In Conversation with Professor Amita Dhanda NALSAR University

In Conversation with Professor Amita Dhanda NALSAR University

Anuj Agrawal

Professor Amita Dhanda, joined the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research University (Nalsar) in 1999. In this interview with Bar & Bench, the professor talks about the initial years at Nalsar, the challenges which law schools in India face and the recent academic changes at Nalsar.

Bar & Bench: Could you tell us a bit about how you ended up at Nalsar?

Amita Dhanda: I came to Nalsar as its first professor in 1999, a year after the university was founded. I was also the acting Registrar of the university for more than two years.

B&B: And before you joined Nalsar?

AD: Before Nalsar, I was at the Indian Law Institute in Delhi for about 15 years. I did my Masters from Delhi University at a time when some of the best law professors in the country were teaching there. Those were the days. The kind of commitment those folks had! We were, as Masters students given such royal treatment! We were nurtured through the entire education process. They invested in you; believed in you and you rose to that belief.

I started my career as an academic – I did my PhD from Delhi University as well and had, may be, half a day’s stint at the Bar, and decided that it was not for me (smiles). I then went into academics and have never regretted my decision.

B&B: And what got you to Nalsar?

AD: Well, basically it was a new institution which was coming up and they wanted me to come in as a professor. A new institution meant that you would have the freedom to envision legal education as you saw fit. Coming in as a senior faculty meant you have would have little more of a voice in how things would work out.

B&B: And what were the initial years like?

AD: Oh they were great fun! We were at Barkatpura till 2000. The third batch onwards, we started from here [the present Nalsar campus]. Back then the academic block was semi-complete; we had some residences and some hostels constructed. In the initial years, classes were held in hostels, there were offices in the hostel rooms… I think it was very exciting for all of us because the sense of “team” was very strong within the faculty. We were doing something new, innovating; trying a number of things.

B&B: Such as?

AD: Things like tutorials, skill development; heightened student-faculty interaction; a lot of individual attention etc. For the first five years, Nalsar had just 60 students per batch and the first batch had only 35 students. So it was a total of barely150 students – you knew every student by name, who had come for class and who was doing well and who was having problems.

When we went in for recruitment [of faculty] we took a policy decision that we would not appoint on contract but straight away go for tenure appointments. What we learnt from looking at the experiences of other law schools was that whilst through contract appointments, people were indemnifying themselves against a possible mistake; faculty attrition was high. With contractual appointments you could not really get people to have a sense of ownership with the place.

A number of people came back from different parts of the country and especially people belonging to this region because NALSAR was offering tenure appointments.

B&B: But don’t tenure appointments mean that it is more difficult to remove people whose performance you are not happy with?

AD: True but we thought we would take a chance. And if you have been looking at the law schools, you will see that they have been plagued by the problem of [insufficient] faculty.

B&B: And why do you think this is so?

AD:  I think there are two aspects to this. One, of course, is the sharp drop of investment in the Masters program. If you don’t have a good Masters program, then you are purely depending upon the alumni to come back or you are depending on people who have done their Masters in a traditional university. Now when you get faculty from traditional universities to teach at national law schools, you have difficulties because the two systems have different demands.

B&B: Different in what way?

AD: Well, in the traditional setup, you have your constant lecturing with an exam at the end. In the [national law school] system, you have these multiple kinds of testing processes such as surprise tests; mid-terms, vivas etc. Projects are a huge challenge; they are a research oriented testing process. And a person coming from a traditional university who has not done large scale research feels somewhat overwhelmed in needing to guide students.

Another matter for some people relates to comfort in exclusively speaking in English. Further my students are snobs so the teacher needs to both know the subject and look smart. At the same time in fairness to my students I should add that this matter of dress, smartness even language matters [to them] in the first instance; once they are convinced a teacher knows her subject then all else becomes irrelevant. The teacher is then valued for the actual teaching and the substance.

Even so there is a social divide between teacher and students. This difference of backgrounds results in varied moral expectations, a different understanding of student-teacher relationships etc.

B&B: And how do you think one can attract good faculty?

AD: This is something that Nalsar has started acting upon. Nalsar alumni or law school alumni I think are best suited to teaching at national law schools.

B&B: Well even if you have identified them, how do you get them here?

AD: For a while now, our policy with respect to hiring alumni was not very encouraging; we are changing that. At this point of time, we have at least two alumni members. We have alumni dropping in and doing short, credit-courses and stuff. Evidently, it is very attractive per se to come back to your alma mater and teach. And if the alma mater, on top of it, is welcoming and asking you to come, I think it can attract alumni.

B&B: Moving on, what is your opinion of the students emerging out of Nalsar over the last decade or so?

AD: There is no doubt that when you are teaching here you are teaching the cream of the country. [The students] are really bright, so it is a pleasure. And they are willing to work hard. Where I have a bit of a difficulty is that the diversity [of the student body] is coming down.

B&B: And how do you resolve this?

AD: I think scholarships are one solution. If national law universities are going to continue with the common admission test, then I would say that the test has to be dramatically redesigned so as to garner diversity.

B&B: What aspects need to be relooked?

AD: The test cannot be so urban-centric, so elitist etc. If [a national law school] is to represent the whole country, it must get students from every walk of life. What I find is that we get the best students from the smaller towns. The kind of drive and enthusiasm you get from them, you do not get from the big city children. The big city baccha [child] feels that he has got into Nalsar and so he has arrived.

B&B: What do you think about the high fees that national law schools charge?

AD: I think that if we are serious about really making legal education accessible for everybody in the country then a certain amount of the cost should be picked up by the State.

B&B: And do you think that this is a practical solution?

AD: See, an elitist engineering or management school is still acceptable but an elitist law school is kind of self-defeating. If a law school severs its connection with even the aspiration for justice, it is rendering its own existence meaningless.

My biggest quarrel with the fee raise is the impact it has on student diversity. I have a class of 80 students but it feels like I am teaching only one student. Yes there are personality differences but social, economic or political diversity has taken a beating.

B&B: You must have been to other law schools as well. Do you think that there is something which sets a Nalsar student apart from the rest?

AD: I would say yes.

B&B: In what way?

AD: Largely, I would say that one of the things that we have worked hard on is developing the capacity to think for oneself.  We have put in a lot of effort in that direction.

There has been quite a bit of discussion on what we have done and what we ought to do but at this point of time I am optimistic. Nalsar has just initiated some huge academic reforms and it looks like they will bear fruit.

B&B: What are some of these reforms?

AD: One, we have worked on credits in a scientific way and introduced credit portability. Credits have been allocated on the basis of intensity and course difficulty. One credit requires at least 16 classes for the course. So if you have a 3-credit course it means you have 48 hours of teaching in that course etc.

B&B: Do you think that is just too many class hours? Do teachers have enough time for this?

AD: It is an internationally accepted standard. The way we have worked things out is that nobody does more than 11 hours of teaching in a week, which is not too much.

Essentially teachers will not do more than 8 credits worth of teaching in a semester. The load on the teachers as well as that on the students has been rationalized. Every subject does not have the same number of classes.

For the first 3 years a system of tutorials has been introduced. The tutorials will be taken by masters and final year students. We have also come out with a portfolio system of allocating projects. See, every student has to do 5 projects in the semester but all the 5 projects need not be research papers.

This system was introduced to promote original research and develop time management. It is to this end that a number of innovative tasks were devised which had to be undertaken on a staggered basis through the semester.

Consequently, we sit down as a faculty and allocate to each student a portfolio. Say I have four other colleagues teaching the first year students.

We decide that the first project will have to be submitted say in one month. Now all students will not have to submit their project in the same subject, some will have it in English, some in History etc.

Some students will be doing newspaper discovery – the basic idea is that you get them to read the newspaper either from a historical lens or a political science lens etc. Things which you are teaching them theoretically, you now get to see how it is playing out in reality.

The next type of project is film review. As a legal method teacher, I  ask students to pick films which they can criticize from a legal perspective.

B&B: And how do you deal with plagiarism?

AD: See one of the things that is automatically happening now is that each year, the film will change, the newspaper report will change because these are contemporary issues. Plagiarism is automatically cut down.

The third project they have to do is to do an interview. For example, I have a student who has interviewed a rights activist in Bhopal. Another student interviewed a specialist in DNA testing. It is a lot of fun and the students are really enjoying it. I have students who are reading  stuff that they would otherwise never have read.

And the project is not the answers but the background reading required to formulate the questions. My point is that I can only judge you on your questions, the answers I can’t control. Of course there is a small section on methodology, how was the person identified, how easy or difficult it was to get an interview etc. This gives them social skills, and the confidence required to speak to people.

B&B: And there must be one traditional project as well?

AD: Of course. The fourth one is a legislative or literature review and the last one is a research paper. So there is one research paper in the whole semester which is allocated to you right at the beginning of the semester. So you have the entire semester for the research paper

B&B: This sounds quite exciting.

AD: I personally am very excited about this. I don’t think anybody has experimented with projects in this manner. We are addressing the problem of plagiarism in a constructive way. We are teaching them to do new things, different things within an allocated time. This time we have allocated one project of each kind to them. By the next semester, we will let them bid for their projects.

The deadlines are non-negotiable. We have a marks docking system; marks are deducted for every day beyond the deadline starting from a quarter of a mark for the first day and then gradually increasing. And when the competition is acute as it is and [the students] know they can’t get extensions, they also join the game. This time all of us got our projects on time.

This system has huge possibilities. The student is learning much more than doing a stupid kind of mechanical research project. And, in my understanding, that can be a huge contribution to the student’s education.

We are also addressing the problem of multiple intelligences – everyone is not going to be equally good with each type of project.

B&B: What do you think about the career choices made by most law graduates from national law schools?

AD: As of now, they don’t seem to be having too much imagination on that count. So they are doing stupid things – all of them go off to the private sector.

B&B: Well isn’t that their choice?

AD: See, when I say “stupid things” I mean it is a herd mentality. They do not consider whether they are best suited for it or whether they will flower. Some are meant for it but so many others are gravitating towards it because that is seen as symbol of success. We want to really let them explore other options.

B&B: As a teacher, what drives or motivates you?

AD: I enjoy it. I enjoy meeting this diverse range of young people. I like the nurturance and guidance that I can give. For me, a successful course is when my students teach me half a dozen things at the end of the course, not what I teach them. Every batch of students brings something which is unique to that batch.

I joined this university as a professor with all the “wide eyed-ness” of a young faculty member. Like a young greenhorn I wanted to experiment and try out new stuff and I think that spirit of fun and adventure has not left me. The child in me is alive and kicking and it is that child who learns with every batch I teach.

B&B: How do you decide which faculty member gets to teach a particular course?

AD: Earlier, everyone more or less identified their curriculum and then went about teaching it. What we have done now is that everybody presents their curriculum before the entire faculty. And then we deliberate on it as a team analyze it back and forth and jointly settle the course outline. This process   has had a huge positive impact on all the courses because everyone has a peer reviewed course and a teaching plan. Further, the constant reviewing keeps the curriculum up to date.

B&B: So a faculty member is more or less free to decide their own curriculum?

AD: Yes except that you have to justify your curriculum, which I think is fair.

B&B: Last question. Why do you think anyone should join the teaching profession?

AD:  I suppose if you are passionate about teaching than you really have to love people, all kinds of people. Somebody else’s growth should give you a high. If those are the kinds of things that make you happy, then you will be happy teaching.

For me, my teaching helps my research substantially. I have reciprocal learning relationships with my students and these relationships make teaching worthwhile for me.

Anybody who wants to do large scale reading and feels that, “I got a degree but I don’t really think I know” – then I think the best way to rectify it is to teach. It is like all the things that did not work for you as a student, you make it work for your students. Most importantly, you must enjoy it. There is no point in doing anything if you are not having fun.

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