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So Sue Me

Dartmouth Writing ‘Lecturer’ Threatens Suit Against Students, College, Superiors; Displeased with Negative Performance Evaluations; Poor Prose Ability Revealed in Late-Night Missives; General Mockery Made of Freshman Writing Program.

A series of curious emails from Priya Venkatesan, who is a “lecturer” of writing at Dartmouth College, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Dartmouth Medical School, a 1990 graduate of the College—doubling in biochemistry and comparative literature—a holder of a U.C. Davis master’s in genetics, and finally a Ph. D. in, alack, literature from U.C. San Diego, have produced a Sunday spectacle of tremendous succulence.

With her agglomerate of degrees Ms. Venkatesan secured a job at Dartmouth teaching College freshman the art of writing. She is one of a stable of non-professors yoked by Dartmouth with this task, good writing remaining a low priority among the deanery; this past winter she taught “Science, Technology and Society,” one of several introductory writing courses, all referred to as Writing 5, for budding young collegians.

This is not Strunk & White, mind. This is holistic—hence the biologist-scrivener, and the usual catastrophe: a collection of students irked at having whiled away three months being hazed by “social constructedness” and still lacking a solid apprehension of the expository essay. The public course reviews were not flattering. Probably the inter-departmental evaluations, completed by students and read by the professor’s superiors, were still more candid.

Yesterday evening, to the students of her winter class, Ms. Venkatesan dispatched this message:

Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2008 20:56:35 -0400 (EDT)
From: Priya.Venkatesan@Dartmouth.EDU
To: “WRIT.005.17.18-WI08”:;, Priya.Venkatesan@Dartmouth.EDU
Subject: WRIT.005.17.18-WI08: Possible lawsuit

Dear former class members of Science, Technology and Society:

I tried to send an email through my server but got undelivered messages. I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom [sic] shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [sic] discrimination laws.

The feeling that I am getting from the outside world is that Dartmouth is considered a bigoted place, so this may not be news and I may be successful in this lawsuit.

I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluations and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.

Priya

The note was first published by The Dartmouth Review. This page has independently confirmed Ms. Venkatesan’s authorship. It was sent to all students who took her class last term. To a subset, those who have stirred the young writing instructor’s wrath, she sent this:
Dear Student:

Please disregard the previous email sent by Priya Venkatesan. [The one about a ‘possible’ lawsuit. -jm] 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, [sic] harassment. Please do not respond to this email as it will be used against you in a court of law.

Priya Venkatesan, PhD

At least seven members of the Class of 2011 received this grave epistle, indicating that they are to be named as defendants in a legal outing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The students, of course, are entirely safe; as they do not employ the writing instructor, it can only be said that their evaluations of her performance—de rigueur, frank, and ostensibly anonymous—did not flatter, and that she is upset. But of course the students could not have discriminated against her.


Ms. Venkatesan also informs Dartblog that she is “pursuing a legal suit against members/former members of the Dartmouth community,” those being Christopher H. Lowrey of the medical school and his four-person research team. “Another faculty member,” Ms. Venkatesan tells us, “that figures prominently in my list of grievances…is Thomas H. Cormen, Ph. D., Director of the Writing Program (now the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric) and Professor of Computer Science.”

This column solicited a thought or two from Priya Venkatesan, and was rewarded with the following:

The students I am naming in this suit were mostly from Winter 08 term with a few from Fall. Essentially, I am pursuing litigation to see if I have a legal claim, that is, if the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior I was subjected to as a Research Associate and Lecturer at Dartmouth constitutes discrimination and harrassment [sic] on the basis of ethnicity, race and gender. This includes not just students, but a few faculty members that I worked with. At this stage, I am making a detailed list of names in a chronology of what people said and did while I was at Dartmouth in a very factual manner and approaching a New Hampshire attorney who specializes in professional malpractice with the chronology and he will make the determination if I have grounds for litigation.
A redaction of errata seems a suitable place to begin. A class action suit? This involves a population of plaintiffs similarly aggrieved; Ms. Venkatesan is contemplating legal action against a population of defendants similarly, in her mind, guilty. Classes bring suit; they do not answer it. Thus it is not a class action, but a series of civil complaints against students and employees of the College and, perhaps, the College corporate.


Title VII does not include language about harassment—only about discrimination. Courts have occasionally elected to find harassment illegal under the code, but only, like discrimination, employer-perpetrated harassment. Since students are not Ms. Venkatesan’s employers, they cannot be named as defendants in a Title VII case.

Finally, there is the bit about “pursuing litigation to see if I have a legal claim.” This is not an advisable course of action. In fact, legal experts consulted by this page suggest that litigating to explore the possible existence of a legal claim is the precise opposite of how the modern judicial system operates.

Two recent articles by Ms. Venkatesan are “Of Dickens and Darwin” and “Yin, meet Yang.”

UPDATE: The faculty listing for the Dartmouth Writing Program contains a footer announcing: “Last modified: Sunday, 27-Apr-2008 14:55:36 EDT.” This puts the last change at just a few hours after this post first appeared. The change? Priya Venkatesan is no longer listed.

UPDATE: The photograph originally attending this piece has been removed in response to a request from Tom Cormen, Chairman of the Writing Program.

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