Venkatesan ’90 drops plans for memoir

Former Dartmouth writing instructor Priya Venkatesan ’90 said she no longer plans to publish a memoir in the near future, recanting previous statements that she would write a book that would identify specific Dartmouth students who she claims discriminated against her and in addition to including their anonymous course evaluations. Venkatesan alleged that these students, all members of her Winter term Writing 5 class, invaded her personal space and displayed other means of disrespectful behavior towards her, according to statements she made in an interview with The Dartmouth.

In an interview last month, Venkatesan, now employed as a researcher by Northwestern University, alleged she had already contacted a literary agent. She planned to write an autobiographical book cataloguing her experience as a writing instructor at Dartmouth, she said, and claimed she had access to her students’ course evaluations.

“Even if I do not have any recourse to the law, I still feel like my story should get out there, and I should try to pursue publication,” Venkatesan said in the April interview.

In yesterday’s interview, Venkatesan refuted her earlier statement, saying she will not be writing a book “in the near future” and does not have copies of the evaluations.

“Memoirs and stuff really come much later,” she said.

Earlier interviews were “absolutely incorrect” and her statements were “misrepresented” in the media, Venkatesan said, although she added she has not followed the case closely.

“I read so little of it — I wasn’t really that interested,” she said. “I don’t find myself that interesting of a subject.”

Venkatesan has claimed she was discriminated against by students in her Winter 2008 Writing 5 class. The subsequent e-mails she sent to these students in April, informing them of her intended suit against them, were meant to be private and “not a sign of nastiness,” she said.

“I’m impulsive, that’s one of my character flaws,” Venkatesan said. “I was so riled up at how I was treated that I didn’t know how to handle it.”

Venkatesan said that her grievances with her former students have become “more complicated” than discrimination based solely on race and gender. She now also lists disrespect for her personal space, as another grievance againts students in her class.

“The students really had no sense of personal boundaries,” she said. “They were constantly invading them.”

Although Venkatesan said she “regretted starting the whole thing” and “wanted to put the whole thing behind her,” she declined to comment on the current status of the suit against the students.

“In my heart of hearts, yes, I do believe the law was broken,” she said. “There’s a very thin line between what is just obnoxious and what is discrimination in the court of law.”

Students were also not honest in their course evaluations, she said, adding that there was a “misuse of the evaluation system.” Earlier in the interview, however, Venkatesan admitted to having read none of the 2008 Winter term evaluations.

She claims she received “stellar” evaluations at the University of California San Diego, where she previously taught writing. Reviews would be more accurate and helpful, she added, if they were not submitted in an electronic format, but filled out on the last day of class in the presence of an instructor.

“The students would be aware that the instructor is a human being — they’re people, too,” she said. “The class would also be fresh in their mind, not just some figment of the student’s memory.”

The rumors surrounding Venkatesan’s alleged memoir have drawn a variety of responses from students interviewed by The Dartmouth. While Oghenetega Ogban ’11 said he would “think twice” before filling out an evaluation, most students surveyed by The Dartmouth said they will not refrain from writing honest reviews about future classes.

“I’m still going to write whatever the hell I want,” one student in Venkatesan’s Winter 2008 Writing 5 class said. “I won’t censor my own course evaluations, if only out of principle. Toning down honest criticism where it’s needed would only make a bad class worse.”

Fears that professors may be able to identify the authors of individual course evaluations are baseless, according to Associate Dean of the Faculty Lindsay Whaley.

“Given statements in [Venkatesan’s] e-mails, I could understand why students would have disincentive to give forthright feedback, but there is absolutely no way she has of knowing who said what,” Whaley said. “Unless a student made very specific references to very specific events — and students don’t do that — I can say with fair certainty that there is no way for anyone to know.”

The course evaluation system allows administrative faculty to gauge which teaching strategies are effective in the classroom and to “take necessary action” to correct any problems, according to Whaley.

“At Dartmouth, we take excellence in the classroom very seriously,” he said. “Anybody who cares about teaching is interested in perfecting pedagogy. They’re always going to be interested in how they can be doing better.”

Department chairs and associate deans of the faculty review evaluations for courses in departments that they supervise. Whaley reviewed course assessments for Venkatesan’s class with writing program director Tom Cormen for the Fall term of 2007 and said there was “nothing extraordinary” about them.

“With a very new instructor, the reviews will be partly positive and partly negative,” he said. “It’s different than interacting with someone who’s been teaching for 10 years.”

The College’s Office of the Registrar began converting the paper-based evaluation system to a web-based system in Summer 2006, College Registrar Meredith Braz said in an e-mail message to The Dartmouth. The registrar’s office stores course assessments in an online database with the same level of security as all student records and without a unique identifier, according to the registrar’s web site. The College tracks whether a student has completed an evaluation form, according to Braz, but stores this information separately from the assessment itself, making tracing individual student responses impossible.

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