Athira P.S.is currently an Assistant Professor at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kerala. She completed her graduation, post-graduation, and presently she is pursuing her Ph.D from University of Kerala. She has won several Awards and Gold Medals for her top-ranked academic performance every time. She was also adjudged the Best Speaker at the Stetson International Environmental Law Moot Court Competition in 2004. Athira has authored several papers and is also a member of professional organizations like Global Alliance for Justice (GAJE).
She is also the Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Rights and the Centre for Parliamentary Studies and Law Reforms at NUALS. In this interview she talks about:
- Acing academics during graduation, post graduation as well as Ph.D
- Winning Best Speaker at Stetson’s and the importance of mooting
- Pursuing teaching as a career
How would you like to introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about your childhood and educational background.
I am Athira P.S., currently an Assistant Professor at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kerala. I have been working at NUALS since 2012. I am extremely passionate about the positive effects of law on the society and believe that legal education is as much about a proper value-system as about anything else.
About my childhood- As a student of a CBSE school in a non-Metro city, I led a very secure and non-confrontational academic and personal life. During my school days, though the norm among middle-class parents in Kerala was to incline their children towards opting for Engineering/Medicine, I was fortunate that my parents left the career choice to me. Though an above-average student, I spent most of my time pursuing extra-curricular reading, avidly going through fiction and non-fiction.
How did your interest gravitate towards law?
Law has always been of interest to me. The lives of people and the way law influences them had been a part of classics such as Bleak House by Charles Dickens, or To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, or even the John Grisham legal thrillers. As such, I was fascinated by law and remain till date a humble student of it.
After my XIIth, while I did get admission for engineering as well as an adequate rank for medicine, I was able to convince my parents that I would do well in law better than any other discipline. As a graduate in law himself, my father encouraged this decision. After 11 years of being a student of law, I find that I am still fascinated by it.
You have done your graduation, post-graduation and also pursued Ph.D. from University of Kerala. How did your University help you mould your goals?
Though national law schools, especially NUALS was an option, as my family was based in Trivandrum, my parents urged me to join Kerala Law Academy, University of Kerala. During the five years that I was a graduate there, I participated consistently in Moot courts, both national as well as international. The exposure that mooting gives you while you are in the beginning phase of your legal studies is significant. During my post-graduation, the Department of Law, University of Kerala, provided me with the environment in which to develop critical thinking and a capacity for legal research. I later cleared the UGC-Junior Research Fellowship and joined for research.
While today there is no doubt that the tag of a ‘national law school’ seems to be extremely important, the fact that you hail from a non-national law school does not act against you, unless you allow it. I have come to realize from the careers of many of my batch-mates and alumni from the University of Kerala that the most important ingredient to success is building up one’s knowledge through hard work, awareness of the various opportunities in your field of interest and diligent effort at unremittingly pursuing your goal.
You have secured 2nd rank on graduation, secured 1st rank with distinction at LL.M and also qualified with 1st Rank in Law in the Ph.D. Entrance Exam from the University of Kerala. Please give us a few actionable tips on managing higher grades.
It has been my experience that attainment of ranks and real substantial knowledge of a particular legal area can be entirely different things. While I do not disparage ranks as a system for ascertaining academic excellence, I am not entirely convinced it is the only germane measure of appraisal. At the level of graduation in law, once you identify what the examiners are looking for, it is possible for one to write the exams to the best of one’s ability by preparation, including a scan of past years question papers, constant updating of case laws in the subjects, as well as reference to latest articles and relevant books on the subject in your answer sheets. However, personally, if one does not update oneself on subjects of law continuously (even after the semester in which the subject featured has concluded) ranks need not necessarily correspond to actual knowledge or understanding.
You currently work as an Assistant Professor at National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Cochin. What prompted you to choose teaching as a career?
To be a teacher was my earliest ambition. As a student, I have experienced first-hand the influence that a teacher has in moulding and inspiring his/her students. As a UGC-Junior Research Fellow in law, I had the opportunity to teach PG students at the Department of Law, and I realized that teaching is truly my vocation. I joined the National University of Advanced Legal Studies in 2012 and I truly cherish my profession as a teacher.
Tell us about your teaching methodology. Do you encourage students to take notes or do you engage your students in active class participation?
I have read somewhere that every teacher is a performer; success of every performance depends on its audience. Just like individuals, every class has its own pulse and rhythm. From my limited experience as a teacher, I have the impression that classes are the most enjoyable wherein the occupants, including the teacher, participate fully and animatedly in the discussion. If the teacher can bring the attention of the whole group of students to a focus point, even teaching by lecture method results in active class participation, especially when the Socratic method is employed. Additionally, other teaching methods such as moots, debates, and impromptu group discussions ensure that the class is lively and engaged. I personally prefer an inquisitive active class to a quiet, note-taking class.
What subjects are you currently teaching? What are your current research interests?
As the junior-most member of the faculty at NUALS, I have had a variety of subjects to handle. I currently teach Law of Insurance, Public International Law, Intellectual Property Rights, etc. I have taught subjects such as Legal History, Professional Ethics, Conflict of Laws, Law of Property, Society, Science and Law, Public Interest Lawyering as well as Income tax. Of these, teaching the subjects of IPR and Society, Science and Law (a flagship programme of NUALS) have helped me in the pursuit of my research on the legal instruments on regulation of stem cell research. In fact, some of my students were part of the empirical study undertaken on the subject.
Do you think students should treat their professors like friends, or is it necessary to maintain a disciplined environment to create a good classroom environment?
Today’s students are very bright- they realize that if it is pure information that they need from their studies, they need not even come to class-it is available from other sources. Necessarily, the role of the teacher has evolved to become a facilitator of gaining knowledge and a medium of value-conveyance, by supplementing the traditional teaching methodology with novel means of learning. Therefore, I advocate a via media response to the question here. In the vein of what Justice Cardozo opined, the psychological make-up and personality of the teacher is reflected in their class rooms and in the discourse with their students. In a primarily residential National University such as NUALS, where the students are of the age-group 17-22, it is important that they should be able to approach teachers and confide in them in case of any doubt or trouble; herein the teacher has to play the role of personal and professional mentor. Also, while I feel that the relationship between the teacher and her student must be friendly, it must not compromise a disciplined class room atmosphere.
Tell us about your achievements in academics. How did you go about achieving several awards?
I have been the recipient of Merit Scholarship to do LL.M. by the University of Kerala, Gold medallist and recipient of Justice Muthunayagom Memorial Prize, 2005 and also other awards like Sachivothama Shashtiabdapurthi Memorial Prize, 2005, Justice T Krishnan Nair Memorial Gold Medal Endowment, Justice M. Fathima Beevi Endowment, Malloor K. Govinda Pillai Gold Medal for Law.
These awards were for securing highest marks for various subjects of graduation- I did not take any conscious efforts to obtain these and was unaware of their existence until I was awarded them. Nevertheless, I am grateful for these and they were helpful while applying for the teaching posts, as they build up one’s resume.
Having participated and won Best Speaker award and 4th Best Memorial award in Stetson International Environmental Law Moot Court Competition in 2004,what are the important skills and knowledge one must possess in order to be a good mooter?
As a graduate student of law, mooting helps the student in getting a real feel of the life that he/she has chosen for himself. Moots give students the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the various sources of law, the methods of citation, the effective forms of address at Court, as well as skills of legal writing. Apart from the opportunity to practically explore the nuances of the various theories and provisions, the practice of mooting builds confidence as well as expands the avenues of learning.
Besides Stetson, you have also participated in many national and international Moot Court Competitions during your law school days. Tell us how important is mooting and what effect does it have on one’s CV?
As I already stated, the 5 years of graduation must be taken as a continuous learning process-if you are involved in moots, it helps you to develop in particular spheres of law and hone your skills of legal research, writing as well as argumentative skills. While impressive wins and accolades add to one’s CV, in my personal opinion, the personal development opportunities inherent in the process of mooting are far more relevant.
You have presented research papers in various national and international seminars since college days till now. Are there any key factors which one should keep in mind before presenting a paper in any national or international seminar?
As a student of law (to be a teacher is to be a perennial student), I find that the mind benefits from being taxed academically. So, wherever possible, I attend seminars, especially on topics of my academic interest, and have been fortunate to participate in international and national seminars both as resource person and presenter of research papers.
If you aspire to be a law teacher or a researcher in law, such seminars are important; they help you develop a scientific and analytical process to defend your position on a particular question/situation of legal relevance. Also, as a meeting place of active members of the legal community and academic fraternity, such Seminars provide you with recognition and familiarity as well as networking opportunities that may prove helpful at some point in your career.
You have authored various papers in many reputed Law journals. What role do publications play in the life of an academician? What, in your view, are the few most important skills that law students should strive to acquire in order to write research papers effectively?
Publications are very important, not just for academicians, but also for aspiring academicians. Alongside good academic records and UGC-NET/JRF, publications in peer-reviewed journals are essential in the research repertoire of every aspiring academic. Even after one has entered into the field of law teaching, ‘publish or perish’ mandate dictates that teachers persevere with research publications.
In order to publish a research paper, a topic of current significance must be identified. Thorough literature review is essential. Originality of thought and expression is of paramount importance. It is fundamental that a synopsis of the article/paper is prepared at the outset so that the scaffold and outline of the article is fool-proof. Once the draft is completed, it is helpful to run the paper through Viper or other plagiarism-proof software. Any mentors or experts in the particular area of law may be approached for review.
You have been appointed as the Director of Centre for Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR), Co-director of Centre for Parliamentary Studies and Law Reforms at NUALS and also a member of professional organizations like Global Alliance for Justice Education (GAJE). What are the responsibilities you are entrusted with in each of these organizations? Please share with our readers.
As NUALS aims to encourage legal research in significant arenas of law, many centres of learning were established. I am fortunate to associate with the Centre for Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR) as well as the Centre for Parliamentary Studies and Law Reforms. As the Director (i/c) of the CIPR inaugurated earlier this year, I am entrusted with organizing Seminars, workshops, special lectures as well as other programmes and to bring the CIPR as a centre of excellence. The Centre had organized a Panel Discussion on the Draft IPR Policy, DIPP on 11th March, 2015 at NUALS and intends to follow up with training programmes involving various stakeholders. Our next venture shall be a national-level essay writing competition around April 26th, the World IPR day.
As the Co-Director of the Centre for Parliamentary Studies and Law Reforms, I had organized a National Workshop on Legal Status of Sexual Minorities: The Indian Perspective and Need for Reform on February, 2014. It was attended by legal activists in this field such as Adv. Anand Grover and Adv. Arvind Narrrain, and was hailed as the first of its kind in conservative Kerala.
You have attended and organized a number of Conferences and Workshops, how has your experience been so far being associated with NUALS?
The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Cochin is a law school that can claim many distinctions. A relatively young national law university, we have to achieve greater momentum, and the students as well as faculty aims for greater heights. The University has been fortunate to be under the guidance of various visionaries at various points of its existence, and can be said to be at its most developmental stages currently. Whether it is the expansion of infrastructure, larger intake of students, evolving of additional specializations for graduation in law as well as efforts to establish dedicated and productive centres of intensive research and learning, NUALS is right now at its golden age. I am fortunate to be a member of the NUALS family and hope that it rises to even greater heights.
A common perception in the student community is that the curriculum in most NLUs is outdated and does not equip the students with the skills that they need to solve real life problems. What are your thoughts about this perception?
While one of the very reasons highlighted for inception of NLUs was the need for stronger and practical objective-based curriculum and stress on solving of real-life issues in law as one goes along learning, the question remains-how far has this objective been realized. One reason may be the fact that curriculum is not revisited or reviewed as timely as it should be; or that the additional inputs necessarily required from the side of the participants of the learning process are not forthcoming as they should. NUALS has, as a possible solution to part of this problem, updated its entire LL.B and LL.M curriculum through an extremely intensive workshop, wherein pioneers in the field such as Dr. N.R. Madhava Menon, Dr. N.K. Jayakumar, Dr. Rose Varghese, Dr. Chandrasekhara Pillai, Dr. P. Leelakrishnan, contributed heavily. Yet, for the entire problem to be resolved, the only solution is diligent efforts on the part of the teachers as well as students to ensure that the curriculum as well as its application caters to standards par excellence.
Any important things which law school didn’t teach you but ‘teaching’ did?
As a relative newcomer to the vocation of teaching, I have come to realize that teaching and studying law, to paraphrase late Justice Krishna Iyer, is a way of life. When one’s students are as bright and inquisitive as mine are, I find myself preparing as best as I can and questioning myself conscientiously as to the potential questions, especially when I am entrusted a subject that I do not specialize in. So teaching law has taught me that a good student can be a great teacher, and more importantly, that a good teacher has to essentially be a great student.
Lastly, what would be your message to people who want to take up a career in teaching?
While doing your Post-graduation, alongside the curriculum, train yourself for clearing the UGC-NET/JRF examinations. Simultaneously publish research papers in peer-reviewed journals, participate in seminars that come your way and generally be as active as you can as a PG student of law.
In my personal opinion, these above are technicalities that favour you. However, what is mostly required is a burning passion for the subject and the unrelenting pursuit of personal and academic excellence as well as the strong desire to become a good teacher. With more law schools coming up every day and the academic community being so vibrant at the moment, I believe that the choice to be an academic is a promising and exciting one.