Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mixed Nuts: Priya Venkatesan, PhD

Currently pursuing her 15 minutes of fame for suing her students over course evaluations. Back in The Day when I taught a couple of Economics classes as an adjunct at a local college, I didn’t like student evaluations either, for a mixed bag of reasons.

However, suing the college and students for violating your civil rights seems to be stretching things a bit. I’m not sure how being subject to criticism related to your classroom performance counts as discrimination.

Last time I checked, employers were still allowed to discriminate against the stupid and incompetent. A sample from Dartblog:

“Aside from the fact that I learnt nothing of value in this class besides the repeated use of the word 'postmodernism' in all contexts (whether appropriate or not) and the fact that Professor Venkatesan is the most confusing / nonsensical lecturer ever, the main problem with this class is the personal attacks launched in class. Almost every member of the class was personally attacked in some form in the class by either intimidation or ignoring your questions / comments / concerns. If you decide to take this class, prepare to NOT be allowed to express your own opinions in class because you have 'yet to obtain your Ph.D / masters / bachelors degree'. 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' who have their degrees.

Additionally, your essays will (at most) receive 2 lines worth of feedback, along with a miserable letter grade.

All in all, there are much better ways to understand science, technology, and society than to suffer through ten weeks of emotional battering.”

She probably wanted to sue for libel, but someone pointed out that telling the truth isn’t considered libel. (yet.)

Just for yucks, here’s a bit from one of Prof. Venkatesan’s pieces:

“In graduate school, I was inculcated in the tenets of a field known as science studies, which teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth and that science is motivated by politics and human interest. This is known as
social constructivism and is the reigning mantra in science studies, which considers historical and sociological understandings of science. From the vantage point of social constructivism, scientific facts are not discovered but rather created within a social framework. In other words, scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.”

The technical term for this is “drivel”. As a practical matter, everyone acknowledges this – you don’t get in your car and drive because you share a social construct with the automotive designer, you can drive because your car was designed to perform based on the underlying reality.

Likewise, nobody cares much if their surgeon shares many of their social constructs, but they do care about his ability to act appropriately to treat the objective condition.

Also “inculcated” is a curious term. Essentially, she’s admitting that she went to graduate school, swallowed the conventional wisdom, and hasn’t thought much about it since, other than to simply modify her opinions a bit to bring them in line with the current conventional wisdom:

“In many ways, social constructivism has been reframed as postmodernism, since both movements question the scientific realm's theory of truth—that is, that scientific facts mirror an external reality which does indeed exist. However, this reframing is unnecessary, since clear distinctions exist between social
constructivism and postmodernism. Through my experience in the laboratory, I have found that postmodernism offers a constructive critique of science in ways that social constructivism cannot, due to postmodernism's emphasis on openly addressing the presupposed moral aims of science.”

The lesson to be drawn here is that ‘postmodernists’ feel perfectly free to criticize anything, but if you criticize them, they’re brining in lawyers. Still, all the students were doing was operating within their own social construct, one every bit as valid as. Prof. Venkatesan’s.

There’s no external reality to mirror, is there?