TDR Interview: Priya Venkatesan ’90

Review correspondent Tyler Brace conducted the following two interviews with Prof. Priya Venkatesan after news broke here on Saturday afternoon that she was threatening to sue seven students from her Writing 5 classes. Prof. Venkatesan—now of Northwestern University—is currently still planning to sue the College. —A.S.

By Tyler Brace.


The Dartmouth Review
: My first question is—you are an alumna of Dartmouth—what was your experience at Dartmouth like? Was there any racism or bigotry? Was it a positive experience?

Prof. Priya Venkatesan: I had a great experience.

TDR: What made you decide to teach at Dartmouth?

PV: I wanted to be in the capacity to reproduce the positive undergraduate experience that I had.

TDR: You mentioned in one of the e-mails you sent out to your students that Dartmouth has a reputation for….

PV: I can’t be specific about that, but Dartmouth does have a reputation for conservative and sheltered. Dartmouth is very secluded, very sheltered.

TDR: Moving on to the issue at hand, could you comment on Tom Cormen [Chairman of Dartmouth’s Writing Program]?

PV: Sure, I am like, I really have a lot of work right now, I have two book manuscripts to work on, that doesn’t even include the manuscript about my life in higher education, I have two grants to work on, I have an article to work on, I have three articles to work on, I really have so much work to do and you would not even believe, I really have a lot of work to do. I am not the kind of person who wants to make a big fuss about petty or trivial things. So, I have a lot of things to do that I could be focusing my attention on in very productive ways.

TDR: I can understand that. If you like, I can just ask you a different question if you want.

PV: To your question, Tom Cormen was consistently rude to me and he was very unsupportive of my teaching in the Writing Program. I am perplexed as to why he would give me an offer to teach four sections in the Writing Program and then show absolutely no support, no professional support, and I wasn’t even looking for personal support, no professional support or guidance, and trying to do my best job to be a writing instructor. Now to give you the background, I taught writing in my graduate school at the University of California San Diego. I was what they call a teaching assistant. The students get graded by teaching-assistants in the research universities, not like Dartmouth where the professors grade the students. I was a teaching assistant at the University of San Diego, and I have three teaching evaluations. They were all spectacular. They were all spectacular. They were all positive. I could fax them to you. I don’t mind, I could honestly fax them to you, but no professional support or guidance from the beginning. But, I was confident in my ability to teach expository writing, so I went about it with very little support or direction from the department. That is, in itself, very unusual to have a writing program that does not have a structured orientation program for its new writing staff. Very, very extraordinary. Very out of the ordinary. Very unusual.

[The whole interview, after the jump.]

Usually if you go to schools that have established writing programs or institutes for writing they will give you a two to three day orientation that introduces you to teaching that gives you some pointers, some advice, some suggestions on how to be the most effective teaching instructor. These orientations are not meant to dictate your teaching philosophy or ethics. They are meant to orient you, to guide you in the teaching process to be an effective expository writing teacher. There was no orientation. That in itself is questionable. It is very questionable. It raises flags about the quality of the writing program. I did approach some administrator saying where’s the orientation. She gave me this blank, actually it was a phone conversation, so I can’t see a blank face, but it was like a blank expression over the phone, like I don’t know what you’re talking about. There was no orientation. So Tom, when the students started complaining about me to Tom, Tom did bring me to his office a couple of times and said, “Tell me how things are going.” But what is unusual about what Tom did as a professor, as a writing program director, is that he did not side with the colleague. That is also very, very strange. That is odd. In any professional academic setting it is not academic de rigueur to go against a colleague when students are bitching about them. I don’t know how else to put it.

TDR: Right, right.

PV: Tom did not side with me. He did not show any official support for me. When incidents happen, when suspect incidences were happening, he would essentially try to dictate my teaching philosophy. He used very strong language in telling me what I needed to do to meet the needs of the students. I think yeah, you need to meet the needs of the students. But sometimes students have a different agenda than just learning. Who knows, what the agenda of the students are. I can’t read their minds. That is very strange because when I talked to my colleagues in California, they came back to me and they said, “Why isn’t your boss supporting you?” And I said, “I don’t know.” That is really strange that the boss doesn’t support you, we’re colleagues.

Something more pedagogical is that I question the administrative judgment of Dartmouth for putting someone who is a professor of computer science in the capacity of directing a writing program. How? My first question to that is because I’m not a computer scientist and I don’t know what their training is. But I was taught about writing. I basically had years of experience teaching writing before coming to Dartmouth. Why is it that someone who is in computer science given the directive to promote the interests of writing at Dartmouth? My first response is what is someone who has a computer science background going to know about teaching writing? What are they going to know? They haven’t been trained in literature or composition rhetoric. They have no training in that. I’m not even going to give you the rumors that were circulating about Tom, that’s just gossip. I’m not going to get unprofessional. I’m just going to give you my personal assessment of Tom Cormen as my supervisor and as director of the Writing Program. I’m not going to go in to rumors.

TDR: Thanks for that. Why do you think a pretty significant amount of your students did complain about you? Why do you think that is?

PV: I think that sometimes when you have some students and some instructors they mix like oil and water. That could just be the explanation. It happens all the time, Tyler. Sometimes when a person goes into a corporation, they mix like oil and water. Sometimes when a person goes into a fellowship at a research institution like the one that I’m at now, the supervisor and the fellow mix like oil and water. It just happens a lot.

TDR: I can certainly understand that.

PV: I can’t speak for the students. I don’t know what their expectations were of me. When I was
a student at Dartmouth I tried my best to show respect for the professor and to meet his or her expectations. My job was not to bully the professor, that was not my job. That was not my role. My role was not to bully the professor. My role was not to convince the professor that they were stupid or didn’t know anything or to question their knowledge. I was never aggressive with any of my professors. Now that courtesy was not returned to me. My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful.

TDR: What kind of bullying did you experience in your classes?

PV: It came out in the D [the College’s newspaper, the Daily Dartmouth] about the applause, so I don’t want to go through that. But that was very disturbing, that was a very disturbing event, so that’s just one example. There was also one instance when I was demonstrating an example, I would do any method I could to try to—that was the problem. The students manipulated the situation so that they totally undermined the academic system. The whole academic system was undermined. The whole integrity of the course, the whole academic integrity of the course was undermined because it never became about the students meeting my expectations, it became about me meeting their expectations. They abrogated that right. They abrogated, they turned the tables around. Bullying, aggressive, and disrespectful.

It became no longer came about them meeting my expectations, and this through the process of totally undermining my professorial authority, questioning my knowledge in very inappropriate ways, so that it no longer became about the proper academic way about them meeting my expectations. No, it was about me meeting their expectations, because what were they going to do if I didn’t meet whatever expectation they had, whether it would be, I wasn’t white, whatever, I was different, I talked about ideas that were strange, I came off as very eccentric. I can’t make things up, I can’t read their mind. So they would use any type of vulnerability. They would use this and write these horrible evaluations that hardly reflected my efforts and quality of my teaching.

TDR: You mentioned how your students maybe expected someone who was white, in talking to them and reading their evaluations, you don’t really see anything referencing race. What do you have to say about that whole aspect?

PV: I think that’s a really good question and I kind of have to step back and say that I think, and this is really the only comment that I’m going to make, is that I think that discrimination is very hard to prove, and I think that my claim is going to be very hard to prove because I think that discrimination is very subtle. I think that right now because there are so many laws out there, slavery is outlawed, we have the Civil Rights Act, we have all these laws in place to protect minorities, to protect women, to protect the elderly, so we have these laws in place. No one made a comment about my ethnicity. That did not happen, and I have to say that it did not happen. So what is the basis of my claim? I think that the basis of my claim is that the behavior, like I said in which the tables were turned around, was partially motivated by race. I am going to be the first one to say that is going to be very difficult to prove in a court of law, but I think if I get my story out there and tell them this is my assessment of what happened, then I think that’s a social good.

TDR: So with regards to the racism allegation, would you say this is more of a general feeling than any specific event?

PV: There were a couple of events. There were a couple of events.

TDR: Could you elaborate for us?

PV: I think at one point when I was reading a paper during the writing workshop, there were two students, they were actually the more obnoxious students in the class, they were the impolite ones, who would have a little conversation about how geeky or how socially inept an Indian student was. You could tell that it was an Indian because the name they mentioned was South-Asian, and I know that, because I can recognize South Asian names. That was one example. In terms of any other specific incidences, it may be more difficult to prove. To say that that behavior, that type of disrespect is because I’m an East-Indian female is a little bit, maybe it’s a leap, but I don’t think it’s an irrational belief. I think it could be based on reality. I think when I detail these events that I just told you, about Tom Cormen’s attitude, about all these things, it’s the attorney who knows the law and that can make the assessment about whether I have a legal claim about discrimination. I can’t make that claim. All I can do is write down the events that took place in the most factual matter, and that’s what I’m in the process of doing right now.

TDR: Is the book definitely going to happen?

PV: Books always happen. They always happen. I’m [working] with a literary agent right now, I’m waiting to get more responses from them. Dartmouth is just going to be one chapter in the book. But I think like the things I’m telling you right now are going to be in the book. Tom Cormen as a writing director, his treatment of me. I talked with a reporter from the Dartmouth Independent. It was a two hour phone conversation, I’m serious, I went into really great detail about what every student did and about what Tom Cormen did that was unethical. Both the students and Cormen being unethical. Unethically behaving or disrespectful, or what the students exactly did. I’m kind of burnt out from talking about specifics. But what I can do, when that article comes out from the Dartmouth Independent, and you have questions about that, feel free to call me and I can address whatever questions you have about the incidences.

TDR: You mentioned how the students were bullying you, saying certain things, were there any incidences when you might have done that. Several students told me that once you came in the room and were calling them fascist demagogues. Do you deny that?

PV: Not true. I never name called any student in that class. I never name called any student in that class. What happened was that I went into class after that whole clapping incident, and I said. ‘What you did was horrific. What you did was really bad.’ Not bad, I didn’t accuse them of being bad, I said what you did was unacceptable. They started arguing with me. I said fine. You think you know everything. You think you know everything without the knowledge base to boot, without the training, you think you have a command of all the knowledge in the world at this stage in your life, then I’m sorry, that is fascism and that is demagoguery. When I made the two words fascism and demagoguery I looked at the picture on the wall. I made sure that I did not look at the students, and that I did not make any personal attacks on them.

The fact of the matter is that by being so arrogant about their command of knowledge about arguing with me about every point that I was making and that’s really arrogant. That’s very arrogant because frankly, and I’m not trying to be an academic elitist, but frankly, they don’t even have a B.A. They’re freshmen. They’re freshmen. The maturity that they had, and I think that’s what it is, I think it’s a lack of maturity, I don’t think it’s any character flaw, I j
ust think it’s a lack of maturity and when they grow up they’ll find that it’s really tough to succeed in the real world and I really will start respecting my professor.

TDR: In one of the many course reviews of your classes, and through talking to some of your students, I’ve heard them say you’re not open to other opinions. For example, you banned questions in class. I was told you said something about them not having their Ph.D., B.A., Master’s, etc.

PV: This is a total misrepresentation. I don’t know what is motivating their behavior. I am not out to get them. I gave them mostly very good grades. I don’t know what the issue is to why this absolute, demonification of me, I don’t understand that. Rarely have I encountered this. The sense that I’m being demonized by a community that I had nothing against and with good intentions of joining, anyway that’s an aside, what I did was for the majority of my two sections between fall and winter before this incident, I permitted questions during lecture. But I noticed that many students were dissatisfied with that because some of them really did want to learn from me and hear my lecture out but that these questions were derailing the lecture, so I basically said to the students after this incident that I was not going to permit questions during lecture but right after lecture we would have a discussion section or if we have a class that is more discussion oriented then you’re permitted to ask questions.

One of my colleagues from San Diego told me, and I’m not sure I agree with it, but she told me, and please don’t quote me with saying that I agree with this, don’t take it out of context, but she said the classroom is not a democracy and the way she runs her classroom is with an iron fist. I’m not like that. I’m not the iron fist, but I think my genuine attempt to teach them—I think they tried to take advantage of some of my ability not to be this iron fist. I think a lot of professors are like, I’m the boss of the classroom and you listen to me, and that’s probably the norm. I’m a little more lenient, I’m a little more liberal, and I think this was kind of taken advantage of. I think also that many times when I was lecturing, many of the students would take over the class.

While they took over the class, the students that were questioning me would not question the student, but they would consistently question me. In other words, in that setting, the student had more authority than me. Usually the student that questioned me was a white male. When this white male spoke he was given more authority of knowledge, more respect than I was given. I think that was an example of racism. So this kind of thing was going on. It made me feel very uncomfortable. But I did not ban questions I just said leave them for the lecture, because what was happening was that people were asking questions that would just derail the lecture, and a lot of people did not like that, so I said questions after lecture. This demonification, this criminalization of very rational behavior, is very disturbing that it takes place. I don’t know if it’s just endemic to Dartmouth. Dartmouth is the only place I experienced it.

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. That class actually had a lot of potential, there were some really bright kids there, but every time she would do a number of things that were very inappropriate. For instance, I had basically gotten a hold of Blackboard technology, but I was making some mistakes too because I was new to the system, and every time that some link was wrong or some link wasn’t set up right, [girl x] in the beginning of class would point this out to everybody. Then what happened was, I was lecturing on morals and ethics and she just gave me this horrible look, and I was pretty disturbed. I just said what is going on here? The problem with [girl x] is that she can’t take criticism. She can’t take the fact that there is something wrong with her work. Now, some people are like that, a lot of people are like that, unable to take criticism, but the fact of the matter is that I have the PhD in literature, I make the assessment if someone has talent for philosophy, literary theory, and literary criticism. A student might say, well, the hell with you I’m still going to become a literary critic, I had to do that, there were people who criticized me while I was a student, you’re not a good writer or whatever, but I said well I’m still going to go ahead with my goals, but I never made any personal attacks on them or made life difficult for them or was rude to them. I just did the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism, and [girl x] is the kind of student who does not know the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism. She thinks the way to go about doing it is to go to my superior or to try to undermine my ability to teach the class. One of the things that she did, this is also really interesting, was that she would always ask me how to spell things. That was her thing. She would say how to do you spell this? How to you spell that? I mean—what am I supposed to do?—so I would tell her. One time Tom Cormen was sitting in the class, and she asked me, how many T’s are in Gattaca. This was the kind of question she was asking, “how many T’s are in Gattaca?,” and I was about to answer her and Tom Cormen pre-empted me, “two t’s.” I’ll leave you to interpret it.

TDR: No. No, I don’t understand that.

PV: I have to tell you: it means tenure track.

TDR: Oh, okay.

PV: Because I wasn’t tenured track.

TDR: Oh, okay, yes.

PV: They were trying to intimate that I wasn’t ready for tenure track.

TDR: Yes, okay, I didn’t realize that’s what that meant.

PV: I’m kind of making this leap because this is the kind of subversiveness that was going on in that environment. That [girl x] would ask how many t’s are in Gattaca and that Tom Cormen would respond, “two T’s” as if I had no grasp on tenure track. ..but with [girl x], something’s going on with her. I’m not a doctor, but she’s not all there.

[Editor’s Note: At this point, Mr. Brace ran out of tape. What follows is from a second interview conducted the next day.]

Venkatesan: I’ve decided not to pursue any litigation with regard to my grievances at this point, and I have also decided that if sources outside of Dartmouth approach me, that I will respond by saying that this is, you know, what I’ve said, and not prefer to comment on this matter. I know that right now that I don’t want my family to suffer, and I don’t want people to work with in this community to be affected by what I’m doing, so it is as much in my interest as it is theirs to withdraw pursuing a legal avenue. You know, this is not to absolve Dartmouth of any wrongdoing, but to show that, um, you know, it’s tough to address these kind of issues against a really large institution, being just one person myself. So, I’ve kind of come to that conclusion, that this is what I should be doing.
I know that it may seem that I’m kind of like copping out, but I think it’s in my best interests at this point. I think—I’m really very touched that people have shown interest in my issue and in my matter. But you know, I just don’t know if going legal is going to be the way to go.

TDR: So, are you still going to be pursuing the book?

PV: Definitely. Probably the way to go—you know, I think, I just don’t feel like the courts are the way to address this issue. I feel like by getting my narrative out there about my experiences, and then leaving the interpretation open to the reading public, that would be great. If people are interested in my story, you know, then I would be more than delighted to share it with them. But right now, the legal road is probably causing more harm than good.

TDR: I have a few questions about your educational background and how it relates to the courses you teach, and some other specific questions. Yesterday in a lot of the interviews you granted, you referred to “the clapping incident”, and I was just wondering if you could explain to me what exactly that was.

PV: Sure. It’s basically we were talking about The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant. I believe I talked about how the scientific revolution—what effect it had on women of the period. In the context I brought up the witch trials of the Renaissance, and I was trying to make to make the claim—it was kind of a paraphrasing of Merchant’s argument, it’s not necessarily mine—that—I really want to get this right, so give me a second—what exactly did I say? I made the argument that—I’m trying to put this in context now—I made the argument that in many cases science and technology did not benefit women, and if women were benefiting science and technology, it was an aftereffect. It was not the goal of science and technology. It was a very feminist claim, and you may not agree with it. But that was Merchant’s argument; it wasn’t my argument, and I’m not a feminist scholar, so I was really making an argument that wasn’t mine and paraphrasing.

But there was one student who really took issue with this—and he took issue with this, and he made a very—I’d call it a diatribe, and it was sort of like, well—science and technology, women really did benefit from it, and to criticize patriarchal authority on the basis that science and technology benefited patriarchy or men, was not sufficient grounds for this type of feminist claim. And he did this with great rhetorical flourish; it was very invective, it was a very invective sort of tone. And I think what happened afterwards was that some people—I can’t name them, and I don’t know how many there were, but it was a significant number—started clapping for his statements. It was a very humiliating moment to my life; it was extremely humiliating, that my students would clap against me, when all I was trying to do was talk to them about arguments and argumentation, in the light of what I had been trained with. In other words, it’s kind of interesting that when you are trained in graduate school, it’s sort of like, you know, you’re trained in this kind of—I don’t want to say it’s political—you must be aware that most college campuses are very liberal, right?

TDR: Oh yes, certainly.

PV: Yeah, and the training which you receive, it’s very much slanted toward a particular political point of view. And it’s almost unstated—I’m not saying that this is good or bad, I’m just saying that this is the case—but certainly political framework is absorbed into academic material, and you must be aware of that by reading, you know, arguments by academics. You know, they talk about things such as Marxism—that’s just the intellectual way of thinking about it. But maybe to the general public, these are issues that are not considered objects of general discussion. You know what I mean?

In other words, talk about, you know, in French theory—we talk about Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan was a very radical psychoanalyst, but he’s considered almost like a god, Jean-François Lyotard… Bruno Latour—highly regarded in the field of science and technology studies. But these students aren’t aware of the framework in which I was training. They’re not; they’re just coming into college. So right there, there’s a discrepancy between what I know and how I was trained and their worldview. Do you see what I’m saying?

TDR: Yes.

PV: So there was immediate friction, because basically the concepts that I was trying to bring to them were concepts I was not inventing on my own. They were concepts that were part of the field, and I was trying to bring it to the table. It offended their sensibilities, because the whole course of “Science, Technology, and Society” was about problematizing science and technology, and explaining the argument that science is not just a quest for truth, which is how we think about science normally, but being influenced by social and political values. Now I’m not telling you this to convince you of this. I’m just saying that this is the framework with which I approached the course—that I wanted to bring this view that science and technology; there’s an ethics behind it. This type of argumentation—the reason I did that in the context of expository writing, I thought “by reading arguments, they will learn how to form arguments, think better, and write better.” That was my goal, because when you think better, you write better. All this offended their sensibilities, and there’s ways of responding of arguments that offend your sensibilities. The way not to do it is to be abrasive, rude, and engaged in this type of rhetoric. And that is why I had a lot of difficulties in dealing with the students in the class. What effectively happened was that my voice was taken away, and it was taken over by a lot of students. And I know that one of the students complained to the dean that he stopped paying attention in class. And I said “Well, of course they stopped paying attention, because the class had been taken over by a bunch of students who were just discussing it by themselves on their own, and it became very boring, because they didn’t have the argumentation permitted to them. They were just discussing without any framework, so that’s why the class was somewhat degraded by the end, and people complained because of that, but I felt pretty much restrained—constrained. I couldn’t negotiate the class because it had gotten to this level, that my voice and my authority were effectively eliminated from that class.

I’m not trying to dramatize it; I’m just trying to tell you how I felt about it. And that’s, that’s my point of view. That’s my sense of what took place. It wasn’t in any way what I was trying to take away from the rigor of the class; in fact, the opposite of that. I really wanted to enforce the rigor, whereas I was met with a lot of resistance.

TDR: I’ve spoken to some of the people involved in this specific incident. Is it true that after the whole applause incident, you said that it was a good discussion and you were pleased with the way things turned out?

PV: That’s not true.

TDR: That’s just what I had heard, so you deny that?

PV: Yeah, I deny it, I completely deny it. I was certainly not in the frame of mind to say something that would take that much decorum, actually, to take that much graciousness.

TDR: Okay. Tell me if I’m wrong, but after the incident, you didn’t attend class for the next week. Why was that?

PV: I was on doctor’s orders.

TDR: What did the doctor say?

PV: I went to the doctor because over the weekend I had basically been—I don’t know how to put it—I had basically been crying to my husband, and he said “Why don’t you go to the doctor, see what she can do for you. Maybe this is something you could talk to the doctor about, get some advice.” So I did, and what she recommended was not to attend class for—she recommended not to go back for a full week, and I said no, I wanted to go back on Friday. I was going to have class on Friday, but it was Winter Carnival weekend, and the doctor’s orders were: “You’ve just been through a lot in the past few months, you know, so much that you should really take kind of a break. You should take a break from the whole situation for awhile, step back,” do you know what I mean? That really helped, but when I came back—I probably needed a two-week break, I don’t know, I’m not a doctor—but I said I’m going to try to go back on Thursday or Friday. I scheduled class on Friday, and I got a lot of complaints that said “This is Winter Carnival weekend, you can’t hold class on Friday.” And I said “Okay, I’ll schedule class on Monday.” And this is how the thing went, back and forth, it was like any time I was trying to enforce any kind of goodwill or good-naturedness or anything like that with the students, they were just so like, um, demanding, they just demanded more. You could do nothing to please them.

If you praised them, they’d intimate “You don’t have the authority to praise us.” If you criticized them, they’d say “You don’t have the authority to criticize.” So what do you do? You try to teach them, they’d argue with your ideas, and they’d be very rude and hostile. It was a no-win situation for me. There was nothing I could do to meet the demands of the students. As I was saying earlier, that’s not the classroom setting. The classroom setting is where students meet the expectations of the professor.

TDR: So you say that students should meet the expectations of the professor, but the professor shouldn’t meet the expectations of the student?

PV: Well, I think it’s a dialectic; I think that’s what they call a dialectic. It’s a two-way street, right? It shouldn’t be a one-way street, and I agree with you. I think that the professor should be attuned to the students’ needs. I think that’s probably a good way of putting it, and the students are there to meet the expectations of the professor and to respect the professor. But to be playing constant devil’s advocate all the time and be difficult in that way was so degrading.

TDR: Couldn’t it be said that an important part of the educational process is this kind of back-and-forth questioning of ideas, and many would argue that that’s very important, and that professors’ ideas should be questioned. What do you think?

PV: Yeah, I think professors are not immune from being questioned. I’m not saying that these scholars I’ve studied should not be questioned, but the comments I was getting on my papers were like “Oh, this thinker is like, the worst writer in the whole wide world,” or “This thinker thinks they know everything,” and I would be getting irrational things from them. These weren’t thoughtful statements; they were irrational.

TDR: Some questions about the course in general: one thing that’s come up is this frequent discussion of postmodernism, which a lot of the students I’ve talked to still can’t really define. Can you tell me what postmodernism is?

PV: Postmodernism has different definitions, but I’m going to give you the definition according to the guy that invented the term—and he’s Jean-François Lyotard. He wrote a book called The Postmodern Condition, which was published in 1984 in America. The book basically outlines what is called the state of knowledge in post-industrial societies, that because of the influx of computer knowledge, information society, that we are going to have a change in what is known as expert knowledge versus lay knowledge. And I’m sure this will resonate with you because when you go to the computer, you access the Internet and you can get all this information.

Prior to the computer industry or information technology, this was not possible. There was a strict division between expert knowledge and lay knowledge. Expert knowledge of course would be defined as science; science was, according to positivism, the way by which we arrive at knowledge, a truth by the scientific method. Postmodernism was a challenge to that. It challenged the fact that science was the only way of arriving at truth. It was saying that we would have a leveling of the playing field in knowledge. The second thing that it’s about is art, which in the period of modernism and literature—when you go back to [Emile] Zola or the modernist authors—for them, for them art was about the misting of reality. And art should follow the scientific method—that literature and art should follow the tenets of science. According to Lyotard, in the postmodern society, art and literature were going to be in something of a dichotomous relationship with science. In other words, art and literature were going to be now put on the same level as science.

There’s another element to postmodernism prior to the information society in philosophy. The philosophy was about going after knowledge for knowledge’s sake, so you had people just talking about philology, biology, economics, just for the sake of knowledge. But for Lyotard, knowledge would be about efficiency; it would be about doing things better. Knowledge would be not for the sake of knowledge, but for the sake of productivity and technical efficiency. So that’s what postmodernism is about; it has nothing to do with the overthrowing of capitalism. It has nothing to do with it; in fact, postmodernism appropriated many of the tenets of capitalism in what it was talking about. It was not considered a liberal or leftist way of looking at life, although many postmodernists have been thought of as being left-wing or liberal. It was not in any way like that—I just wanted to quality that.

TDR: One of the complaints from many of the students is that the course featured a lot of postmodernist and feminist sort of thinking that was not necessarily described in the course description, and they were a little surprised by what they actually found when they got to the course. Do you think that the way you presented the course initially matched up with those more abstract theories that you covered in the class?

PV: Yes. Possibly what I could have done… I don’t remember the course description, to be honest; but the course description was approved by Tom Cormen. And Tom Cormen knew the reading materials; he interviewed me, so he knew what my teaching philosophy was like. He never discussed the course with me, I have to admit, but Tom Cormen approved that course description, okay? So if there was any illegitimacy about it, he should have approached me about that; I don’t really remember the course description, so I can’t really comment on that, but I don’t remember if I put those readings on there. So basically the complaint is that it was too heavy on—what were the complaints about exactly?

TDR: What I’ve heard is that students went
into the course expecting something very different from what they got, with its emphasis on feminism and postmodernism and less standard theories than you’d find in an introductory class made them wonder what they had really signed up for.

PV: Yeah, I mean… [long pause] I don’t know how to answer that because I wrote that a specific portion of the course was on the debates—they really enjoyed the debates about global warming, stem cell research, and the Human Genome Project—so I know that I spent a significant portion on the debates. What I don’t understand is that there were many students who were very very satisfied with the course. I mean, there were students in the fall term, not winter term—winter term just got into a disaster—but fall term I remember there were a lot of students who came into my class with their final projects, and they would shake my hand and say “Thank you for the course.” They were very polite; I don’t know why they’re not coming forward and saying “She was a pretty good instructor.” I don’t know why. The only other thing I want to add is that there were some complaints I wasn’t respecting people’s opinions on specific arguments if they didn’t agree with mine. I remember many times saying to the student, “I think it’s a brilliant statement. I don’t agree with it, but it’s a brilliant statement.” I know I said that many times.

TDR: One thing I heard today from several students was that during one class when you got frustrated that you said something along the lines of that the students weren’t fit to be Ivy League students.

PV: No, I never said that. On what grounds would I say something like that? I’m not on the Admissions Committee, all right? I can’t say that.

TDR: So you deny that?

PV: Yeah, of course! I never said that.

TDR: Okay, another question. You have two Ph.Ds, is that correct? Or a Master’s and a Ph.D? What are they both in, just to remind me?

PV: I have a Master’s in genetics and a Ph.D in literature.

TDR: Okay, and so how do you think your degree in literature relates to a course in science and technology?

PV: Well, my doctoral studies focused on science and literary theory. I’m going to refer you to my book, which is called Molecular Biology in Narrative Form. And I think I have a chapter there on historical and sociology frameworks. I can show you some of my publications; they’re with me here. I have close to—I had a paper in Exit 9 called “The Dialogue on the Scientific Method.” I have an article coming in Social Semiotics on the entry of postmodernism into laboratory science. I have an article in another edited collection called Discovery in Molecular Biology and Continental Philosophy. Right now I’m working on my second manuscript, which is called Narrative Theory in Science Studies: Bridging the Two Cultures. So my publications attest to my knowledge of science and technology studies. Most of the conferences I’ve been to have been on science studies. Some of them have been on literature studies, but most of them have been on science studies.

TDR: Could you ever see yourself working in the Dartmouth—undergraduate—College Community again?

PV: Right now, I anticipate no. I don’t know how things may change, but right now, I don’t anticipate coming back to the East Coast. I think it’s just a different culture, and my goal is to go back to California, because I really like California. I don’t know.

TDR: You’re at Northwestern right now, right?

PV: I am at Northwestern, and I’m really enjoying it now, but word has gone out at Northwestern about my suit, so I don’t know if I should tell you… I don’t know what’s going to happen here, but hopefully, I won’t have too much of a fallout. I don’t want my career to suffer here, you know. People here have heard about my suit, so I kind of want to like, you know, withdraw at this point [as of press time, she has told TDR that she is now pursuing legal action], because I thought I could do it on a very private scale, but I can’t, unfortunately. Unfortunately that’s going to work in Dartmouth’s interests rather than mine in terms of addressing my grievances, so whether my grievances will be addressed, I don’t know, but at least I can write a book about it. I’m already starting to write a book, so, yeah, that’s all I can do.

TDR: Have you had any discussions with Dartmouth about addressing your grievances?

PV: Yeah, I talked about it with one of the deans. He recommended seeing a general counsel. I am trying to go to the Dartmouth presses to see if my grievances can be addressed, but actually, you know what? I think I’m just persona non grata there because of what happened… I know I was going to alienate people, but when this level of distress is caused for an individual, I just think that there should be more responsibility out there about what goes on in terms of academic discussion. And I think one of the problems is that you know, someone like me… my academic interests aren’t disciplinary, and they’re not mainstream. So when you ask “What is postmodernism?” People don’t really understand a lot of the things I’m working on, and when people don’t understand things, they kind of get into attack mode. Rather than try to understand it, they prefer to attack than try to understand it. That’s not just about Dartmouth, but I think that’s about many, many, many places and situations. So I have may have been facing that. And I also wanted to add about Professor Cormen and Dr. Lowery, who in my opinion are men of science. They think that their knowledge is the only knowledge worth having. They think their work is the only work that should be done; that’s just the impression that I got from them. When someone comes and tries to problematize something that they’re doing, which is science and technology—this is something I was facing with the students—they get very combative and hostile and resistant. So I think that—and this is how I’m going to conclude this interview—that what I was facing with the students was really similar to what I was facing with Cormen and Lowery, with attitudes about their work, there was no room for questioning it.

And I think it’s very anti-intellectual; that’s one of the things I mentioned in the article, that that’s a very anti-intellectual thing to do.

TDR: And just one more question—and now that you’re withdrawing your suit [she is now pursuing legal action], would you like to take this time to apologize to the set of students that you named?

PV: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. This is not to absolve them of the wrongdoing that they did—they did a real number on me. They did a real number on me. I can talk at length about postmodernism and stuff, but they should treat me as a human being; if they can’t realize that at this stage in their life, then that’s really disturbing. I’m not apologizing to any member of the Dartmouth community; I still have the same grievances. I am showing the same indifference to the
Dartmouth community as they showed to me. It’s like, what comes around goes around. And it’s not vindictive, but that’s rather just the way it is. You show indifference, then that indifference gets returned. And this is because I don’t want my family to suffer. I don’t want my family to get dragged into this, and I don’t want any other place that I go to get dragged into this. There are different institutions, and hopefully, wherever I’m at, it will be a really healthy place for me, but I want this to kind of blow over at this point. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest.

I think it’s really nice of you to do this, because I feel that it’s getting my story out there, and that’s the most I can ask for, and I really thank you for doing that and not taking me out of context. That’s great. Thanks.