Columbia Kvetching

“You rarely meet someone who loves Columbia, and you never meet someone who likes it,” Alex Feerst said. “That’s just normal. Me and my friends had a motto: ‘If you meet someone who loves Columbia, run.’”

Mr. Feerst was trying to explain the Web site he founded-CULPA, the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability-and why it is seething with philippics like these:

“Kenneth Jackson is so busy trying to remind his students that he is president of the NY Historical Society (and therefore is being generous by teaching us with his precious time) or that he has a huge front lawn out in Westchester, (which means … he is a rich mofo) that he actually repeated a lecture once!”

Mr. Jackson, the chair of Columbia’s history department and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City , is in fact just one of several hundred professors, teaching assistants, lab instructors and adjuncts currently indicted by CULPA. Mr. Feerst, now an English Ph.D. student at Duke, started the site as a senior in 1997 because he was angry at the university’s apparent indifference to good teaching. For instance, he said, his roommate’s organic-chemistry professor won a teaching prize one year and then was denied tenure the next. In retaliation, Mr. Feerst began posting his friends’ grisly online testimonials praising or burying their instructors.

The year after he graduated, however, CULPA closed down. No one had the energy to run it. And the more official-and sanitized- Columbia College Student Council’s Course Guide , compiled by the student council, was available online. Last year, however, as the consensus developed that the Course Guide may have been a little too edited, a couple of seniors relaunched the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability. Now the moral weight is back on Mr. Feerst’s shoulders, and he feels happy but a little guilty. “People should be held accountable for the stupid things they say in public,” he said. “In retrospect, though, I felt like I was chopping people off at the heels. It was a little juvenile.” As he wrote, anonymously, on the site’s introductory page: “Its profit, as my therapist says, is that it ‘satisfies a misdirected generational impulse to rebel.’”

Misdirected generational impulses abound on CULPA. There are few apparent constraints on content, generally excepting the obscene and the actionable, but not the ungrammatical and the misspelled. And unlike the Course Guide ‘s evaluators, CULPA’s aren’t asked to prove they took the class they’re reviewing-or, in fact, if they are Columbia students at all. “I don’t think people lied, though,” Mr. Feerst said. “A lot of professors got mad that everyone was anonymous. They said it wasn’t fair. But I don’t think so. It’s like, you don’t even bother to learn your students’ names and you’re mad that we’re anonymous.”

In any case, every non-libelous allegation is published pretty much as is, on faith. Since submission to the voluntary and anonymous, some of the blurbs can be catty.

We learn, for example, that Moore Collegiate professor of history Isser Woloch’s students call him “Pisser”; that logic and rhetoric T.A. Jeffrey (Jeffie) Trask wears “girly sandals”; that contemporary-civilization instructor Mark Pirouet has bad hair; that psychology professor Herbert Terrace sometimes “falls asleep in his own class” (one student compared his class to “the feeling of being raped again and again”); that international-relations professor Kimberly Zisk sports an “extensive and vastly unpredictable wardrobe”; that adjunct assistant psychology professor Shanna Richman told her students “Morphine has no effect on me”; that psychology-lab administrator Kathleen Taylor smiles when rats “pee all over her rat-urine soaked lab coat”; that William R. Shepherd professor of history and director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean William Harris is “definitely into S and M.”

“I liked it,” that last reviewer added.

In response, Ms. Richman said, “I don’t take drugs casually,” explaining that she once required morphine for medical reasons. Mr. Pirouet said he found the site “very interesting,” noting that he had forwarded it to his friends. Other instructors did not comment-Ms. Zisk, for one, stressed that she is a private individual as far as libel law goes.

But most of Columbia’s big-shot public intellectuals didn’t seem to mind a little caviling-or else were too busy hanging out with their ideas to threaten us with a lawsuit. With that, we present the following bestiary:

Kenneth T. Jackson

Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences. President of the New-York Historical Society; 2001 New York Council for the Humanities Scholar of the Year; past president of the Organization of American Historians; editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City and The Dictionary of American Biography ; author of the seminal American history Crabgrass Frontier .

CULPA: “My favorite quotation thus far is: ‘The British brought the Hessians with them to New York. Hessians are Germans with big boots and big hats.’”

“Needs to brush up on how an adult acts in public. DON’T BE FOOLED!!!”

“Loves to talk about the horse poop problem in NYC and that is what this class is … horse poop.”

“He skipped class a few times and babysat us with documentaries where he was of course the key speaker-giving once again the same lectures that he’d given in class …. “

Has a “red sports car and … apartment on the Upper West Side … paid for by his landmark books.”

“There are several professors at Columbia whose reputations as teachers are vastly overexaggerated. Ken Jackson’s reputation is the most overexaggerated of all …. I can honestly say that I learned more about 19th-century New York from reading THE AGE OF INNOCENCE in high school than from taking his class.”

Mr. Jackson responds by e-mail: “I confess that I do not know about CULPA and do not remember saying that Hessians were Germans with big boots and big hats, albeit that would probably have been true during the battles around NYC in 1776. And I do not have time to check the site as I have 167 unread email messages and as you will notice it is about 11 pm and I am still in my office at Columbia trying to dig out from student papers. But the larger problem is not this or that paper or lecture, but the fact that for the past year I have been president of the New York Historical Society even while, despite being on reduced time, teaching more students at Columbia than probably any other professor. So I am not doing anything well and must figure out how to work more effectively and how to regain control of my life. Even my marriage, after forty years, is being threatened by a schedule that never lets up. But I ramble.”

Robert Jervis

Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Relations. Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; received the Grawemeyer Award for his 1990 book, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution ; serves on the board of nine scholarly journals; over 70 publications.

CULPA: “TERRIBLE. He’s completely boring and prefers name-dropping to lecturing. When he does actually lecture, good luck with keeping your eyes open.”

“Jervis has got to be one of the most boring lecturers I’ve ever been subjected to. In addition, a lot of the reading is dry and seems pretty pointless, his own precious book included. But you sure as hell don’t need to do all the reading, and you definitely don’t need to attend every lecture. Oh, and yeah, as you might expect, he doesn’t go near your papers or your quizzes … all the grading bitch work is done by the T.A.’s. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as that they aren’t so harsh. And then of course you’ve got Columbia’s unofficial grade inflation policy to pick up any slack you (or they) might have left behind.”

“One great thing is that its generally a pretty small class (30-40) for an IR class with such a famous professor, and you can participate and actively gain from what he’s saying. If not, you’ll just listen to the droning up at the front.”

Mr. Jervis: “Bizarre … just wrong. I am not boring. My lectures have a spontaneity to them that some students sometimes call disorganized, but I’m simply not boring.” Mr. Jervis speculated that this evaluator was a flunkee driven by “revenge.”

“I have to admit, I did look at [the site's evaluation of] one person I find annoying to see if the students find him annoying, too. The comments posted here don’t show the students being as perceptive as I would have hoped. I’ve heard him lecture and his lectures are, well, boring. I know him … and it’s just his personal style.”

Bob Thurman

Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies. He was cited by Time as one of the “25 most influential Americans”; first American monk ordained by the Dalai Lama in India; co-founded Tibet House in New York in 1987; author of lots of books on Buddhism and translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead ; father of actress Uma Thurman; father-in-law of actor Ethan Hawke.

CULPA: “Thurman’s lectures provide you with no content and are often filled with absolute anti-West drivel and an auto-erotic homage to his ego.”

“3 words: Overrated, Overrated, Overrated. If you’re taking this class because you think you’ll catch a glimpse of his movie star daughter Uma you’re out of luck. You will hear alot about his beautiful Swedish wife and how good friends Thurman is with the Dalai Lama. He looks like the man from Titanic -you know, the scary valet guy.”

“Thurman gives tenure a bad name. If he did bother to show up he had the class laughing at other students (those ballsy enough to disagree with him). If he decided he would rather travel than teach, the class was led by TAs with similarly ‘enlightened’ personalities to that of Professor Windbag.”

Mr. Thurman, via e-mail: “The writers are funny and rude. When you read these negative comments about yourself, you feel bad-but then when you read other people’s you feel a bit better. Still you can recognize perhaps some errors you might have made that irritated some people. Then you reflect how few the commentators are in relation to how many are in the class, and you wonder how the service solicits the reviews. Finally you wonder why so many students want to take the course every year if there are such negative underground reviews. There must be another channel of word of mouth that the service doesn’t tap into.

“The final thought I have is how unfair this source is for our untenured faculty. Administrators can say they would never pay attention to it, but if there was a difficult case, I would imagine someone on some committee might look at it, and get a funny impression.”

Simon Schama

University Professor at Columbia. Former art critic for The New Yorker magazine; honorary Commander of the British Empire; author of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution , Landscape and Memory and Rembrandt’s Eyes , among others.

CULPA: He “spends more time getting knighted and such than teaching or holding office hours.”

“A charmer, an eloquent lecturer, and certainly a showsman. He’s also self-obsessed and ungentle. He loves the sound of his own voice and he cuddles up to his fame as though it were a fluffy teddy bear.”

Mr. Schama did not comment.

Robert Mundell

Professor of Economics. Winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in economics; former editor of The Journal of Political Economy ; adviser to the United Nations, the I.M.F., the World Bank, the European Commission and several governments in Latin America and Europe, the Federal Reserve Board, the U.S. Treasury and the government of Canada; co-founder of supply-side economics.

CULPA : “Yes, this man won the Nobel Prize in Economics. We all understand that the econ department considers him the MAN. But be forewarned before you take this course. Even before he won the Nobel, you could tell that it was a bad sign when his TA’s would be teaching more classes than him. OK, so maybe he’s busy these days building his palatial villa in Spain and a little too important for us undergraduates, but cmon, we should reap some of the benefits of such an esteemed scholar, shouldn’t we? After all, we are paying top dollar to come here …. “

Mr. Mundell said he was not familiar with CULPA. He did not otherwise comment.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities. Former Fellow of the National Humanities Institute, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan, the Humanities Research Center at the Australian National University, the Center for the Study of Social Sciences (Calcutta), the Davis Center for Historical Studies (Princeton), the Rockefeller Foundation, Kent Fellow and Guggenheim Fellow; author of Outside in the Teaching Machine ; translator of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology ; founder of post-colonial studies.

CULPA: “A little odd, to put it mildly. She will go to any length to make her lecture interesting, even if that means extended strolls down her personal memory lane.”

Ms. Spivak said she was not familiar with CULPA. She did not otherwise comment.

Manning Marable

Professor of History and director of the African-American Studies Program at Columbia. Author of Black Liberation in Conservative America and Speaking Truth to Power ; co-founder of the Black Radical Congress; national co-chairman of the Committees of Correspondence, a democratic socialist organization.

CULPA: “Fantastic … Actually a fairly easy ‘A’ disguised as a hard-hitting seminar type class …. There’s two 10-page papers (the only assignments for the whole semester) and they are completely unrelated to the reading. One is a biography of a black intellectual (reminiscent of many 5th grade assignments during black history month) and the other is a look at a problem in black academia, again, not too hard. This makes the reading fairly optional-it’s good stuff, but if you don’t have the time then don’t kill yourself. A good choice overall.”

“The general consensus is that this course is fantastic. There is certainly plenty of opportunity to learn, as far as historical facts go. But Marable, though he is an important Black intellectual of the day, just doesn’t seem to look too deeply into the big questions of African-American history.”

Mr. Marable did not comment.

Eric Foner

DeWitt Clinton Professor of History. Author, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War and Who Owns History? ; served as President of the American Historical Association in 2000.

CULPA : “To quote Flavor Flav, believe the hype. He is … funny as hell, armed with the self-deprecating humor of a white opener on Russell Simmons.”

“An overrated class. Foner is a clear, articulate and concise lecturer, but I do not feel that he has the passion for this course that I would expect him to have.”

“More people have read Eric Foner’s version of American History than any other historian’s, since he consulted for an attraction in Disneyworld. In keeping with the theme of history for the masses, he’s got major leftist roots. Legend has it that Foner’s great-grandparents indirectly caused the Russian Revolution by booting Trotsky out of their Lower East Side apartment, the impetus for that rabblerouser’s return to Russia.”

Mr. Foner: “Generally speaking the disgruntled will be more likely to respond. I looked at the criticisms of other faculty in the department, and some of the criticisms ring true …. CULPA fulfills a certain desire for entertainment that should maybe be satisfied in other ways.”