Is Kal Good Enough For Penn?

As many of you already know, Kalpen Modi will be teaching two undergraduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania in spring of 2008, one on Asian Americans in the Media and the other on American Teen Films. But unlike Hetal and Kapila, it looks as though some Penn students aren’t too crazy about the idea. The Daily Pennsylvanian even ran a staff editorial recently, arguing that Mr. Modi lacks the qualifications to teach there:

The University brings in guest professors who are qualified to teach students because of extensive experience in a field. Pennsylvania governor, former mayor of Philadelphia and career politician Ed Rendell teaches a course on elections, for instance. Kal Penn simply does not have those kind of credentials when it comes to film and the field of Asian American studies…Bringing in a popular actor as a means of promoting Asian American Studies undermines the academic value that should attract students to the field in the first place.

And most importantly,

Standards should be set high for anyone who teaches at Penn. To set a lower bar for guest professors sends the wrong message to graduate students and professors, as well as to students, about what the University values as academically credible.

Asian American Studies Program Director Grace Kao, who arranged for Mr. Modi to teach at Penn, wrote a lengthy response:

Mr. Modi will offer a first-hand account of how the current internal structure of Hollywood works to limit roles available to women and ethnic minorities. I don’t think anyone else at Penn is more qualified to teach such a course…As a tenured member of the Sociology faculty and director of the Asian American Studies Program, I am not someone who takes his appointment lightly. We are fortunate to have someone like Mr. Modi on campus for an entire semester. He will not get rich by doing this, and I think that says a lot about his dedication to actively engage with the academy.

To get more perspective on the issue, I ran both articles by a friend of mine, a desi woman who recently finished her PhD in Cinema Studies, to see what she thought. She put it to me this way: “There’s a big difference between teaching a class on media criticism and teaching a class on what it’s like to work in Hollywood. Grace Kao seems to think they’re the same, but they’re not. It’s kind of like asking Tom Clancy to teach American lit as opposed to creative writing, or asking Arnold to teach public policy analysis as opposed to a course on how not to run a special election. I don’t think either of those things would ever happen at a top twenty-five school.”

I get her point, and I’m sympathetic to people like her who have given their lives to the academy and have difficulty finding teaching positions, only to hear of people with lesser qualifications like Mr. Modi secure these jobs fairly easily. On the other hand, he’s only teaching two classes as an adjunct. It seems kind of harsh to argue that Mr. Modi undermines Penn and Asian American Studies, considering that he’s only going to be there for one semester. It’s not as though they’ve given him a tenured-track position. If that did happen, then I probably would agree with these concerns. But until then, I’m curious to see what comes out of Mr. Modi’s teaching assignment.

72 thoughts on “Is Kal Good Enough For Penn?

  1. Kal Penn didn’t just randomly get hired by Penn without any thought. He had to present a syllabus to the dean and other higher-ups, in addition to proving his competency to teach the subject. If they thought his course was worthwhile, then his course is probably worthwhile. Yes, it’s a media ploy, sure. Penn’s ASAM department currently doesn’t offer a degree–only a minor. It was hard enough getting it started in the first place. They need funding and attention just like any other young program, and this seems to be a good way to get it. And I guess just for fun:

    Half the classes are taught by graduate students anyway, as they are at any other school.

    No. All Penn classes, with the exception of a few writing seminars or night courses, are taught by professors. Discussion sections are sometimes moderated by grad students.

  2. Half the classes are taught by graduate students anyway, as they are at any other school.

    Not at small liberal arts colleges with no grad students.

    My concern with Kal Penn is not that he’s not educated enough, lacking a PhD, but that he’s just plain not smart enough in the right way. Obviously he’s talented. But he seems to not have a grasp of sociological nuance. He thought, for example, that his role in 24 would encourage people to question racial profiling when in actuality it more likely reinforces the idea behind racial profiling. That to me betrays a lack of understanding but an attempt to create meaning where there is none. Is he going to be spouting that kind of stuff in his classes? And does he know anything about theory in sociology? If he were to teach an acting class at Penn, I would be all for that. But him teaching this class would be like me teaching a class on health policy–just because I live with the practical ramifications of health policy every day doesn’t mean I can actually teach others about it, or that I even understand its politics. If I were a student at Penn, though, I would take his class. I imagine it will be interesting but not particularly meaningful. But maybe I’m underestimating him.

  3. The kids at Penn are still sore they didn’t get in to Harvard, and are acting out their insecurities. Pay no heed.

  4. A PhD is an academic credential.

    But few people get far in life solely based on academic credential. That’s why we use résumés, isn’t it, to display other things besides our education that would make us valid candidates for any position. It just comes down to whether the person is willing to judge you for what you’re worth on an individual basis, or if they want to go down the system’s ordered list of “requirements” to approve of you. :-/ I don’t think there’s a right position to argue about, because on one hand Kal Penn is one of few Asian Americans in the industry so he would know a bit more than someone who’s only researched about it from a theoretical perspective, but on the other hand it’s true that most people get their jobs because of their academic qualification, so why make an exception for him.

  5. I believe there are two very distinct skills to teaching – the ability to present/communicate/enlighten etc. and the ability to develop a student’s understanding of the subject. In other words, teaching is a two way, interactive mission. Student development is perhaps the more elusive skill, whereas presentation is what gets the accolade.

  6. “But he seems to not have a grasp of sociological nuance.”

    Oh right on! You have to have your head up your ass to some extent to even make it in Hollywood so in a way his insights could be usefull.

  7. As an Asian American Studies student, I would hate if Kal Penn were commissioned to teach in my program unless another professor was co-teaching the class. Mr. Penn has qualifications to teach on acting as he was a TV, Film, and Theater student at UCLA. He also has some basic grounding in Sociology as he majored in that as well.

    But, while he may have basic qualifications to run a seminar or discussion-based course, I shudder at the thought of a lecture hall of kids listening to him kvetch about the film industry without someone there to contextualize his stories with sound theory on media and race theory, etc. Penn kids pay a lot to go to school there, and they are ambitious in that they want their money’s worth. I am willing to bet that the newspaper containing the complaints against his teaching there is a reflection of that.

    And, yeah, it must suck for those newly hired faculty in the SAS/ASAM/Cinema Studies departments cuz Mr. Penn just whipped his SAG card out his pants and got ahead of them in line. And he’s prolly gonna get the better lecture hall and the best timings for class too, hahaha…sorry i didn’t mean to laugh out loud :P

    “The kids at Penn are still sore they didn’t get in to Harvard, and are acting out their insecurities. Pay no heed.”

    but i bet you didn’t go to harvard either. projecting insecurities much? and also, i chose to attend my ivy league school…i did not choose harvard as i found it useless for someone like me going into the sciences. cornell’s is the best ivy for that aside from princeton and maybe columbia.

  8. I know Dr. Allyn Miner – sitar instructor in the Department of South Asia Studies in UPenn. She studied sitar and Indian classical music in Banaras for 11 years, and then pursued further training under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in Calfornia for a number of years. Since Penn has such high standards for music, I would expect the same for film and media too. In my opinion, inviting Kal Penn to “teach” a media-related course is like inviting Bappi Lahiri to teach a course on Indian music.

    There’s a reason why Wikipedia is not accepted as a valid source for most papers we (and I assume the same for others) write for academic-related courses. Even if it might give much more info than one may not find anywhere else. A qualification does matter to some extent – it isn’t the only thing that matters, but it can’t be ignored either. Even if Kal Penn does do a decent job at teaching the course, it would still be wrong to marginalize the value of a degree.

  9. Also, has the Mutiny seriously explored the possibility of getting a mole to enlist in the class and live blog it? I would pay a subscription to the site for that.

    Love it!

    And I would pay to see Prof. Modi in those glasses… Yeah I’m no better than H&K…

  10. I think this is a really interesting discussion for many reasons. I don’t care a whole lot about Kal Penn teaching at Penn, but I do thing it brings up a lot of important questions about who is qualified to teach. As a former graduate student I honestly think the deeper I got into my coursework the less connected I felt to teaching undergraduates. I do think Ph.d’s train you to focus (in a very meta way) on how you think, which is a difficult and sometimes gratifying process, but it is one that doesn’t necessarily translate into useful teaching skills. Having said that I do think AAS (although multi-disciplinary) is different from having experiential knowledge in Media/Film, and thus I don’t really see the fit between Penn and the department. I think (make that KNOW) there are lots of fresh Ph.d’s in AAS who would love to have a chance to teach at Penn, and who could easily perceive him being there as an insult to the profession in some ways. The academic job market is cut throat (and often hugely depressing) so the resentment makes sense to me. I guess all of this is a roundabout way of saying that a Ph.d doesn’t equal a good teacher, but it is part of a professionalization process that should be respected.

  11. There is nothing a PhD program in the social sciences–but especially the humanities– can teach that cannot be learned on your own. I think a lot of PhD classes in the humanities are bs anyways.

  12. Sigh – have you trained in an academic program in the US in the social sciences or humanities? With due respect, it doesn’t sound much like it. Academic credentialling and training is always going to be somewhat subjective but that doesn’t mean it’s useless – you have to develop a rigorous understanding of the literature in your field and show you can teach it, and most programs require you to develop some teaching experience. Rekha makes some good points about the surfeit of people more qualified than KM to teach Asian American Studies at Penn.

    I’m surprised to hear comments so dismissive of graduate studies and the training they offer here, I thought there were lots of academics/grad students on this board.

  13. sourav: (#58), I know Dr. Miner too.. we were all in India together for a program years ago.. she is an amazing musician, and I understand your point…about your views to those with the degreest to the ‘flash in the pants’ hollywood types..

    it would’ve been nice if kal penn had come as a guest lecturer for 1-2 days integrated into some course already on the penn books..but again, i think this is for media, getting the course and the school out into the media forefront, etc..

    is it just me, or do the other ivy league schools always feel they are stepchildren of harvard (god, i know i’m going to get lashed out for this statemet) and have to do things that will get them noticed?

    anyways, dr. miner is awesome, and hopefully you got to study with her or take part in the fantastic s.asian studies department that penn does have..

    maybe i’m a bit biased, good friends of mine new kal pretty well when he was an undergrad at ucla… i don’t know what he can teach… i don’t know… but we can’t jump the gun… until the bullet is shot..

  14. Look, I did not want to get into my personal background, (as a PhD student in an U.S. university or not)which you hypothesize as affecting my comments; but since you asked, yes, as I mentioned above I am about to get a PhD from a so-called “top 25″ university (I could give you the name, but I am teaching a class this semester, and I suspect some of my students read this blog). Look, I also have an M.A. in Philosophy (my PhD will be in a slightly different discipline) and my interests in this area concern the philosophy of social science: especially the relationship between ontological assumptions about causality and the methodology used (i.e. regression analysis, especially probability models, or case studies and natural experiments and other quasi-experimental designs, if you are interested in further evidence I can even send you some of the papers I have presented at conferences…sheesh I hate that I have to even defend myself this way). I am saying all this because (a) if I were not to, someone would ask for my credentials to talk about these things (as you did) (b) as much as I loathe (a), i.e. the fact that you have to show your credentials before talking intelligently about anything, I do think that my training in analytic philosophy has something to do with my dislike of lit theory,criticism, and the like. I have sat in on a few grad lit criticism classes (in one of the best lit departments in the country no less. I sat in on one because I had heard that they apparently discuss Wittgenstein, Godel and Foucault in the same class. I kid you not, there were exactly two people in the class who thought that there was something wrong with the picture. The prof. had not idea what he was talking about; he had a very poor understanding—i am being chartable here– of both Wittgenstein and Godel. This kind of thing generalizes to all the lit classes I sat in on (there were two more; one on postmodernism, which in my opinion is very bad restatement of some stands of Hume’s thought). I have more entertaining anecdotes, if anyone is interested. By the way, I still stand by my statement above.

  15. Sounds rather painful, sigh :) I asked about your training not so much out of a desire to establish your “credentials” but because it’s only too common for those outside a field to dismiss what it takes to qualify in it, and that’s particularly true of a lot of folks in the natural sciences who figure that as the methodology used in the social sciences differs from methodology in their own field, graduate training in these fields must surely be arbitrary and completely subjective, and research in these disciplines can be dismissed as “my five year old could have painted that.” Well, I’m in social science so I can’t really speak for philosophy, having long recovered from an undergrad infatuation with postmodernism. But do you really think that there’s nothing to be said for graduate training in the social sciences and humanities, setting aside one’s feelings about the ultimate BS-ness of some of the material, and do you think just anybody could teach this stuff? Could anybody without graduate training in your field teach your diss material, for instance?

  16. Hey, no problem. I don’t think–or didn’t say– that you cannot learn anything in a PhD program. But I do think:

    that a PhD–at least in the so-called social sciences and humanities– is neither necessary nor sufficient for gaining a tolerable understanding of human affairs. The same qualities and propensities (intellectual independence, willingness to challenge “authoritative” wisdom, and rational thinking) that allows one to learn from books also allows one to learn from life experiences.

    I would merely add that a PhD program does on the other hand provides an infrastructure, an organization, if you will, where some people can come together and discuss issues they are interested in. This I think is essential to honing one’s analytical skills. I try to do the same thing with my students; I do not generally teach them the material so much as I try to get them to think rationally and analytically about it. For what its worth, I guess that a PhD program, especially the infrastructure it provides, has enabled me to realize this. I also thought that the statistics classes I took were very useful.
    By the way, philosophy departments in the U.S generally do not teach postmodernism; literature departments do. That is why I had to sit on on classes outside my department (wanted to find out what all the popular hype was about, and the philosophy profs were of no help; it was blasphemy to even utter the “po” word in the philosophy dept).

  17. “I think (make that KNOW) there are lots of fresh Ph.d’s in AAS who would love to have a chance to teach at Penn, and who could easily perceive him being there as an insult to the profession in some ways. The academic job market is cut throat (and often hugely depressing) so the resentment makes sense to me. I guess all of this is a roundabout way of saying that a Ph.d doesn’t equal a good teacher, but it is part of a professionalization process that should be respected.”

    Rekha this is only to start a debate ….why should a ‘professionalization process”, “be respected..” from the POV of a PENN student? I don’t much care for Kal’s work to date..but I respect his HUSTLE big time. Making it to any degree in Hollywood is one of the hardest tasks imaginable….harder than earning an advanced degree from Harvard (trust me I know 3 A.R.T. grads who are waiting tables). Kal has done something in the real world…even if he is not organizationally up to par, It would seem that his anecdotal insights would be gold for an AAS student…or at least silver :)

  18. Making it to any degree in Hollywood is one of the hardest tasks imaginable….harder than earning an advanced degree from Harvard (trust me I know 3 A.R.T. grads who are waiting tables). Kal has done something in the real world

    I’m still undecided about whether Kal should teach at Penn or not, but I’m not too sure about the above statement. It paints a pretty stereotypical picture of academics and advanced degree holders. I mean, I know a woman who came to America as one of those infamous “boat people” from Vietnam. She went from eating rats on the boat and living in grinding poverty to earning an MBA from Harvard. You could argue that that is way more difficult than a middle-class Indian kid from NJ who went to drama school and theater school at UCLA. I’m not denying that Kal had to struggle to get to where he is today, but Hollywood is also famous for bestowing a certain amount of luck upon those who happen to be at the right place at the right time.

    Some doctoral students are indeed privileged children of the arts, but others have been through extraordinary struggles to get to where they are (I can tell you about the physics PhD I know whose family suffered through Chernobyl, etc.). The line between academia and the “real world” is thinner than you think when you consider these stories.

  19. trust me, if mike erik dyson is qualified to teach at penn then kal penn definitely is too. obviously this ivy league school places significant priority on academics who are crossover showmen. even if they are not academics.

  20. Isn’t Kalpen Modi a candidate for grad school at Stanford University? Granted, before watching his performance in “The Namesake,” I might have written him off as a sophomoric one-note wonder, given his string of success in collegiate comedies, but he has proven himself a vary capable and thoughtful spokesperson on the issues of the representation of South Asians in media.