Monday, May 05, 2008

Driving Ms. Venkatesan 

Dartmouth's 'Hostile' Environment - WSJ.com
That said, even at – or especially at – putatively superior schools, students are spoiled for choice when it comes to professors who share ideologies like Ms. Venkatesan's. The main result is to make coursework pathetically easy. Like filling in a Mad Libs, just patch something together about "interrogating heteronormativity," or whatever, and wait for the returns to start rolling in.

I once wrote a term paper for a lit-crit course where I "deconstructed" the MTV program "Pimp My Ride." A typical passage: "Each episode is a text of inescapable complexity . . . Our received notions of what constitutes a ride are constantly subverted and undermined." It received an A.

Where the standards are always minimum, most kids simply float along with the academic drafts, avoid as much work as possible and accept the inflated grade. Why not? It's effortless, and there are better ways to spend time than thinking deeply about ecofeminism.

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.

Unfortunately, the writer is correct. The secret competitive advantage of these academic ideologies is that a little jargon goes a long way. I have written on this before:
It is possible that in practice, as suggested by this student, deconstruction has gone way beyond its original theory. Nonetheless, current practice is what bothers me, for several reasons:

1) It is a complex methodology for turning everything on its head, including logic and critical thought as well as...good and evil. As far as I can tell, deconstructionists believe they have found an excuse to commit a grand ad hominem fallacy: Western literature (and by extension science and culture) is evil,racist and false because Western civilisation has been Logocentric, Eurocentric and Phallocentric (biased towards Greek and French Enlightenment reason, absorbed in the Western perspective and hopelessly rooted in male dominance).

2) It glorifies the academics over scientists, writers and speakers, as only they are capable of deconstructing "canonical texts" (everything from the Bible to Newton's Laws) and thus "proving" their falseness due to the authors being....Logocentric, Eurocentric and Phallocentric

3) It is impossible to understand becuase its practitioners write in the most jargon-infested dense prose possible. Clarence Walton, who wrote a difficult but interesting book on Deconstruction's effects on academic, religious and political discourse, describes the problem as follows:

"Derrida always insisted that deconstruction, properly understood, was not a philosophy but a practiced activity of reading always tied to the text it interrogates. Deconstruction can therefore never be defined as an independent self-enclosed system of operative concepts. As a consequence, it is practically impossible to identify what might be called a "deconstruction creed." Consistency is a contradiction in terms; indeed, it may be suspected that Derrida wrote in an overly opaque style to frustrate other French philosophers who, like Gilson, sought clarity in thought and word."

UPDATE: a note from a friend at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center re. Ms. Venkatesan:
I suppose the mentally challenged are a protected group in which case she probably has a claim.

Pretty sure the docs weren't crazy about her.


By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon May 05, 12:49:00 PM:

Life imitates Harry Potter. I wonder how many courses there are out there the equivalent of “Divination”, complete with degrees, Masters programs, tenured professors, and a vast sea of innocent schlubs who can not even make change correctly for their job at the 7-Eleven. I can sympathize, having written a fair number of Divination essays expressing great and terrible angst, it gets much easier when you correctly begin to view them as works of fiction.  

By Blogger Patrick Wahl, at Mon May 05, 12:55:00 PM:

Someone wrote a program that generates nonsensical but jargon filled articles. One of these (not from the program below I don't think) was submitted to a journal and accepted. Here is the link.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 05, 01:52:00 PM:

Thanks to Charles Noland for supplying a valuable link.

“If you enjoy this, you might also enjoy reading about the Social Text Affair , where NYU Physics Professor Alan Sokal’s brilliant(ly meaningless) hoax article was accepted by a cultural criticism publication.”

In his own words
, Physics Professor Alan Sokal explained why he submitted a nonsense/hoax paper.

For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.
So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,'' in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to the ``Science Wars.''

Congratulations to the Dartmouth students for not accepting that BS. Shame on Northwestern for hiring that idiot. OTOH, such idiots populate college and university social sciences and humanities faculties these days.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon May 05, 02:00:00 PM:

This has been going on for a long time. Twenty-seven years ago I took a course at Princeton called "Radical Thought" from Professor Manfred Halpern. I was the only non-lefty in my precept, and possibly in the whole course. Why did I take it? Because my father told me that college was a good time to challenge my preconceptions rather than reinforce them.

Anyway, there were three papers for this course. For the first two papers, I criticized the various radical writings that we were assigned. My grade in the first was a C-. My grade for the second was a D. Now I was desperate, in that this was a departmental course. For the third paper -- about Jurgen Habermas -- I completely whored myself, spewing every ridiculous bit of lefty jargon I could think of. My grade: A, along with the the comment "This is the sort of fine work I knew you were capable of!"

What a joke.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon May 05, 03:22:00 PM:

It is good to know that both HP and TH can take at least one course in this tripe and still go on to lead successful lives :)  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon May 05, 04:10:00 PM:

This might also help to explain the prevalence of liberals in academia... conservatives who do not convert, or fake it convincingly, are failed.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Mon May 05, 05:07:00 PM:

TH - While in one sense I admire your willingness to follow your father's sound advice, you really walked into the lion's den -- in a departmental course -- and could have possibly put your law school applications in jeopardy! Also, you had to "whore" yourself and feel dirty all over.

PU in that era was hardly a hotbed of progressive politics. It certainly existed on campus among students and faculty, but it was hardly Berkley or even Columbia, and, among the Ivies, was perhaps the most centrist of all schools (admittedly a low bar).

If you had it to do over, wouldn't you go with a non-departmental and maybe take it pass fail, and preserve your integrity, thereby eliminating the need for a belated bloggy confessional?

I do remember walking into the first precept for the Politics 318 course in Spring 1980 (I was not a Politics major, but there were hard core Woody Woo majors in the precept), which was the course on Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc., and the TA/Grad student preceptor told me that she "did not believe society should be organized along the lines of a meritocracy." I just kind of nodded and thought to myself, "well, Princeton is a tough school to get into for a Politics grad student, maybe someone who wasn't as well qualified would like to have her slot." To her credit, she turned out to be very fair and did not expect papers to spout any particular critical viewpoint.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 05, 06:12:00 PM:

The worst part of this is that NU, my undergraduate alma mater, has hired her. Time to revisit my alumni giving plans.

On the other hand, I took "Gender Equality and Inequality" from Catherine MacKinnon in law school and got an A solely because I confessed my misogynistic past in my final paper. So who am I to complain?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 05, 08:09:00 PM:

One of the texts for my "The Developing Adolescent" course at SUNY New Paltz was the introduction to Zero Tolerance by Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.

Laughably, the passage concerned teaching youths non-violence.  

By Blogger Neil Sinhababu, at Tue May 06, 03:56:00 AM:

I'm proud to say on behalf of my discipline that philosophers mostly ignored this stuff. Like a lot of bad philosophy, bad history, and bad psychology, it ended up collecting not in Philosophy or History or Psychology, but in the English, Anthropology, and Comparative Literature departments.

I occasionally meet bright people from those departments who are trying to do genuinely interesting things, and who think that commitments to deconstructionism or Stanley Fish's reader-response theory or some sort of moral relativism is a necessary foundation for their work. I've had some success in convincing people that they can do their work better without any commitments of this kind, and I have long-term plans to do this on a larger scale.  

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