of anything like that happening in my class. If I ever encountered a situation like the one you describe, the students would be kicked out my class for good.

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