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. On the other hand, he’s only teaching two adjunct classes.

    This is how baseball’s hall of fame got way too big.

  2. Pro: “Academically credible”? Just who’s the university fooling? Half the classes are taught by graduate students anyway, as they are at any other school. It’s the academic racket–slave labor, no recognition, no respect.

    Against: see this.

  3. They should have just made him a guest lecturer, or seminar speaker, or something of that nature. The course shouldn’t have been offered for credit.

    But then again, this kind of thing does have some precedent. Spike Lee has taught at both NYU and Harvard. Then again, Kumar is nowhere near in the same ballpark, league or sport as Spike Lee.

  4. It’s not uncommon for people without “academic” postgrad degrees to guest lecture at top schools. I think many of us are more used to high profile policy people, as opposed to someone from Hollywood. I don’t think film crit is the same as the inside of Hollywood, but if you are looking for perspectives on the industry, how can it hurt to have an inside view? Honestly, he’s a guest, and the nature of Asian American studies is not the same as many of the older disciplines in the academy. A lot of it is dynamic and ever-changing, and it helps to have a pulse on the contemporary experience of API-As in many areas of the U.S. While I understand what the Daily Penn is saying about not treating Asian American studies like a joke, I think they should see what goes down before going all crazy pants.

    And I don’t even really like Kal Penn :) (blasphemy, I know).

  5. “Academically credible”? Just who’s the university fooling? Half the classes are taught by graduate students anyway, as they are at any other school. It’s the academic racket–slave labor, no recognition, no respect.

    Hear Hear!

    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’ll skip the rank snobbery (“top twenty-five school” etc; that was the number one thing that irritated me about my fellow grad students who seemed to think that they were somehow “better” than others because of that). You don’t need a Phd to talk about human affairs most of the time (I realize this just as I am about to receive one). Just plain rationality will do most of the time, and frankly all this talk about “credentials” pisses me off. As a wise man (can you guess?) once pointed out, not much is understood at any deep level about human affairs, but whatever is understood is at the level of common sense; and this holds for all the social “sciences” and humanities.

  6. Honestly, he’s a guest, and the nature of Asian American studies is not the same as many of the older disciplines in the academy.

    Whoa whoa whoa? I’m not sure Asian American grads would take kindly to this. (I’m not one, but thought about being one). The reason it’s not same as older disciplines, is the entire concept hasn’t really existed until say 25-30 years ago. You can’t dog on something for not even being there.

    It comes down to creditation. Are credits available, and are they applicable to a degree? That’s all the univ admins care about. If thats the case, then some chops are needed.

  7. I’ve had some really bad profs, “with appropriate credentials.” It was an introductory class too, and the prof was unsure about what he was teaching us….at one of the top 3 universities in Canada! In the long run, I don’t think that just because you study longer you’re necessarily more knowledgeable about a subject. It helps gain that knowledge, yes, but you CAN learn just as much otherwise. If Kalpen had that stupid PhD, I bet he’d still give a similar course in terms of content because the point of bringing him in was to give hands-on info that he acquired in the industry.

  8. It’s all good. There are many ways to secure a teaching position. Kal’s got the experience and fame that make him credible to teach the course.

  9. In the long run, I don’t think that just because you study longer you’re necessarily more knowledgeable about a subject. It helps gain that knowledge, yes, but you CAN learn just as much otherwise. If Kalpen had that stupid PhD, I bet he’d still give a similar course in terms of content because the point of bringing him in was to give hands-on info that he acquired in the industry.

    Hello? These universities are academic in nature. There are other institutions and settings where hands-on information supercedes academic credentials but an ivy league university is not one of them! A PhD is an academic credential. So academia clearly has to use it as a significant qualifier when choosing their staff.

  10. Hey, it could be this.

    But on the question of Kalpen, Kobayashi put it right. University teaching is a racket, and editorials in student newspapers are usually composed by undergrads in whose interest it is to think that the education they are getting is not the product of a ramshackle racket, when in fact it is. I’m all in favor of colleges bringing in adjuncts from the so-called real world. It’s not like Kalpen is being offered a tenure track position. And if he sucks as a teacher, then they don’t have to invite him back.

  11. I guess it all goes back to the question, what makes us ‘know’ more, experiencing something, or studying it?

    I don’t really think there is an exact answer, but if anyone chooses only one of those two, I would guess they are wrong. It seems to be a combination of both to me, and perhaps students can learn something from a real life experiences as well as books. Perhaps Academics seem to put too much stock in the reading/sitting in a classroom discussion and not enough in real life experiences.

    This is just a general argument, I don’t really know Kalpen Modi’s credentials.

  12. There are other institutions and settings where hands-on information supercedes academic credentials but an ivy league university is not one of them!

    Please don’t shout.

    It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a list of eight non-Ivy league schools that, as a whole, offer a better education than the Ivies. The Ivy League is just that. A sports conference, albeit an old one (by American standards). What’s with the fetishism?

    Also would you object to a young novelist like (to pick a random example) Kamila Shamsie teaching at a university? What if Anoushka Shankar was invited to teach a class in music theory at Princeton. Would that be a terrible thing? After all, she doesn’t even have a PhD.

  13. Kal’s got the experience and fame that make him credible to teach the course.

    When I think of a brown person qualified by experience to give an inside look at the entertainment industry in the US, I think of Mira Nair. I really don’t think Kalpen has been around long enough to really be able to lay out the trends in the industry and then tie them into a modern context. Of course, he is one of the few better known desis in the modern entertainment industry, but unless he’s done some serious prep work I don’t see him being equipped to teach a course like this based only on his experience.

    But who knows, maybe he is a smart cookie, maybe he’s been reading this blag, maybe we should just give the kid a fighting chance. Teaching is more about being able to communicate with students than it is about what acronyms you can suffix to your title.

  14. first naina: love the title. as for upenn, they have an amazing south asian studies department..and i’ve taken classes from their so it’s not second hand info..

    i say give the kid a chance.. see what he has to say.. and then debate…

    you can’t see what the bannana has to offer without removing the peel.

    people get ‘honorary degrees’ all the time..and sometimes it’s not about the degrees after your name but more about ‘life experience’..

    heck emory is getting the dalai lama for 2 days, and giving him a Presidential Distinguished Professorship.. (no belittling the lama, who is amazig,.. but i’m just saying…)

    sometimes it’s in order to get a ‘big name’ on campus to cause a buzz… publicity…and the hoopla surrounding ‘fame’, alumni donations, and all that jazz…. in the end, it’s all about the buck…even though harvard, and all those schools have had an all time high in the number of applicants this year…

  15. Whoa whoa whoa? I’m not sure Asian American grads would take kindly to this. (I’m not one, but thought about being one). The reason it’s not same as older disciplines, is the entire concept hasn’t really existed until say 25-30 years ago. You can’t dog on something for not even being there.

    HMF, I’m not dogging Asian American studies, or Ethnic Studies more broadly. Maybe this is my California perspective, but these disciplines were designed intentionally to have a different pedagogical and research outlook. Over the years more and more academics have been trying to bring it “in line” with older disciplines, but there is, in my opinion, greater value for community experience, experiential learning, and a desire to break down artificial divisions between society and the ivory tower in these disciplines (Asian Am, Native Am, Latin@/Chican@ Am, Eth Stds.) in general. I personally think that makes them worth studying.

    The underlying point was that it is not useful to try to use some elitist ridiculous measuring stick to measure all disciplines. Each has its own nuance and history, and it’s important to think of the parts as well as the whole.

  16. Kal’s got the experience and fame that make him credible to teach the course.

    By that argument, Paris Hilton can teach a course on the social and individual pathologies associated with extreme popularity and media coverage. But she can barely spell her own name, why? Because her brain isn’t trained to think about the experiences she’s experiencing. That’s what a Ph.d demonstrates.

    Honorary degrees are usually given to people who’ve done 100 times the work necessary to achieve a PhD. That doesnt diminsh the degree.

    Also would you object to a young novelist like (to pick a random example) Kamila Shamsie teaching at a university? What if Anoushka Shankar was invited to teach a class in music theory at Princeton. Would that be a terrible thing? After all, she doesn’t even have a PhD.

    Ph.D.s aren’t required to teach in a general sense. I never said that. I already stated Spike Lee’s teaching duties at NYU and Harvard. In addition, I already said the question is more of creditation, and whether those credits are applicable to a degree. And yes, if an academic institution (ivy league or not) issues a degree, then they should have the right to decide which academic credentials are required for their teachers. How is that a broad elitist measuring stick?

    I’m all for hands on/industry experience, but there are tons of other venues for this, especially in the film world!

  17. Sorry, but as I agree with most of the above comments about U of Penn being an Ivy-League breeding ground, yet Penn not being so worthy of teaching there, we mustn’t forget, it is a business like any other institution. It all seems more like a thinly veiled PR stunt to capitalize on his presence. Asian Americans have not been around long enough in Hollywood to warrant teaching a course. Seems to coincidental that Penn has a pilot coming out, 2 forthcoming films, and is trying to further a public image.

    Ironically, I just read in Elle magazine how he wants to go back for his Master’s Degree. Could this be the admissions test for him?

  18. 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.

    This seems to be the main purpose of having Kal Penn present the lectures. Given the severe paucity (or perhaps even complete lack) of ethnic minorities with Ph.Ds and an acting/Hollywood resume, it doesn’t seem like such a bad deal to me.

  19. University teaching is a racket, and editorials in student newspapers are usually composed by undergrads in whose interest it is to think that the education they are getting is not the product of a ramshackle racket, when in fact it is.

    Very true.

  20. HMF #18: “By that argument, Paris Hilton can teach a course on the social and individual pathologies associated with extreme popularity and media coverage. But she can barely spell her own name, why? Because her brain isn’t trained to think about the experiences she’s experiencing. That’s what a Ph.d demonstrates.”

    I agree. Having the real world experience and being able to repurpose it to teach others are two very different things. I have worked both sides of the street – a ton of real world experience and a little of adjunct teaching experience.

  21. But she can barely spell her own name, why? Because her brain isn’t trained to think about the experiences she’s experiencing. That’s what a Ph.d demonstrates.

    Absolutely a phd can demonstrate this but it’s not necessary. According to Asian American Studies Program Director Grace Kao, Kal has been brought on to, “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.

    Like chickpea said, let’s see what the bananna has to offer after removing the peel.

  22. Ok, being the foreigner who doesn’t understand why an Ivy League university is so special (even after throwing it through Wikipedia), I think, give the man a chance. One of the best classes I sat through, as an theatre undergrad, was Hone Kouka’s (leading NZ playwright) class on Maori theatre. As a pracitioner, his experiences, knowledge and contacts with the industry proved to as valuable and insightful on the overall history of theatre as what we were learning from our tenured Lecturers.

    The two classes Kalpen Modi is teaching – “Images of Asian Americans in the Media” and “Contemporary American Teen Films” seem apt for his experience. It would, IMHO, make for interesting papers as he has experience as both observer and participant.

  23. I hope the introduction to “Images of Asian Americans in the Media” is “From the man who brought us Kumar Patel and Taj Mahal Badalandabad…”

    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.

  24. HMF #18: “By that argument, Paris Hilton can teach a course on the social and individual pathologies associated with extreme popularity and media coverage. But she can barely spell her own name, why? Because her brain isn’t trained to think about the experiences she’s experiencing. That’s what a Ph.d demonstrates.” I agree. Having the real world experience and being able to repurpose it to teach others are two very different things. I have worked both sides of the street – a ton of real world experience and a little of adjunct teaching experience.

    I disagree. I think the statement conflates two distinct points. People may or may not learn from their life experiences, just as students may or may not learn from their academic experiences. The point is a 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. Believe me I have met enough clueless Phds from top departments and enough very smart and perceptive people without much formal education to disabuse me of the notion that you have to be “smart” to get a PhD (this applies to most of the social science and almost all humanities disciplines). By “enough” I mean a more or less random sampling–meaning the only selection effect I could think of was region– of people (n= > 50 for each group).

  25. “It all seems more like a thinly veiled PR stunt to capitalize on his presence. Asian Americans have not been around long enough in Hollywood to warrant teaching a course. Seems to coincidental that Penn has a pilot coming out, 2 forthcoming films, and is trying to further a public image.”

    while i have no idea whether this is a pr stunt or whether kal penn is qualified to teach or not, i would have to disagree about the asian-american presence in hollywood. sabu, sesue hayawaka, merle oberon (who had to hide her asian side), pat morita, nancy kwon, duke kahanamoku, george takei, sajjid khan (even though he wasn’t american at the time) and several others represent a longstanding asian-american presence in hollywood – at various levels of stardom and types of roles played and each probably faced some of the issues that asian-american and other minority actors still face today in hollywood. i think a course is warranted, although the debate over who is to teach it is another matter.

  26. “Believe me I have met enough clueless Phds from top departments and enough very smart and perceptive people without much formal education to disabuse me of the notion that you have to be “smart” to get a PhD”

    I wasn’t advocating a teaching credential, whether a PhD or similar, as a prerequisite for being able to teach. Certainly even an uneducated person with a deep real world knowledge of some subject could be a better teacher than someone who had acquired a PhD in the same field. My point was that real world experience does not automatically transfer to teaching, and in some cases, may not at all.

  27. A similar uproar was caused when Northwestern’s B-school invited Oprah Winfrey to teach a class on entrepreneurship in media. Some students were complaining that she didn’t have academic credentials, a ridiculous concern given that the MBA degree is meant to be practical and who better to teach such a course than a woman who created an empire out of nothing. But I’m not sure how I feel about these two proposed undergrad courses. They don’t seem substantial enough for a humanities degree, which serves a different purpose than an MBA, at any school. What does an adjunct class at Penn mean ? Does this mean it’s a noncredit/1 credit lecture series…or is this for “real” ?

  28. Certainly even an uneducated person with a deep real world knowledge of some subject could be a better teacher than someone who had acquired a PhD in the same field.

    exactly; this was also what I was getting at. Its not the PhD (or “real world” experience) that matters, but all the other qualities I point out. Incidentally there was a typo in my posting above: a sentence should have read, The same qualities and propensities (intellectual independence, willingness to challenge “authoritative” wisdom, and rational thinking) that allow one to learn from books

  29. I understand the argument that Kal Pen teaching at Penn might paint South Asian Media Studies as not a true field of technical academia. At the same time Naina’s argument that Kal Pen is only there for one semester, so will not likely get in the way of those with PhDs getting positions, makes a lot of sense to me also.

  30. hmm… dude said in an interview that the fact that Gogol is Indian is not at all interesting… that puts in question his “deep knowledge”…

  31. There’s real world knowledge and a certain charisma or knack for teaching (neither of which requires a PhD) and then there’s the background in theory and in a discipline that allows one to teach a subject in ways that relate it to wider academic questions/literatures, and training or experience in teaching methods, which is really not obvious. You don’t need to have finished a PhD to adjunct, but you generally need to have passed your comps and had some experience running a class, usually as a TA, and to be able to calibrate reading and assignments to the level of the students and to the norms of the school. It might look easy but believe me it takes a lot of planning and preparation. Anyone who has taught/adjuncted knows that it’s something that takes a few tries and some practice. Many schools hire a “star” as a visiting distinguished prof or whatever, but they don’t teach a full class, they do a series of guest lectures or master classes – and that’s what it sounds like Kalpen Modi should be doing.

  32. Certainly even an uneducated person with a deep real world knowledge of some subject could be a better teacher than someone who had acquired a PhD in the same field.

    As someone with a PhD, I’m vaguely hurt by this, but I’m not sure exactly why.

    All I can say is that you cannot generalize about PhDs in quite this way. In some fields of endeavor, acquiring deep real world knowledge of a subject may actually require a PhD. I also think that there are fields where a PhD often does bring more to the table (or lectern) that someone with “deep real world knowledge” (whatever that is).

  33. Certainly even an uneducated person with a deep real world knowledge of some subject could be a better teacher than someone who had acquired a PhD in the same field.
    As someone with a PhD, I’m vaguely hurt by this, but I’m not sure exactly why.

    Having a PhD doesn’t free one from the demands of ego.

    Don’t be hurt by it. It’s the simple truth.

  34. Kobayashi beat me to it. But I was going to say that as a soon to be PhD (in a “social science” discipline), I have exactly the opposite reaction.

  35. It’s not the demands of ego so much as the unearned (and in some cases, uninformed) derision on here that I find odd.

  36. I actually think that derision of PhD-clad (especially in the humanities, but also in many social sciences) people is a very healthy sign.

  37. I actually think that derision of PhD-clad (especially in the humanities, but also in many social sciences) people is a very healthy sign.

    Well, not all PhDs are in the social science, which is why I indicated in #36 that the principle isn’t generalizable across all fields of endeavor.

    I’m not denying that there’s a certain elitism associated with the academic “PhDs only” stance. But to say that the PhD holds no value greater than deep real world experience goes too far. In fact, in some fields, the PhD is approximately equivalent to real world experience (and maybe even a prerequisite to it).

  38. But to say that the PhD holds no value greater than deep real world experience goes too far.

    Yes it goes to far. That’s why no one said it.

  39. I beg to differ:

    Certainly even an uneducated person with a deep real world knowledge of some subject could be a better teacher than someone who had acquired a PhD in the same field.

    It doesn’t specify social sciences, so how is it not a generalization?

  40. I’m not denying that there’s a certain elitism associated with the academic “PhDs only” stance. But to say that the PhD holds no value greater than deep real world experience goes too far.

    Then we don’t disagree as much. This is what I said:

    People may or may not learn from their life experiences, just as students may or may not learn from their academic experiences. The point is a 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.

    True this probably does not hold to the same extent for the physical Sciences, since given the expensive equipment etc. involved, it is very difficult to gain independent knowledge (in which controlled experiments play a crucial role) outside the universities (difficult, but not impossible). Therefore increasingly, one is unlike to meet good scientists who do not have PhDs.

  41. Don’t I feel like a moron now?

    Or, to paraphrase Mr. Kobayashi, having a Ph.D. doesn’t free one from being an idiot. ;)

  42. As a prof. myself, I think this is fine, especially if the courses are part of a balanced slate of offerings, and the syllabi he’s using are produced in consultation with the established faculty in the AAS department and Cinema Studies programs at Penn.

    The fact that U-Penn is an Ivy League school is not irrelevant, though not in the way you might think. Because the students at Ivies are often really eager and ambitious, they often need less direction from a “strong” faculty presence than do many other college students. They will probably be satisfied with the course, as long as the discussions are intelligent.

    I’m tempted to write Grace Kao and ask her if she could forward a simplified version of the syllabus — so perhaps we could learn more about what Kal Penn has in mind in terms of reading and organization. (I’ve been tempted to do an SM post where I give my own idea of what could be in a course like this — we would start with Sabu, back in the 1940s!)

    One other thing I should add — I recently was the moderator at a screening of “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” at the university where I teach. It was part of a “Jewish diaspora” film series! (The writers of Harold and Kumar are Jewish, as is I believe the director.)

  43. The fact that U-Penn is an Ivy League school is not irrelevant, though not in the way you might think. Because the students at Ivies are often really eager and ambitious

    This person (prof. of philosophy at Rutgers) might differ about the statement, as would this guy

  44. Because the students at Ivies are often really eager and ambitious, they often need less direction from a “strong” faculty presence than do many other college students

    The implication being that students as Podunk State U. are probably less eager and ambitious, and therefore require more direction?