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Raw Wit and Wisdom: A tête-à-tête with Professor Somashekar

Introducing Quirk’s new interview columnist, Prannv Dhawan (Batch of 2022)!
Writing for Quirk’s interview column, ‘Conversations’, Prannv, along with Riddhi RS (Batch of 2022) interview our favourite Economics professor (you know who he is).

Prof. T.S Somashekhar has got the unique distinction of giving law school students more sleepless nights than any moot or project ever could. His dry wit, sarcastic comments and raw intellect ensure Economics I and II never get boring. We at Quirk decided to interview the man himself to find out what goes on in his ever calculating mind…

For many Law Schoolites, your courses are the first and last time we study economics. What according to you is the role of economics in law and how do you think we need to see it?

As you know, whenever I first meet a fresh batch I always tell them that law is an instrument which basically seeks to alter the behaviour of people in a manner so as to bring about desirable changes in society. And economics is a study of human behaviour. In economics we study how incentives and disincentives create and bring about changes in individuals or in the behaviour of institutions or firms or markets, as you may. Therefore, law and economics are a perfect match.

You have been here for a long time now, what is your favourite thing about teaching in law school or the funniest moment that has happened in class? 

(Laughs) That’s a difficult one, really. I don’t know what my favourite thing is, there are several nice instances. To be honest, I think every class that I take is always special for me, it’s always nice to interact.

However, there was this one instance when you had this girl with perfectly straight hair who had covered her face with her straight hair and was fast asleep behind it, while sitting up straight. And then I called out to her and she obviously didn’t respond. Unfortunately, that was a big giveaway and then she had to part her hair and get herself discovered.

There was another instance when we used to have micro and macro economics in the first trimester and everyone used to complain about it being too fast and too much. I mean you guys have it easy, compared to them. They used to try their best to delay things and so they would get up and try their best to ask questions. There was this girl who stood up to ask a question but she had nothing to ask and then she was “ah” “um” and you know.. (laughs) And then I said- “It’s alright, I understand what you’re trying to do. So you can sit down.”

So yes, there are these funny moments.

How were you as a student and how do you see the role of university, especially Law School change over the years?

Well, I really don’t think I was a studious person as such but gradually as I moved out of school and went on to study in the so called “reputed institutions” in Bangalore I became a bit more studious because then your objective is clearly set.

Um, what is the change that I see? To be honest, there’s quite a difference between what law school is and what other universities are, but am I seeing any other change? The only thing that probably I’m seeing is that there are many more institutions coming up but I don’t know if they are the sort of institutions that there needs to be. Because what most of these institutions do is that they basically require you to read up and, you know, just spill it all out. Unfortunately, I think that is still what goes on in most university level education. What it doesn’t do is a challenge a student to think and question. That is what is important.

Do you think law school does that; does it challenge students to think and question?

Actually, you must tell me that. I certainly try my best to get you all to think and you know, that’s the whole point, to think and to ask questions. From my interactions with all of you I think, yes, most of you are thinking. I don’t think you all take whatever is taught as unquestionable.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about falling standards or the problems in law school that people experience. What are the things that you think should be reformed in law school?

Firstly, about falling standards itself, I think all such questions should be answered empirically. Now, my answer to that will be, how do you measure falling standards? Are you looking at average CGPA coming down on the side of students? Are you looking at it from the teachers’ side- any sort of qualitative changes which also reflects on the teaching side? So falling standards should be addressed both from teacher’s side as well as from the student’s side. For the teachers you all do the course assessment, so you have an answer to that. For me when I look at students, I don’t see any significant change in the average performance.

But as you move on, if you look at the the way in which you are able to access information, through faster internet, better availability of database and so on- this wasn’t there for the earlier set of students. So the methodology that they would adopt to do their research work was somewhat different from what you adopt. It’s much easier for you now, in the sense that your search for information is far easier. So your productivity should have gone up. But comparing across these batches, I see no such significant improvement. Perhaps, we get used to adapt to the degree of constraints we face and deliver accordingly. So yes and no, I would say- you should have been more productive but on an average, I really don’t see any fall in performance. 

Regarding the change in education system and education processes, do you think electives are a good way to go forward and what is your opinion on how they’re implemented in law school right now?

Well, I think it’s still too early to comment on how it’s being implemented. Obviously it will never be a very easy, smooth transition; there will be some challenges. The first challenge that I foresee will be in getting an adequate number of quality courses to be offered so that students have sufficient choice. In the initial days, I think they probably may not have so much of choice which eventually will probably boil down to the earlier end of the spectrum where we just had the usual courses offered like the mandatory ones. However, gradually, perhaps there will be many more courses to make it exciting.

How should curriculums be designed so that they can challenge students and making them more curious and productivity as opposed to them merely rote learning?

Let’s ask this question- Supposing I am lax in terms of how I evaluate you, teach you and what I expect of you then, but naturally you will also be lax. But if I’m going to be demanding in terms of what I expect of you and how I expect you to think, I think there is that incentive for you to work harder. As I said, it is all about how you create incentives and disincentives for people to alter their behaviour. From the teacher’s perspective, it is also how you create the right environment to alter student’s approach and challenge them to think originally.

From a student’s perspective, if you take things for granted, as people sometimes say- you’ve made it to National Law School and therefore everything is a given and granted. 5 years is a long long time and plenty can change. You will have much more competition from other law schools and technology is also going to compete with you; so you’ve gotta keep yourself up and running.

So it’s for students to see from their perspective and work towards their goals and from the teacher’s side as to how you create a suitable framework. Yes, a challenging and thought provoking approach is always better.

Since you teach in Germany as well, what is the contrast in the education cultures that you see here and there?

Well, I’ve had the good fortune of teaching in Germany, US and France. Actually, in each one of these countries the experience has been different. In the US you are expected to come read and then we have a discussion oriented sort of a class and in Germany it was again a different experience. I was teaching a set of students from across the world, actually. And it was challenging, probing and motivating.
The general approach in Germany and US is that you expect that they will come well read. You give them the reading material and they would come well read and well prepared. I’m not sure how I can take the call on France though but is there a difference, students were so polite that they questioned less frequently – not the argumentative Indian! Yes. Here too, you are expected to read and come but I don’t see that always. But other than that, in terms of the overall quality of students and how they respond, I must say that in India it is of very high standards. The students here are easily among the best competitors. It’s all a question of how you get the best out of your students and so quite easily over here, I think we have students who are really up there.

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Given that you are the faculty advisor for Sports Committee, does sports play a role in all of this?

Yeah, a very important role. What happens if you’re only going to work, work, work and there’s no play, at some point you’re going to burn out. You need to have some physical activity, you need to play something, it keeps your mind fresh. Yoga or anything, it’s very important.

You had a role as warden for the MHOR. What was your most unique experience from that?

(Laughs) Firstly, have you ever thought about why the name “warden” came about? In the US, I think they use the word warden for the person who is in charge of the prisons. Do you know that? So it’s very interesting, perhaps we should change the term or something like that but anyhow.

They also use the word “inmate” for students.

They do yeah, so we’re a perfect match. (By the way I was the ‘Chief Warden’- hence overseeing ‘inmates’ of both hostels)

So how was your experience as warden?

Ah, we can’t give all the dirt, can we, when we talk about that. Apart from the disciplinary option, as the warden I was trying to ensure – with the help of all the people and the students – that the negative externality of certain people’s behaviour would not impact others, to put it in a light way. At that stage, certain practices had become rampant and students themselves had admitted to it, saying that it was spreading pretty fast. So, there was a lot of hard work to do.

At the same time, as a person in charge of ensuring better living conditions for students, I could also see, at times, the stressful conditions of students. I would often come across a student who was still in his room and I would ask what’s happening. He would’ve missed a class. He was just spending his time in his room, wasting time. And that was the time when I actually sort of thought, when students fail and when they’re forced to repeat a year, there’s a lot of psychological impact on the student. That, perhaps, for the first time set me thinking about whether we should ever have this system where students have to repeat a year, come back and sit in the first year. Because the impact is huge and they feel lost, they feel depressed.

That’s why they also say, you know, that time you should try and pull yourself out. Get into sports, get into physical activity and hold yourself up. So, being a warden enabled me to, in that sense, view students from a closer perspective and understand the other difficulties that they go through. And this is something, that as a university we need to consciously keep looking at- how we can improve the system so that they don’t have to undergo that kind of psychological duress.

As students come from schools to colleges, this new impact of drugs and liquor and all these substances comes in. So what’s your opinion on how to pragmatically play a role of good regulators so that we don’t clamp down on anybody but also ensure a good academic culture in the college because these things, as you said, are negative externalities?

In a University like this, it can actually be a problem for people who want to say something very frankly and say I don’t think we agree with this. Earlier, you could say it and it would be between you, students, parents and other stakeholders; now, if you do so, you would invite the whole world to judge you and not all times in a reasoned manner. That can make things very difficult, so what I would say is in such a case, you might just have a situation where everyone throws up their hands and say- I don’t want to get into this cause I’m going to be dragged into something messy. So in such cases, we’re just going to have, what we call as, a race to the bottom where no one cares.

So what can we do as a University? I think there should be constant engagement between students and faculty. That is very important: constant communication. The more we communicate, the more we avoid the race to the bottom and everyone is aware of things. And I think to a large extent we are doing that. Can we do better? Yes, I think we can definitely do better but at the same time we’ll never get those things perfectly. It’s a very difficult balance, ensuring right stuff on both sides. At times, whether we like it or not, we have to take a harsh call, and I think in certain cases we have done that. Because affecting the university’s image is also going to affect the prospects of the students who are studying here and that’s something that we cannot allow to happen. We cannot afford a ‘collective action problem’.

What is one piece of advice that you would love to give law school students?

(Laughs) *thinks for a long time* before I tell you what I would like to advice all of you, let me ask you all: when you come to law school how do you spend most of your time?

Procrastinating.

(Laughs) So you have time to procrastinate? That’s not bad. But I feel, somewhere when you enter into law school and institutions like this, there’s a finer element of the human personality that you lose out, that you don’t pay too much attention to. I don’t want to pinpoint on that but there is that other aspect to your life which, whether you call it spiritual or whatever you call it. I think everyone just drops that. It’s just that suddenly you’re in the mad rush and once you get out of law school, you’re again in a mad rush. But this other aspect of it, whether people may call it just a psychological buffer or whatever it may be. There’s something very essential for you to maintain a balance in life, to have some sort of equilibrium. I would advice you to find that balance. Don’t go whole hog into the other aspect because this also helps you to be better off in whatever it is that you want to do.

What kind of music do you like since you talk a lot about thrash music in the class?

Oh, great. (laughs) It’s called trash for a reason, you know but I’m not against it. I just like having fun at your expense. It’s evolutionary, your taste in music. When I was your age I used to listen to a lot of rock and pop. I used to love country music, and I still love country music and I do enjoy a lot of folk songs now.

Also, do you have a special liking for Kanchika masala dosas since you talk about it very often in class?

(Laughs) Once I’m paid for the endorsement, I’ll answer that.

You have taught many batches here, which is the one batch or any particular student who had a separate streak of passion for economics?

I wouldn’t want to do that because every batch is special and I consider all my students really special. I really enjoy being with them. In fact, I really like being with the first years because they say in the first year you’re willing to accept ideas, you’re willing to think..

And you still think you are students!

The second year, you’re evolving but okay you’re there, okay I’m still a student.

In the third year, you’re confused. You don’t know whether you’re a teacher or a student.

And in the fourth year, it’s like okay, I’m the teacher.

In the fifth year, you’re happy, you’re leaving soon anyway and it doesn’t matter where you are.

But also there are certain batches, you know, the way in which these batches just gel so well together. They acted as a complete whole. They all stuck together and they encouraged each other. So that’s why I tell every batch that I meet: Being very competitive is fine, be competitive. But at the same time your classmates are the ones who are going to be your friends, that you’re going to remember for a lifetime. And at this stage if you reach out to help them, you can possibly also make sure that they sail through. You need to do that, help each other. I have seen certain batches do that, not all batches, but there are these occasional batches who do really well in terms of helping each other. And it so happens that these occasional batches also did really well academically. So what I’m trying to say is that a cooperative approach can really help you. It’s what you do together, how you have fun together, how you study together that is what is very important. That’s what makes a difference to a batch.

Before we end, we need to get one burning question on behalf of the entire NLS community out of the way, 

Are you secretly a RAW agent?

I can neither confirm nor deny this.

Published in Catching Up With the Crème

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