Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Unclear on the Concept

Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Euclid. "There were giants in the Earth" in those days. Intellectual giants, anyway. Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies are those which we all can identify with, from common experience. They are the product of some very keen minds trying to find reasons for things, making observations, then coming up with ideas to explain why things as they are, and trying to determine what should be. The Socratic teaching method is one I use a lot, asking guided questions to let the student reason out the answer for themselves. And when I did my undergrad Thesis on Non-Euclidian Geometry, I was humbled by Euclid's intellect. With 4 simple axioms, and one complex and ugly one, he provided the basis for much of modern mathematics. He must have cursed at the fifth, messy and unaesthetic one, that lacks the simplicity and beauty of the other four, yet is necessary to make geometry work. It is to his credit that he didn't try to cover the messiness up, but exposed it for all to see.

Assuming that fifth axiom is false provides the basis for non-Euclidean geometry, extending the 2-dimensional realm of squares, circles and triangles from planes to the surfaces of spheres, and hyperspheres. Spherical geometry is particularly useful when doing long-distance navigation, so this Pure Mathematics has some decidedly Applied aspects too.

But... these giants, these scholars who are worthy of all the adulation they are given, are not unimpeachable. Sometimes they were dead wrong, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large. Science must always question Authority. In fact, the whole intellectual structure of Academic discourse is based on the free-flow of ideas. When (as sometimes happens) the power-games of political ideology stifle enquiry, then
'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Weary, Flat, Stale and Unprofitable indeed. (Hamlet 1.2.131-61, Shakespeare)

Some are unclear on the concept. They may adopt the trappings of academe, the facade, but they are at best charlatans, at worst power-mad bullies.

Case in point, one "Dr" Priya Venkatesan, formerly of Dartmouth College. From the Wall Street Journal :
The latest spectacle is an Ivy League professor threatening to sue her students because, she claims, their "anti-intellectualism" violated her civil rights.

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."
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." This caused "subversiveness," a principle English professors usually favor.

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."

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.

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." Then, after consulting a physician about "intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the pending litigation.

From Gawker :
From: Priya Venkatesan
Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008
Subject: Class Action Suit

Dear Student:

Please disregard the previous email sent by Priya Venkatesan. This is to officially inform you that you are being accused of violating Title VII pertaining to federal anti-discrimination laws, by the plaintiff, Priya Venkatesan. You are being specifically accused of, but not limited to, harassment. Please do not respond to this email as it will be used against you in a court of law.

Priya Venkatesan, PhD
Yes, she sued her class. Or tried to. One can conjecture as to her understanding of the legal phrase "class action suit". It does not mean suing one's class, for example.

Moving on.. From the Concord Monitor:
Instead, she said, some students attacked the material "as if they were achieved scholars." The students were hostile, rude and abrasive, she said, and ignored her authority as their professor. "They were attacking thinkers that, even with my degrees, I would think twice about attacking," Venkatesan said. "I'm wondering why I was subjected to that behavior. . . . It was just a little disturbing that you'd get a student who'd come up to you after getting a reading assignment and say, 'So I underlined this. This is X, Y and Z why this statement is false.' . . . It consistently kept happening."

One example of the students' egregious behavior, Venkatesan said, was the time the students applauded in class when someone disagreed with her. She said she was lecturing on The Death of Nature, a book by philosopher Carolyn Merchant, and described Merchant's view that the emergence of science contributed to the marginalizing of women.
It can be, and has been, argued that the invention of the washing-machine was the greatest single step in the liberation of women from terminal drudgery. An even greater step forward than the contraceptive pill.

As one person of my acquainyance put it:
Miss Venkatesan, here is a small reality check.
Women were always marginalized in cultures in which greater physical strength was a decisive factor in earning and keeping wealth and power.
In short form, take that as "almost always, almost everywhere".
The emergence of science led directly to the perfection of the machine screw, which led directly to mass production.
Mass production led directly to an explosion of tools and techniques which rendered physical strength largely irrelevant in many jobs.
This led directly to an upsurge in viability for women in a broad range of non-domestic wage-earning careers.
In summary: Science is directly responsible for real liberation of women from their previously ineluctible role as domestic chattel.
Fucking deal with it, dumb ass.
This does not fit the narrative of unending and absolute Patriarchal oppression though, so to raise an ugly fact is not just rude, but a threat. Not just wrong, but Evil. To continue with the article in the Concord Monitor:
An anonymous review posted to a Dartmouth blog details some complaints: "If you decide to take this class, prepare to NOT be allowed to express your own opinions," the reviewer said. "We were forced to write an in-class essay on 'respect' (and how we lacked it) because we expressed our views on controversial topics and some did not agree with the views of 'established scholars.' "

Venkatesan said she's considering taking legal action against Cormen and other faculty. Cormen did not back her up when students complained about her, she said. "He did the academically questionable thing of not supporting a colleague," she said. "That's not academic de rigueur."
It's all about power.

A bit more about "Dr" Vasekaran's background. From the Dartmouth college website, which I expect to be updated soon:
Priya Venkatesan, Ph.D.

After obtaining a BA from Dartmouth College, I have an MS in Genetics from UC Davis and a PhD in Literature from UC San Diego. My first book, Molecular Biology in Narrative Form, was just released. My current position is as Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, which will form the basis of my latest manuscript, A Postmodernist in the Laboratory.
That will be the one where she tells all, and names names.

As for her Magnum Opus, Molecular Biology in Narrative Form, or rather, "Molecular Biology in Narrative Form: A Study of the Experimental Trajectory of Science (Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics)", here's the review:
Molecular Biology in Narrative Form is a groundbreaking, interdisciplinary study that shows a connection between molecular biology and French narrative theory, and, from a unique perspective, bridges the gap between two disciplines that seem mutually exclusive.
Ya Think?
With many new insights on the link between science (in the form of DNA, a set of codes) and literature (in the form of language, another set of codes), this book looks at modern experimental science within the framework of semiotics. Priya Venkatesan reveals the extraordinary parallel between the work of scientists and the work of narratologists who develop narrative paradigms and analyze literary texts. Molecular Biology in Narrative Form will be a useful resource for scientists and literary theorists interested in the epistemological workings of science, as well as, anyone that desires to explore the linkages between scientific theory and literary analysis.
I think that market is... limited. The scientists haven't swallowed the postmodernist claptrap, and the literary theorists aren't too sure if the Sun or the Moon is larger, and whether they go around the Earth or not. The intersection is a null set, mathematically speaking. Not even "Dr" Venkatasan. She's a literary theorist, and no scientist. The PhD in Literature from UC San Diego is, perhaps, understandable. The MS in Genetics from UC Davis is not, and they should have a good look at the procedure for awarding one, else it becomes meaningless.

Still, I've seen worse in Junk Science books on Transsexuality. Really. I wish I was kidding.


Anonymous said...

Oh . . . my . . . god . . .

Speechless . . .

Unknown said...

I wish you were kidding, too. Alas...