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.