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A hostile environment — for learning how to write well

The recent focus on the AoA lawsuit against Dartmouth (which has been dismissed at the request of the AoA) caused me to neglect reporting on a piece of threatened litigation against the college pertaining to a different, though perhaps not entirely unrelated, matter. A few months ago a former Dartmouth writing instructor, Priya Venkatesan, informed some of her former students that she was planning to sue them, along with Dartmouth.

Dartmouth inflicted Venkatesan on an unlucky set of Writing 5 students (most Dartmouth freshmen are required to take one of the seminars that comprise Writing 5 in order to improve their expository writing). Venkatesan in turn inflicted her post-modern views of science on the students. As Joseph Rago of the Wall Street Journal reports, she taught them that “scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth,” inasmuch as “scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.” Her goal, then, was to “problematize” technology and the life sciences. As if we don’t have enough problems.

Showing clear signs of life, some of Venkatesan’s students reacted by taking issue with her theses during class. Venkatesan deemed this pushback “very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful.” She responded by accusing the students of “fascist demagoguery,” consulting a physician about “intellectual distress,” and canceling classes for a week. Later, as noted, she threatened to sue some of her students for creating a “hostile work environment,” and to sue Dartmouth itself for countenancing the “harassment.” To her credit, however, Venkatesan has apparently reconsidered her decision to sue.

Venkatesan has moved on to Northwestern. She leaves behind some questions, especially this one: how could Dartmouth have hired her? Dartmouth’s answer likely would be that employers make bad hiring decisions from time to time. A good case can be made, however, that this bad hiring decisions was the product to some extent of weaknesses in Dartmouth’s approach to the teaching of writing (whether similar weaknesses extend to other courses at Dartmouth is the subject for another day).

There were three problems with hiring Venkatesan to teach expository writing. First, learning how to write well is difficult enough without the distraction of a wacky ideology — i.e., that scientific knowledge is, in essence, a fraud perpetrated by the white male hierarchy — or indeed any ideology. Second, Venkatesan does not appear to be a good writer. Third, given her over-the-top reaction to disagreement by her students, she does not appear to be very stable.

Dartmouth certainly can be excused for not having anticipated the third of these defects. But unless the missives collected here are an aberration, the college probably should have been able to discern that Venkatesan’s writing falls short of what is expected of a college writing instructor. And Venkatesan has made no secret of her bizarre post-modern views.

Unfortunately, these views might have made Venkatsesan more, not less, appealing to Dartmouth. For I’m told that Venkatesan’s seminar was hardly the only one in the Writing 5 program with a left-wing ideological bent. I’d like to be able to demonstrate this by sharing the subject matter of past and current seminars with our readers, but this does not seem to be possible because Dartmouth apparently elects not to provide descriptions on its website (or maybe my computer search skills are inadequate; I’ll accept help here). One student reports having combed through the Writing 5 offerings several terms ago in the hope of finding an indoctrination-free seminar. According to this student, he thought he had finally succeeded, but once he took the course found himself locking horns with his instructor over politics and making very little progress with his writing.

Nor is this an isolated case. Although my daughter did not take Writing 5, the reports of the students I’ve spoken to about the course range from lukewarm to strongly negative. In fact, several expressed to me how fortunate my daughter was not to be saddled with it.

In theory, writing about contentious matters may seem like a good way to improve one’s expository writing skills. And given an able, fair-minded professor, this theory can be transformed into practice. For example, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong’s Philosophy 3 course (Reason and Argument) teaches, in essence, argumentation. Students must write a final paper on a controversial subject, such as race-based preferences for minority group members. Sinnot-Armstrong, moreover, is an unabashed liberal. Yet based on what I’ve heard, the course is an excellent one in which conservatives freely write what they think about these highly-charged subjects and pay no price for doing. That’s because Sinnot-Armstrong apparently brings no agenda to the classroom other than teaching the methodology of argument.

But it seems the same cannot be said consistently about the instructors of Writing 5 (who are not professors). In a course whose subject matter is avowedly ideological (which is not really the case with Philosophy 3), the temptation to exalt the ideology over the writing is inherently difficult to resist. It may even be the case (though I don’t know for sure) that some post-modern ideologues view the two things — ideology and writing — as inextricably linked. In any case, the prospect for mischief is great; the prospect for improving one’s writing is not. And so it too frequently plays out.

The college appears finally to have recognized that its writing program is flawed. Unfortunately, as I’ll discuss in a follow-up post, Dean Folt’s plan to redress this problem is, to put it kindly, counter-intuitive.

UPDATE: Priya Venkatesan came to Dartmouth from the University of California at San Diego where she was a teaching assistant. UC San Diego is the home of a notorious mandatory freshman program called Dimensions of Culture, which lasts a full year. As I described here, this program is, apart from the underlying “hate whitey” indoctrination, largely incomprehensibe to students. As one student put it:

I had no idea what was going on in that class. And even the TA said she had no idea what it was about. . . .Everyone hated the class, and they know it, and even at the end of the year they gave out these pins that said, “I survived DOC.” And the lecturers [asked] “Aren’t you so glad it’s done?”

Given the scope of DOC at UC San Diego, it must be a magnet for TAs. However, I don’t know whether Venkatesan taught in the program. If she did, this would tend to make her hiring less excusable, and to reinforce the view that her odd post-modern leftist views made her more, not less, appealing to Dartmouth.

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