April is the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot wrote — and this year it has bred twin scandals out of the dead land of American academia. First there was the sanguinary spectacle of Yale senior and aspiring menses genius Aliza Shvarts’s culminating art project, which consisted of “video recordings of [her] forced miscarriages as well as prepared collections of the blood from the process.” It was a valuable look at what passes for art instruction in even the best American universities — as Michael J. Lewis pointed out in the Wall Street Journal — and a reminder that there are cheaper ways to earn your beret. The affair calls to mind a few lines of another poet:
Round him much embryo, much abortion lay,
Much future ode, and abdicated play;
Nonsense precipitate, like running lead,
That slipp’d through cracks and zig-zags of the head
Embryo and abortion, even of the make-believe variety, have been a public relations disaster for Yale, but at least the outcry has focused on the student herself, sparing the faculty members who approved her possibly dangerous but certainly asinine project. No such luck for Dartmouth College in the case of Priya Venkatesan, a former English professor who is now attempting to sue her students for hurting her feelings. Well, I shouldn’t put it so crudely. True to her profession, Ms. Venkatesan never uses three words where thirty or forty will do: “I think that I have a good case because there were just so many instances — it was almost an incessant barrage — of hostility, nastiness, and anti-intellectualism that I may just in fact have a case, but I’m not a lawyer.”
That’s a relief, because if hostility and nastiness are against the law, I’m headed for ADX Florence any day now. Of course, the important issue isn’t that Ms. Venkatesan isn’t a lawyer but that she doesn’t sound like an English teacher in any but the technical sense.
To provide some background, Dartmouth has a history of putting questionable professors in charge of English 5, an introductory course that freshmen may bypass by performing well in AP English or on the verbal section of the SAT. I don’t believe that anyone paying an Ivy League tuition, no matter how poor his or her facility with English, deserves to suffer through a class about why Band-Aids are racist and eating lobsters is an unforgivable sin. I’m not a lawyer, but I think I can cite precedent to illustrate why students tend to have low expectations of this course.
So what was Ms. Venkatesan teaching to invite her mistreatment? Chaucer? Shakespeare? Things Fall Apart? The answer may surprise you:
Venkatesan said the incident occurred when she was lecturing about The Death of Nature, a book by Carolyne Merchant, and the witch trials of the Renaissance. The student went on a “diatribe” about the inappropriate nature of challenging patriarchal authority, Venkatesan said. Vakatesan respected the student’s right to express this opinion, she said, but the manner in which he vocalized his views and the applause afterward were disrespectful and offensive.
“I was horrified,” Venkatesan said. “My responsibility is not to stifle them, but when they clapped at his comment, I thought that crossed the line. … I was facing intolerance of ideas and intolerance of freedom of expression.”
Venkatesan contacted [Thomas Cormen, chair of Dartmouth’s writing program] about the event, she said, but claims she received no support from him. She canceled class because the incident caused her “intellectual and emotional distress,” she said. This event, which occurred on Feb. 1, would likely be included in a list of grievances relating to a potential lawsuit, she said.
What’s more plausible: That a mysterious straw man led the class in canticles to “patriarchal authority,” or that a bunch of bored and frustrated students, fed up with Ms. Venkatesan’s ultra-specialized and irrelevant preoccupations, smelled blood (a redder shade of Yale!) and went in for the kill? One student put it in mercifully jargon-free terms: “We didn’t like her because she was not a good teacher. … It had nothing to do with her race or anything like that.”
It gets better. Ms. Venkatesan has plans to write a tell-all book about the horror at the College on the Hill, a scathing indictment of everyone from eye-rolling eighteen-year-olds to eye-rolling medical students:
Venkatesan also said she was exposed to a “barrage of offensive behavior” while working as a researcher in the medical school. Venkatesan, whose specialty is the intersection of science and literature, said many of her academic interpretations of science in the context of literary theory during laboratory meetings were received in a “hostile,” “demeaning,” and “anti-intellectual” manner by her colleagues.
My heart goes out to everyone at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — they did such a fine job of removing my appendix — who was forced to listen to Ms. Venkatesan’s “theories” on the “intersection of science and literature.” (The intersection of scalpels and organs just seems so much more consequential.) But most of all I feel sorry for the undergrads, whose supposedly “elite” school can’t be relied on to screen out juvenile, self-pitying buffoons like Priya Venkatesan. Check out Joe Malchow’s Dartblog for a look at the churlish and sinister emails she sent to her students — kids barely out of high school, whose only crime was the expectation that they’d get what they paid for.
They have been informed — regretfully, Ms. Venkatesan promises — that she is “pursuing litigation to see if [she has] a legal claim, that is, if the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior [she] was subjected to … constitutes discrimination and harassment [sic] on the basis of ethnicity, race, and gender.” The students are safe, in any case, because, as Mr. Malchow notes on his blog, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act only applies to employers, and students do not “employ” their professors.
But we are left with this to ponder: An old, venerable institution hired a woman so devoid of talent, humor, and scruple that she would hire a lawyer just to see if she could nail her ungrateful students. To improve on an old joke, she’s just like a Marxist utopia — no class.
Stefan Beck is a writer living in Palo Alto, California. Mr. Beck has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He also blogs for The New Criterion’s Armavirumque, and Jewcy’s Cabal.