29 May, 2008

Fuckwittery Knows No Bounds

I've been employing the Smack-o-Matic rather heavily on religious assclowns lately, with the occasional good whack at my favorite whipping-boys: politicians and the media. But let's not forget that stupidity is a human universal, and irrational assclowns abound in every endeavor and creed.

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, we have a shining example from the teaching profession. She's threatening to sue Dartmouth College and her students for creating a hostile work environment.

If you thought she was an IDiot forced out for her IDiotic views, you'd be wrong.

No, she wasn't sexually harassed, either.

Nope, not physically attacked.

Give up?

She's upset because her actual students used actual critical thinking skills to - oh, the horror! - disagree with her.

Absorb this a moment. Savor it. Appreciate the complex bouquet we are sampling here: an Ivy League professor, entrusted with the task of teaching young minds to engage ideas, understand, appreciate and critique ideas, is pitching a fit because her students had the temerity to actually understand, appreciate and critique ideas.

The Wall Street Journal snarks. Observe:

Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of "French narrative theory" that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will "name names."

The trauma was so intense that in March Ms. Venkatesan quit Dartmouth and decamped for Northwestern.

My goodness, that's some trauma. Those Freshman English students - they're vicious buggers. Especially when they actually pay attention in class. The nerve!

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."

Egads! The rogues! How dare they show any sign of thought process more complex than "vegetable!"

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."*

And her students weren't impressed by this impenetrable woo? Shocking!

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.

My powers of snark fail me. It's paddle time.

Why isn't this silly bitch working for the Discovery Institute or teaching Sunday school in some fundie church somewhere? I suppose it's because she's too "liberal" and would probably describe herself as "enlightened," but let's deconstruct this for a second here:

She presents intellectually vacuous arguments as rarefied, profound truths. She teaches that science is just a social construct. She pitches a fit when people disagree with her. She can't handle the least bit of skeptical thought or criticism, especially valid skeptical thought and criticism, because she has no valid response. Instead of being able to hold her intellectual ground, she has to resort to temper tantrums, lawsuits, accusations of harassment, and on top of all of this, plays the race card (read: persecution).

Tell me. How the fuck is this different from the right-wing fucktards who rely on the same damned bullshit arguments to bolster their indefensible positions? Is this really any different than the snivelling "Evilutionists are so mean!" cowardice we hear from IDiots? No? I didn't think so.

But - and wait for it - she doesn't stop there. Oh, hell, no. She's going all the way. She has to play a card worthy of Expelled:

After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so – actually, empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms. Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several of his classmates applauded.

Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior was "fascist demagoguery."

It's our old friend Godwin's Law! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Reductio ad Hitlerum can't be far behind! My darlings, I think we just found the star of the next Expelled travesty.

The fact that her students PWND her this thoroughly gives me hope for the next generation. Apparently, the Wall Street Journal columnist feels the same way:

The remarkable thing about the Venkatesan affair, to me, is that her students cared enough to argue. Normally they would express their boredom with the material by answering emails on their laptops or falling asleep. But here they staged a rebellion, a French Counter-Revolution against Professor Defarge. Maybe, despite the professor's best efforts, there's life in American colleges yet.

I think we should all make it a point of honor to encourage rebellion in the face of fuckwittery, no matter which side of the spectrum the fuckwit is on, no matter the cost.

Viva la revolución!

*Update: It appears this bit was quotemined in the grand tradition of DIsco. However, the basic fuckwittery of the good professor still stands, based on emails sent to her students and slightly more reputable sources than the WSJ and Dartmouth Review. Read the rest of the comments in Ed Brayton's post, should you wish to form your own conclusions.


Efrique said...

She's upset because her actual students used actual critical thinking skills to - oh, the horror! - disagree with her.


In the past I've taught the odd university subject now and then.

What I detest: Students who attempt to rote-learn and just parrot back what I say (it usually doesn't work).

What I adore: students that think about the material enough to provide a decent argument as to why they disagree with my reasoning.

I remember in on statistical graphics assignment a student took issue with some claims I had made. She said "this will probably cost me marks, but I couldn't agree with you, and here's why". As I explained, "Nope, that's how you get an A+; you've not only clearly demonstrated you understood what I was saying, you thought about it deeply enough to marshall a coherent argument against it. It was an excellent discussion. Whether I agree with you is beside the point. You have mastered the material!"

(I asked her to assist me the next year, and many times after that. Someone who will honestly disagree with me, even though they think it will cost them is a person I can trust to do the right thing, a person I can learn something from, someone I can bear to let loose on my students. Such a person is a gem beyond price.)

Anonymous said...

I have worked in elementary schools for 16 years and know for a fact that stupidity and authoritarianism in instruction is not confined to college campuses. I have watched many a teacher over the years. Some were so good that my jaw dropped in awe. Others made me shake my head at at the crap they were feeding the kids. still others were outright abusive. I remember one such instance not very long ago where a substitute teacher at my school bullied a young girl to tears. When the principal called her on it she went at him. She was asked to leave and this was before lunch. The principal took over the class for the rest of the day and was then buried in mountains of paperwork to convince the school board that she should never darken one of their school doorways again. I think we have to be especially careful with children and equip them with the critical thinking skills that they will need at an early age so that the crap that sometimes gets rammed down their throats won't taste so sweet.

Dana Hunter said...

So, a story my coworker told me today that'll have your blood boiling: a kindergarten teacher pulled a Survivor in class. She got all the students together, had them all say what they hated about Michael, and then they voted him out of the class.

That's bad enough, but this is worse: Michael is a child with Asperger's Syndrome.

Unfortunately, the principal in this case didn't take the same action as the principal Karen mentioned. That teacher is still teaching, but not for much longer if Michael's mom has anything to say about it.

Efrique, you are the kind of teacher we need millions of. Can we clone you, please? ;-)

There are teachers who should absolutely never be allowed near students.

Anonymous said...

You don't know how sad that makes me. One of the little angels in my charge has Asperger's. She can be difficult and downright miserable sometimes, but I wouldn't trade her for the world.

Anonymous said...

Your "Chat With God" cartoon was priceless!

Dana Hunter said...

If your sadness equals my outrage, then I have some idea how sad it makes you. I was ready to march down there and whip out the Smack-o-Matic.

Among the many sad things is the lesson those kids learned. Argh.

Dana Hunter said...

On a lighter note... if you think Efrique's "Chat with God" cartoon was great, I hope you've also seen his latest in the comments on New Math... Divest yourself of food and drink, first, or your computer shall hate you. ;-)

Efrique said...

Hi karen,

the school keeps telling us our son has Aspergers. We've had him assessed by a professional (a very sensible fellow to boot), who not only saw him in his rooms, he came to the school to observe him in class, and in the playground. He says "no way!" (he has a diagnosis alright, it's just not that).

He is different, for sure (me too!), but it's tricky to have to keep going back when there's a new teacher or principal and explain "no, he doesn't have Aspergers", "no it doesn't matter how sure you are that we're wrong, the professional diagnosis is not Aspergers, here, have another copy of the reports".

Anonymous said...

When did the school get a PHD in psychology?

Nicole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NP said...

This is a bit long...bear with me.
As I was reading this post and the comments, I found myself composing a response to it.

At first, I intended to defend the professor just a bit...maybe the students were disrespectful. Maybe she was bullied. After all, I remember how sardonic (and, yes, sarcastic) my friends and I could be, so perhaps they didn't intend to be bullies, but the professor interpreted things that way.

But the more I read, the more frustrated I got with the professor, particularly because she is (was) a teacher of English.

Literature is meant to be interpreted. The very definition of literary terms call for interpretation based on readers’ experiences, prejudices, and education. In high school, my English teacher/speech coach (brilliant woman…hated freshmen) repeatedly told us, “Readers come with baggage.” She didn’t mean we should set our baggage aside to read and interpret literature. After all, writers come with baggage, too! So we are meant to use what we have, what we know, and what we are to connect with the story, author, and other readers. And because we’re (gasp) individuals, it may be that interpretations overlap…or clash. And that’s okay!

When I had discussions with my students over literature this year and I asked them questions like, “What is the theme of this poem?” I always followed with “Show me” or “Where do you see that?” or “Why do you say that?” And I told them (almost every day, in fact) that if their answer was different from mine, but they could prove to me that they believed theirs was right and back it up with the piece, I’d give them credit. And there were times I did.

These are high school freshmen. Their critical thinking skills are…well, non-existent. And it is the charge of high school teachers to give them the skills they need to be able to think for themselves when they get to college.

And then, they get to college and encounter this teacher, who not only does not encourage free thinking (but secretly rolls her eyes at the students’ claims), but goes so far as to claim victim when her students challenge her ideas? Give me a break. How the frak did you get through college, woman? When I wrote my senior thesis as an undergraduate I had to defend it, so what did she do for her Master’s? Ph.D.?

“I wanted to defend my dissertation, Madame Dean, but the professors bullied me. If you don’t give me my degree, I’m going to sue you!”

Let’s set aside the fact that this professor went against everything education stands for in her claim of being harassed or…whatever. Let’s look at her simply as a human being teaching other human beings.

When I started teaching this year, one of the first pieces of advice my mentor gave me was “Don’t take it personally.” And really, it applied to everything. The students don’t really hate literature, they just don’t want to do anything. The parents aren’t mad at you, they’re mad at the situation. The student doesn’t really disrespect you, she’s just worried about her grade and what her parents will say.

And where does this fit into the aforementioned idiot professor of what she calls English?

As a teacher, she needs to be able to deal with students challenging her ideas, assignments, grades, hairstyle. They may do it because they feel as strongly against something as she does for it (as in this case), but sometimes teenagers and college students are just being bitchy and trying to find limits. And by giving into that bullying or whatever it was, she has proven to the students, the Dartmouth administration, and now the nation that she is unable to let things roll off her back for the sake of maintaining her position of authority and teaching the students what they need to know.

And even further, there comes a point when a teacher has to set aside his or her own claims in the classroom. Unlike readers, good teachers must not carry some baggage into the classrooms.

I offer a couple of examples.

The teacher I mentioned earlier (English, speech, hates freshmen) taught freshmen English.

In college, I took a women’s literature course with a professor I greatly admire. She is left-leaning (well, almost horizontal, really), and at the time I was a bitteen more conservative than I am now. She is against all things Bush, and is in favor of great separation of church and state. And made her political beliefs clear in her choices of reading material, but worked to prevent it from being a problem in a classroom at a small, liberal arts college. Well, during the course of this women’s literature class, each student had to do a presentation. (I forget the parameters.) In my presentation, I talked about faith-based initiatives in the government. I wasn’t necessarily speaking in favor of them, but being a journalist, I was able to slant it in such a way that it wasn’t totally balanced. As I was giving the presentation, I was watching the professor for any reaction. There was none. Her face was stony. I expected furiously scribbled comments on my grade sheet to the effect of “unbalanced analysis” or “not appropriate for this presentation,” etc. Instead, I got an A on the presentation, and she commended my research efforts. Thank you, Dr. --- for setting aside your baggage to make room for the ideas of someone else!

Now let’s get back to our “professor” formerly at Dartmouth, shall we?

If I were Northwestern’s dean, I sure as shit wouldn’t hire her, even if she were an alumna and the president of the Board of Trustees. Screw you. Grow a spine. Go teach obedience school at Petsmart.

Thank God those students had the courage and intelligence to stand up to her. I hope other students will follow suit in their own classrooms (at every level) and express their ideas cogently in order to show that America doesn’t totally suck butt when it comes to education.