Here's an except from an article she wrote in Dartmouth Medicine last summer [Yin, meet yang].
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.By all accounts, Priya Venkatesan is one of those post-modernist thinkers who are much more impressed with their words than with their ideas. They are the ones spoofed by the Sokal hoax back in 1996. Venkatesan is the author of a book called Molecular biology in Narrative form., which is also the title of her Ph.D. thesis. At least one reviewer thought the book was a joke [ReviewScout.com].
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. In other words, I find that while an individual ethic of motivation exists, and indeed guides the conduct of laboratory routine, I have also observed that a moral framework—one in which the social implications of science and technology are addressed—is clearly absent in scientific settings. Yet I believe such a framework is necessary. Postmodernism maintains that it is within the rhetorical apparatus of science—how scientists talk about their work—that these moral aims of science may be accomplished.
Following all the forms of both Literary deconstructionist criticism as well as Scientific Peer-reviewed journals, one might actually think this was a serious work -- and indeed, the sheer volume of dense text only adds to the realism. Happily, the content of the text seems to be some remarkably well-disguised trippy-hippy post-modernist anti-establishment pseudo-feminist rant taken directly from protest speeches from the sixties.Professor Venkatesan taught a freshman course on "Science, Technology and Society" at Dartmouth where she expounded at length on various post-modern ideas and the concept that, "scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct." During one of those lectures some of her students challenged her and attempted to refute her post-modernist views. Some students applauded the dissidents.
Well Done! This deserves a place on your shelf alongside your bound volumes of The Journal of Improbable Research and other 'Mad Scientist' Jokebooks!
The result was traumatic for Professor Venkatesan and she ended up quitting her job at Dartmouth. She also launched a lawsuit against her students for violating her civil rights. You can read about it in the Wall Street Journal [Dartmouth's 'Hostile' Environment].
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.Her lawsuit has been dropped but the fact that she initiated it in the first place is deeply troubling.
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.
Here's the text of the email message she sent to her students.
Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2008 20:56:35 -0400 (EDT)In most of my classes I'd be delighted if students challenged what I was saying and engaged in debate. That's what university is supposed to be all about. The troubling aspect of this case is not only that students were dissatisfied with what Professor Venkatesan was saying in class but, more importantly, that Dartmouth gave her the opportunity to spout such nonsense to freshman students in the first place. What was Dartmouth thinking?
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 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.
The sad thing is that we know the answer to the last question. There are too many universities these days whose faculties subscribe to the gibberish of these post-modernist pseudo-intellectuals. This may be a bigger threat to university students than creationism.
There's lots of stuff about this on the internet. I wish I could have included a link to some of Venkatesan's supporters but I couldn't find any.
The Dartmouth Review: TDR Interview: Priya Venkatesan '90
Sepiamutiny: The Strange, Twisted Tale of Priya Venkatesan, PhD
The Reference Frame: Priya Venkatesan: a mad scholar sues her students
[Hat Tip: John Hawks Anthropology Weblog]