In conversation with Prof. Swethaa Ballkarishnen on finding your own space within the legal field

Prof. Swethaa’s pronouns are (they/them). They are a socio-legal scholar whose research examines the intersections between law, globalization and stratification from a critical feminist perspective. Their undergrad was done from NALSAR, followed by an LLM from Harvard Law School, climaxed by a Doctorate in Sociology from Stanford University. Aside from massively well-credentialed scholarship work and academic writing, they have also published three books so far, i.e. Accidental Feminism, Invisible Institutions, and Gender Regimes and the Politics of Privacy. Currently, they are an Assistant Professor of Law (among other roles) at the University of California, Irvine.

She has been interviewed by Shrey Goyal, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from NLUJAA.

 

  1. Good morning, Prof Ballakrishnen, first of all – do you mind telling our readership (which is not only young academics but also notable legal luminaries) a little bit about yourself and how you look at yourself – since we all have our pre-conceived notions?

I appreciate that. I do not exactly know who I am. I guess I am a law professor. I am a sociologist by training as well, and I think of myself mostly as a global south queer trying to figure themselves out. I am really committed to being in conversations with people who are also thinking about similar extensions and logics. But I think the definition of being an academic is so constraining in some ways – and I talk about this in my book – I think it assumes a linearity of knowledge production, which is from the person in power (or the professor) to the audience, or students. And I think one of the great learning experiences of my life, and these books have been, how recursive it is, right? Like how much more I learned. So, I think it is easy to say I am a professor at X, but really, I am also learning every single day and, you know, doubting and revisiting and, and I think that is the most integral part of the journey.

The things that disappointed me or made me feel shame in the past, are the very things that I have pride in. So, there is only earlier version of myself like if you told young Swethaa that this is what was going to happen, I think there would have been legitimate worry about what this means to live this version of life. And there are many other lives I could have had. But this is the one I am having, and I am very grateful for it.

 

2. You are someone who went from NALSAR (which is one of India’s premier law schools), and then read at Harvard Law School for your LLM. And then you pursued a doctorate in sociology, which I found extremely interesting as well, from Stanford, and from there, you went on to being a professor at University of California, Irvine (UCI). So that is such an interesting and awe-inspiring trajectory to take. Could you please trace this trajectory for us: what were your thoughts during your academic journey? Did you find what you wanted to pursue through the course of your LLM? Or were you always sure that you wanted to be a professor someday?

I think, narrative and linearity are pretty retrospective. You can look back and say, oh, this happened, and then this happened. And then this happened. And on the one hand, that is true, all of those things happened. But I think the amount of fragility and lack of surety, always exist. It was always not sure that you would have the next thing lined up. So, at all points, I felt like I was jumping from one situation to another without fully knowing if the next situation would land.

 

So that narrative requires a couple of edits. The first is that NALSAR was not a premier law school when I was in NALSAR. I was in NALSAR as the second batch, and it was a complete risk to start law school at a school that had opened six months before I had started there. So, it was not the NALSAR that you see now. Like when I started there, it was an experiment. Yes, I went to Harvard, but I went for an LLM, I think I might have been one of the first people to go from NALSAR for that LLM. But I went for an LLM 15 years ago, where there were not many, if any, professors in the US who’s only legal degree from the US was an LLM, while everything else is another credential. I do not have a PhD in law, I do not have a juris doctor, like I do not have any of the norms. So, while it seems like I went to Harvard Law School, I also went to do a degree that does not have the same valorisation outside of that space, right. So that matters. What you are seeing and thinking is like, “Oh, of course you did ABC, so D happened”, I am thinking that at every stage, it was at least as much likely that it would not happen. So NALSAR could have flopped, the LLM could have remained steadily declining in value. And it looks like a stamp that you have on your card, but it is literally not enough to go on the law teaching market. So, when I went to do a PhD in sociology, part of the logic was, I did not think I was going to be viable on the law market. Because the stuff that I was interested in was interdisciplinary – and the training that I would have gotten  to do at a law school, it would not have been quite as concrete. And so I knew I needed disciplinary training. I had taken two sociology classes in NALSAR, and they were really formative to me, and so I knew I was interested in it, but I had not done more to do any of those connections that would later become the source of my research and teaching. So that jump was also again in the dark. I applied to four schools, and by God’s grace I got into one of them, but the chances of getting in were very low. Nobody else in my cohort did law. My original advisor left two years into my program. The person who ended up being my advisor had never done a qualitative methods project, I was the only international student in that school doing qualitative methods.

 

So, all these things that look so perfect on the outside were a mess and full of anxiety on the inside. Before I came to UCI, I had four years where I was in a never-ending loopy postdoc in New York University (NYU), Abu Dhabi. My big training that made me the scholar that would finally get the job (at UCI) happened during that postdoc, which is again a very unsure and unsettling time, because you do not know how postdocs are going to end. They can end in a great job or not. So again, there was precarity in that sort of position.

 

Hence, at every stage of my life I feel like I was a caterpillar coming out – like pulling from one leaf to another, trying to make that movement without ever knowing if I would land. And now, at the end of these 20 years I feel like nothing could have been predicted. Did I always know I was going to be a professor? I think I knew pretty early on. I think I knew I was committed to teaching and research. I was interested in pedagogy the entire time I was in law school, I had to take a corporate law firm job, and I finished and it was clear, I was not a good fit when I was done. And so I went back to NALSAR to teach just before I went to Harvard, and that confirmed what I think I knew, which is that I cared about teaching. So, the perseverance through precarity that it called for, that might not be obvious if you just look at my CV.

 

3. Definitely. It clearly is not. And this is such a great thing to hear from you because I think a lot of the people who read this will find solace in the kind of uncertainty you talk about. And people from infant NLUs like me will definitely be inspired by your journey. I understand that it is not the law school that matters but what you do outside of it.

Yeah, exactly. I keep telling all these people that at every stage, I probably could not have gotten into any of the places that I have gotten into in my life, if I were to do it now. And I think every generation feels that about the generation just after, but it is true. UCI was also the youngest law school in the US. Literally, a job at UCI could not even have existed when I was on the market, because UCI did not exist. So, at all stages, what looks like pure thinking and planning, is actually not.

 

4. You talk a lot a lot about teaching and pedagogy, which is one of the major themes I picked up from your work. Similarly curious is your interest in exposing how international students are treated in the US, and how international students study law. And I think this is one of the subject-matters of your book, Invisible Institutions. Even a couple of your publications specifically speak of this theme. Could you tell us a bit about that, and of your own experience as an international law student from South Asia?

The year I went to Harvard, I was part of the largest cohort of Indians that Harvard had ever had. That was really interesting, because it kind of changed the way in which I navigated that degree; but what you should know is that Harvard’s also a bubble. So, the people who go to the top law schools for these LLM programs think of it as this experience; it is really different than people who go to other law schools. And that was interesting to me. Also, you think that the minute you get into this top law school, your life is set, and it is not always that way. My collaborator, and dear friend, Carol Silver writes about the “variable value of legal education”: this idea that what the education can actually do for you depends on what market you are at, what sort of time period you are at, where you graduated, what your social capital is, what your networks are, etc. It is not a linear category of if you do X, you will get Y. And I was interested in that, because I am really interested in the fuzzy space between categories. Because I do not think anything is linear. I think this idea that there is a cause and there is an effect does not serve me theoretically that well, which is probably why I was not a very good fit for American sociology. I think the truth is often much more complicated, with things that work and things that do not work sitting simultaneously. And I think writing about international students was a way of being able to navigate that, and so and I continue to work on them.

 

5. Do you also feel that it was more difficult for you as an international student, to not only navigate that culture, but in terms of discrimination and lost opportunities?

I have to say, I do not think I had a typical international student experience, which was the other reason why studying it was important. I went to law school, already having a very strong mentor in the school. My entire experience was sort of shaped by having a really great mentor who is Professor Wilkins – who has since become a collaborator and dear friend. That changed the nature of my navigation, as I was working in Amarchand and this really famous law professor reached out to me, “I read this piece you wrote, this is really impressive. Would you be interested in going to law school?” And it changed the entire story of my life, because I went to Harvard, not just as a student, but also as somebody who had a great mentor. So, I did not experience it as a specific international student. Moreover, the LLM is like nine months and before you understand that discrimination is happening, you are done. And I think that is really rare. But I do not think it is not possible to replicate. You can do it, people just do not take the time to.

 

6. I think a lot of students are unaware or simply too intimidated or afraid to approach a mentor.

That is what I am saying, it was really rare because I did not approach my Prof Wilkins. I actually do not think it is on students who do not have power to approach people. I think it is on scholars with power, who are in positions of power to then make the field accessible to new entrants. But we are in the system where you think if you write to a professor, you should thank them for their time. Like you are literally giving me a space for my research to have more accessibility. I just think we are set up in a system where of course the hierarchies are present, so I am not going to pretend like I do not have more power than you. But as the person with more power, I have also the power to make this interaction less hierarchical. And I think this is not something I learned suo motu; I have had the great privilege and luxury of mentors who did this by just existing. Over the course of 15 years, the bond between us has shifted and become different, of course, but it is because both people make a commitment to make that bond grow. I am also close friends with people who were in my first class I ever taught 20 years later, and that is possible; they were not friends when they were in my classroom, because I think that changes, but the hierarchy can be subverted. I wish we did more to actually invest in that.

 

7. That is extremely interesting, and I think that is something that needs to gain a much larger foothold in Indian academia especially.

It is not just India. It is the fact that academia is so busy feeling important about itself, that it is everywhere. Like in NALSAR, my sort of main intellectual mentor was Kalpana, who was my professor when I was in college, and now is a dear friend and a collaborator. It is over the course the last 25 years, of course, that our relationship has changed. But it also changed because she made space for that to be able to change over those years.

 

8. This is actually the first time that even I am thinking about the power dynamics, of student-professor interactions. I really wish that it existed in a larger aspect in my college as well. But now I would love to move on to the socio-liberal and feminist nature of your work. Can you tell me a bit more about this aspect of your work and how you make use of your legal background and your doctorate in sociology to bring an intersectional approach to the same?

I think I am definitely not the first person to do interdisciplinary scholarship. And there is a mixed train of research that is committed to it. But I think my commitment to interdisciplinarity comes through across the projects. And I think the feminist lens that I use is sort of inherent. Even though the book is called Accidental Feminism, the more I write, the more unsure I am, whether that word even means anything. The first part of the book really grapples with what that word means or what any word means. What does it mean when you say you are “lefty”, or you are liberal or, or that a country is democratic? I do not know what those words mean anymore because words have become so incapable of holding the complexities they are. So am I a feminist research? I guess in the broadest sense, yes. But I also do not know what that means. And I think I am slowly, much more identifying as a queer researcher, because I think of queerness as being outside of categories and trying to think about what happens in spaces outside categories. And I think the feminist approach really is so politically charged that it serves me but after a point, I almost take that for granted. How are we not feminist? Is not that just breathing? And I think if I had to define myself, I do not know if I would say I am a feminist. I mean, I am a feminist researcher. But that is like saying, I am in a physical body or something, right? It does not seem like a defining characteristic; I think the defining characteristic is that I am always really interested in the periphery.

 

I think every time you write something, you are filled with dread by all the things you did not write, because by writing, you are necessarily saying, I am only talking about this. And one of the deep grievances I have with this book is actually how non-intersectional it is. I actually think it does not do any justice to talking about categories that actually really matter. Like how do we think of caste or community or of class more critically in these spaces? To me, part of how I have started to think about this book is that it is a start of a conversation, not the end. So, the book has started a set of conversations, and I hope they offer springboards for other kinds of conversations.

 

9. Above all, what I have understood from you is that you believe in the singularity of human experience. I would also love to talk about your most recent book that you have published with a local publisher, Gender Regimes and the Politics of Privacy.

So, it is a book that actually uses the landmark Puttaswamy judgment on right to privacy as a springboard to think about gender and race and class issues. The third book was also written in conversation. Literally, it started as a set of WhatsApp texts between Kalpana and me, around the judgment, we were reading it at the same time, we were responding to it at the same time. And then it became this moving document that we just constantly would have back and forth, and back and forth. It helped me think, respond, and articulate a set of responses with somebody I admire so much.

 

10. Fascinating. I wanted to ask you, professor, that, now that you have been teaching actively for a while, how do you like that experience? What do you not like?

I really love being a professor in a State school. UCI is the number one dreamer school in the country, which means its population is very distinct in that it has very specific representation. 25% of our incoming class for something was queer this year, and they are all social justice inclined, because it is a very social justice-oriented school.

 

These things are all important but they also change what it means to be performing within what is an inescapable hierarchy. Right, like law is an inescapable hierarchy. It is a very particular fit, and there is not a single day I do not wake up and give thanks for it. My colleagues are invested in really innovating what legal education can mean; it is a new school so that that kind of work can actually get done – it is not just assumed that it will happen. It feels really meaningful to be able to impact change in a community that I have grown to really know well, and so it feels meaningful. So, is it good for me personally, as a professor? Yes, I love my job, but I also love the social impact it has. I tell my students a lot that it took a long time for me to understand why I was not an activist, one of the things could have been I could have been an activist, right, that I could have done this work differently.

 

11. But I think you are a sort of an activist even now. I do not think enough people understand how much power teaching has.

You know, I have to say teaching, to me, is my politics. There is so much power in being able to subvert hierarchy from within. I think I am able to channel more impact by teaching, personally, because I just think my capacity for conflict and visible anger is very low. I am able to channel it in much more useful ways, by being able to train people and getting people to think of the world differently – which is especially relevant since I teach a 1L class through which a fourth of the student fraternity passes invariably.

You might have never thought about critical race, you might have never thought about any of these other things, but you do not have a choice if you are in my class. If you are in my class, I am going to be yelling about capitalism from day zero. And so even if you hate me, my voice is going to be in your head when you think about it a little bit later. I am so glad I am in this job, because if I was in a sociology program, for example, the students in sociology programs already agree with you. They already think the world is terrible, but law students are not starting from a place of imagining the world is terrible. Or that it is terrible because of them. And so being critical about their positionality gives you this unique opportunity to train a set of people who otherwise might not have thought of the world in that way. And for that, I am really grateful.

 

12. I could not agree more, because now I think about it, a lot of my opinions have also been formed by some of my most powerful professors. And I am really thankful for that. And I wish I had more of those professors who engaged in classroom discussions and debates, and forced us to get out of our regressive mindsets and think beyond. I would love to attend one of your classes myself someday. I was wondering, professor, of this huge pivot you made from India’s premier corporate law firm to a professor of law and sociology at UCI?

I do not think it is more superior to become an academic than a corporate lawyer. I think there are ways in which you could do all these jobs really well. And it was clear that it was not a fit, because I was not at my best self. But it is not like I had some burning fire in my heart that said, I should become a professor. If I had done well in a corporate law firm, there is a version of this life where I do become a partner and I would have stayed on and I would have figured out what to do – that trajectory completely could exist. I think this romanticisation of one journey is more important or better than the other is also problematic. I have many close friends who really enjoyed and were their best selves, their most creative selves, in a law firm. Figuring out what creates the least stress for you is an individual journey. And that might be academia, that might be public interest, that might be corporate law, and I think figuring that out is such a personal journey that to sit on a high horse and determine is hugely problematic. We are all making hard choices based on invisible metrics that no one else knows anything about. For most people, that line between where you start and where you end up is much more a linear,

 

13. So, the last question I have for you, professor, is that do you have any advice for budding law students in India? Of course, as you said, we should not try to emulate anyone else’s career path or trajectory because it is so much more than what meets the eye. Still, I wonder if you had anything to share?

The thing I always tell my law students is that do things that you think you have no interest in, at least at some point in your career in law school. If you are committed that you are going to be a public interest lawyer, take an extra tax class. If you think you are a corporate type that is never going to do anything else, do an internship with a pro-civil rights scholar that you do not actually agree with. I think that is the one way to critically train your mind to really have capacity for other contexts. But I think at the more individual level, try to just remember that everybody is struggling. And in some way or another, it might not be obvious to you, it might seem like some people just know how to do this. And it is true, some people are just going to – by a function of that class and social capital – know how to navigate law school, by existing. And if you do not, there are going to be other things that is going to make it so; find your groups, find your posse, find the ways in which you can make sense of your navigation, because there is no one singular way to make sense of law school, there just is not. Anyway, I just think we are all so hard on ourselves. And also, if you do really well, do not take that as a lesson for how life is going to be. And if you do terribly in law school, do not take that as a lesson either. You are probably going to be okay.

 

I am happy to speak to anybody. So just do not second guess reaching out to people to talk to. What is the worst that is going to happen? They will ignore your e-mail because their inbox is full. That is fine. If someone does not respond to an e-mail that says more about the person than it does about you. I am not saying people will reply, I cannot speak on behalf of other people. But if they do not, that says more about them than it does about you. It is so easy to reperpetuate the very things that do not deserve that perpetuation. So just remember that if the structure does not valorise you, it is about the structure, not you.

 

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