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.