Inversion of Brain Surgery: A Reflection on 4 Years of Law Teaching by Prof. Saurabh Bhattacharjee (Repost)

By Saurabh Bhattarcharjee

“My little questions spin the tumblers of your brain. You are on an operating table; my little questions are fingers probing your mind. We do brain surgery here. You teach yourselves the law and I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

– Professor Kingsfield in Paper Chase

I would like to pretend that Professor Kingsfield’s inspirational even if dyspeptic character in Paper Chase led me to teaching. However, the truth is far more humdrum. In a backhanded tribute to my laziness and complacency, I started teaching my classmates in law school only because I felt that the added responsibility would force me into working hard.

As it turned out, that was the shrewdest decision that I have taken in my life (well after, the decision to listen to a Lucky Ali album before Laxman and Dravid went out to bat Australia out of the game on Day 4 of the unforgettable Eden Gardens Test in 2001).

As I started preparing for these ‘classes’, I came to savour the experience – the concentration required in preparing for them, the extensive reading and the discipline it entailed, and the nervous energy before these classes.

I found the challenge of breaking down concepts into words and forms that my classmates/students would understand and the thrill of seeing them slowly learn them – those raised eyebrows slowly giving way to nods of affirmation – incredibly fulfilling.

Joining a law-school as an Assistant Professor, many years later, did not belie that promise. Ed Cowan, the Australian test cricketer, wrote that ‘Starting test cricket was like entering a realm of dreams made real. I was the same person, yet I was in an imaginary world where everything was epic and over the top. Somehow this quickly became a way of everyday life.’

The transition from student to a teacher was similarly surreal.

Four years into law-teaching, that  love for the craft and rigour of teaching has now indeed become a way of everyday life. But I would like to believe (though I have never been shy of deluding myself) that the lessons of these years and a more rounded understanding of the craft of teaching has made me a better craftsman.

Looking back, the most important lesson that I have learnt, is that a teacher must mould her to the appropriate pitch and tenor for every class.

A teacher teaches a class as much as she teaches a subject.

Therefore, the importance of calibrating the complexity of readings and themes and the nature of examples and exercises used to the aptitude and extracurricular interests of the class cannot be overstated.

If I had any skepticism in this regard, it was soon banished by the utter cluelessness that once met my reference in the Law and Impoverishment Seminar Class to the movie, Hum Hindustani as an illustration of the popular appeal of Nehruvian socialism.

After all, we impart instructions so that students learn and when learning doesn’t happen, we must be willing to improvise and modify our plans and techniques.

A teacher teaches a class as much as she teaches a subject.

saurabh bhattacharjee nujs nalsar
Prof. Bhattarcharjee (left)

No less critical is the need for an open and a humble mind and a willingness to learn from everyone around, including students.

As Professor Baxi wrote in Teaching as Provocation [from On Being a Teacher, edited by Amrik Singh]:

“Even as I felt I was ‘transmitting’ knowledge, I realized that I was the carrier of mighty nescience in so many ways; what I do not know is far greater than what, at any given point of time, I can justly claim to know. Very early on, I developed an approach to teaching as a confessional activity…I learnt that teaching requires a profound inversion of roles: the teacher has to be taught and the taught in turn teaches something to the teacher, the receivers of knowledge are the givers and the givers are the receivers…The teacher is no guru possessed of charisma of knowledge; but an equally bewildered companion and friend”

It would be scarcely an exaggeration to say that I have learnt as much from my students as they have learned from me. Not surprisingly, classrooms have often been the springboard for further reflection and research. Professor Kingsfield was right about classrooms being like operating tables, he just got the identity of the doctor and the patient wrong.

The most painfully obtained insight however has been the need to balance teaching and research and writing.

Teaching in Indian law schools, with a teaching requirement of approximately 12-16 hours of class-work per week and myriad administrative tasks, can often leave one with very little time and energy for further research.

Yet, it is important to balance our administrative tasks with our pursuit of research for the quality of teaching would inevitably be impaired in absence of wider reading and writing.

I can write a lot more. Thousand words are not enough to describe a job that one loves. But not everything has been rosy.

The bureaucratic inertia and the petty politicking has certainly led me to question, if not totally abandon, many of my naive conceptions about the academia.

However, these doses of reality have not entirely dimmed my enthusiasm for teaching.

If anything, the refuge that the classroom has provided from the seamier side of academia has bolstered my appreciation for the craft of teaching.

These four years of teaching has had the feeling of the early throes of a love affair – the experience has been exhilarating and all consuming. May the break-up never come.

Prof. Saurabh Bhattacharjee is a faculty at NUJS, Kolkata. He did B.A. B.L. (Hons.) from NALSAR, Hyderabad and LLM from University of Michigan Law School, US.

(Note: This Post was first published in 2013)

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