• Quirk NLS

Exploring the “Fault” Lines at NLSIU: Part II – Measuring Mistrust and Apathy

This article has been written by TooCoolForQuirk, Catalyst, StillWingingIt, and SayMadArthi. The  illustration is by Anonymous. This is Part II of Exploring the “Fault” Lines at NLSIU, a series on the student-admin relationship. This part explores the consequences and manisfestations of mistrust and apathy and suggests ways we can move forward. You can find Part I discussing the problem of miscommunication here.

At NLS right now, the students and the admin are at each other’s throats like members of infamous joint families squabbling over ancestral property in Family Law exam papers. Communication is often terse, borderline hostile, and sometimes non-existent, especially when it comes to important issues. As communication reduces, it reminds us that unlike what it takes to live in a social contract, minds are, in fact, not meeting. Intention has not been explicitly stated and it cannot be inferred from words in emails and rules all the time. Very often, we fail to understand each other and this leads to mistrust. The same feeling of resentment, doubt, and suspicion when someone leaves your week-old important WhatsApp message on read, or worse, reverts with a curt response, is creeping into the corridors of NLS.

Mistrust


[1] Over the past year, the trust deficit at NLS has worsened and is at a breaking point.

There are three ways in which mistrust flows amongst the larger NLS population: from admin to students, from students to admin, and within the student body.

The vicious cycle that exists at NLS right now goes somewhat like this: Admin mistrusts us students when it comes to students asking for concessions.[2] Sometimes, “concessions” are actually things that students are entitled to under the AER – like project extensions when topics are released late, providing the marks on time, and so on. When the students go to the admin requesting that some benevolence be shown (or that rules be followed :P) when it comes to issues of deadlines, data, and dearth of resources, they are asked for proof of their claimed suffering (or simply seenzoned). When proof is asked for every issue, no matter how trivial, students feel that their concerns are being belittled, regarded with suspicion, or that there are purposely more roadblocks being placed to access reliefs. With sensitive issues, it is not easy for students to speak up and asking for evidentiary proof makes for an additional barrier (for example, mental health issues and the financial situation of one’s family).

However, we must also acknowledge that the admin’s concern that students are “scammy” and only want concessions all the time is legitimate in one sense – NOT because of those facing the issue, but because of those profiting off of the solution. Some students do and have contributed to the free rider problem. Whenever there is a legitimate issue faced by some students, others expect a solution that can be universally applied to all students, thus benefiting them. For example, the issue of poor internet connectivity for some has been pushed for as grounds for general extensions by all. Asking for general extensions for issues that are faced by a specific few lends to the perception that we are all “scamming” it, which worsens the trust between us.


[3] They feel that the admin either ignores or dismisses their concerns as:  (i) frivolous or; (ii) purposefully trying to impede the smooth functioning of the academic calendar and other aspects of the University.

Apart from non-consultation, some admin actions are just plain arbitrary. For the last several trimesters, marks were released nearly 1.5 months after the exam, after having been ‘moderated’.[4] The admin had not explained their policy until recently[5] or incorporated the concept of moderation in the AER – thus having made it difficult for students to question the process, or ask for a re-evaluation. It is quite hard to trust a body that takes such consequential measures with so little transparency. Students have become demotivated as they do not know if the marks released are indeed their own or how professors will mark; there is uncertainty regarding how much to study and whether this will pay off in the end or not.

This behaviour, in turn, infuriates students, who become resentful and impute bad faith to the admin whenever any new measures are taken. This was seen when the exam guidelines for the first online trimester were issued which specified a 3000-word limit. Students immediately complained that since we write 3000-word projects over a span of 30 days, it would not be possible to type the same within 3 hours. In the actual exam, most students exceeded the word limit and had to frantically request professors to condone the same.


There is also mistrust amongst students themselves. As Professor Elizabeth used to say, NLS is indeed a mini-India. NLS seems liberal on the surface, but probe deeper and you will find undertones of sexism, casteism, queerphobia, ableism, and even outright violence. This, in itself, makes it hard for us to trust and live with each other comfortably. The assumption of a safe space exists as a fiction that we create to cover the blatant truth that is made visible every day. Added to this toxic environment (that is already very hard to navigate for many) is the terrible way we function as a ‘democratic’ student body.

Due to the pandemic and online classes, students no longer see each other as important stakeholders. Something becomes a batch issue only if many people or the ‘privileged’ or vocal students are affected by it. WhatsApp texts and batch group discussions exacerbate the apathy because of misinterpretation and people speaking over one another or about different things, leading to important points being missed out without discussion or acknowledgement. This lack of proper communication and interaction with each other has led to an atmosphere of apathy at best and sheer selfishness at worst.


groups and identities that come to the fore during different issues – similar to the saying that there is no Supreme Court, there are only benches. And in GBMs at least, justice seems to be a rarity.

We suspect that everyone around us has ulterior motives even when carrying out routine processes like score tabulation, committee selections, congratulating one’s friends on social media, etc. Disputes may be resolved online due to rulings by the adjudicating authority, but there is no way to resolve the underlying tension that still persists at the end of the day. If we act in such a manner, how can we trust each other? How can those who need the student body’s help and support feel comfortable and confident enough to come to us?

Apathy

The connected issue is that as a community, living in this sea of mistrust makes us all look for our own lifeboats and ignore others’ survival. The online medium has made it more difficult to empathise with others – no one knows what the other’s home life is like or what issues they are facing, and not many bother to ask. The student community has developed some methods of checking in with each other like peer support discussions hosted by the Mental Health Support Group.[6] However, few attend such sessions and this still does not bridge the gap between the admin and the students.

Unfortunately, the liberal legal realm that we operate in and our Law School neo-lib eco courses tell us that we are all rational, autonomous, utility-maximising individuals. We maximise our own benefit, and operate merely as individuals, not different stakeholders of the larger Law School community.

Beyond the classroom and mandated faculty sessions or academic queries, there is no space for students and faculty to get to know each other and interact with each other. The college community feels transactional and not a space for student-teacher bonding, as can be seen in a few other institutions. Even within the classroom, students feel like most professors do not demonstrate a caring attitude towards students. There was a faculty mentorship programme initiated by the admin wherein students were allotted faculty mentors and met with them (just once or twice). While the intention is appreciated, many students felt that the programme felt mechanical, faculty were not well equipped or trained to speak about mental health issues and some even downplayed the concerns of students, instead using the space to justify admin actions.[7] Students are now just wary of any measures by the admin intended to connect with them even in good faith.


they are also humans deserving empathy. The consequence is that all stakeholders dismiss each other prima facie in bad faith and therefore become very hostile towards each other.

The flip side is that students are also bound together. Whether we like it or not, we are all living studying with each other for a crucial half-decade of our lives – right when our identities are being formed. Coming from different backgrounds and starting points, college offers us an insight into life and should ideally teach us how to socialise, empathise, and help each other as best as we can. As humans and members of smaller sub-communities, our actions affect each other, and we must start looking at what our responsibilities are, rather than perennially asserting our rights.[8] We are quick to acknowledge our privilege and denounce meritocracy to seem woke, yet we do not effectively stand for the concerns/issues of a minority or marginalised group of students. For example, after the first version of the new exam guidelines were issued, some students were in a situation where they would not have been able to write the exam at all – due to poor Wi-Fi, no working webcams, or lack of private spaces. But the first thing that a batch discussed was about the exams being closed book. The way we rank important issues that deserve discussion first is deeply telling.

As a student body, we have lacked solidarity when it was most needed, such as during the ongoing pandemic.[9] Our immediate response to any difficulty in recent times has always been to ask for general concessions (like a project extension) assuming that it will solve problems faced by everyone. Once we get such general concessions, most of us, especially those of us not as severely impacted by the pandemic, lose whatever concern we had about the physical and emotional well-being of fellow students. Instead, what we need to acknowledge is that different students are facing different circumstances and have been impacted to a different extent. Thus, we need to demand specific concessions tailored to those that have been affected by the pandemic. We also need to acknowledge that sometimes we don’t have a solution to an unprecedented problem. Times like these require all of us to have an honest and sincere conversation about how we can reduce the existing burden and workload for everyone (including admin, faculty and staff). Reducing academic burden to address mental health[10] is something that the admin has dismissed for a long time and times like these indicate why this suggestion needs to be engaged with.[11]

Solidarity is also important while communicating and responding to the admin, given the information asymmetry and unilateral decision-making. In order to reach out to them, voice our concerns, and make decisions as a student body, we need to have a united front. Responsibilities towards ourselves can help us exercise our rights better as well. What is the point of teaching us to resist power, work as a collective, stand up for ourselves and exercise our rights as lawyers if we don’t do it as law students? After all, the enemy of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy.

Inclusivity

However “woke” we as a community try to be, there has always been a lack of inclusivity here at NLS[12] and, during the pandemic, that has only been highlighted even more. Students and admin are both to blame here.

When it comes to students, efforts have been made to make committees and activities more inclusive.[13] However, SAC and SBA – who represent academic and student interests – are usually homogenous in their compositions – whether it is in relation to students’ approaches to learning, their identities, educational, or socio-economic backgrounds. This results in a skewed representation of student and academic interests that disregards the issues of various students.

This stems from the way bodies like SBA and SAC are composed. SBA as a two-person body has little scope to represent a range of identities. When it comes to CR elections, the voting method is by relative majority without the option of a single transferable vote, which means that the elected people may not have majority support. While committees have been questioned and asked to change for lack of inclusivity (even though the benefits of the new essay Google form process remains doubtful), the way we decide the composition of SBA and SAC hasn’t changed, much less been questioned. However, the need for representation and inclusivity is far greater in SAC and SBA, as opposed to committees, given the matters they handle.

That being said, at NLS, inclusivity has largely been a student-run effort. Students get a lot of support through community building thanks to groups like the SPAC, Queer Alliance, the NLS Feminist Alliance and the Disability Alliance. They have been instrumental in amending the Anti-Sexual Harassment Code, drafting the Gender and Sexual Minorities Code and the Disability Code (the latter two are yet to be implemented) and are an important source of peer support. However, the issue with student collectives is that these are not institutional bodies in the official sense, do not get college funding, and depend on student interest (which leaves the possibility of them collapsing unto themselves). Things like accommodation, infrastructure, institutional recourse, and making a curriculum more accessible to students with disabilities aren’t things that students alone can do.


Proposed Structural Changes

The unrecognised consequence of mistrust has proven to be that both the admin and the students lose out, sometimes students more than they should. The mistrust of the admin makes it tougher for them to implement even the beneficial and useful changes to the academic programme. The mistrust of students by the admin makes them subject to endless scrutiny and suspicion and hampers their overall development. And the mistrust within the student body makes us stubborn, judgemental and aloof to our own peers.

Some measures can help reduce this.

  1. Formal process to decide whether general v. individual measures will be taken: When an issue affects more than 50% of the batch as gauged by the admin or SAC/SBA, then the admin should consider a general measure. If the number is lesser, then individual measures can be considered.[14] However, we should ensure that in case-to-case concessions, individual students do not lose their negotiation power and backing from SBA and the student body at large by virtue of it no longer being a general concession.

  2. Rejections Explained: In order to reduce student mistrust of admin, the admin can provide reasoned explanations through emails as to why certain suggestions were not taken into consideration. This would have helped in the case of the AER changes where opinions were gauged but most rejected.

  3. Approval ratings for measures taken to be shared by SBA: SBA can send forms gauging approval ratings and feedback for measures taken, including positive ones like having Saturdays off, which can then be sent to admin. This can solve the problem of individuals in the admin not receiving gratitude, which some SAC and CoCo members highlighted in our survey.

  4. Setting up an anonymous grievance redressal mechanism: A committee with impartial members should address in-trimester complaints against admin. Incidents such as Shortsgate,[15] creepy advances by professors, or sexist, queerphobic, ableist, casteist or insensitive comments leave students in a fix as there seems to be no formal mechanism to complain against staff. In order to prevent the power dynamics from adversely affecting the students, such complaint mechanisms should be completely anonymous.

  5. Sensitisation of faculty: Sensitisation programmes should be tailored to reduce student-faculty clashes and increase meaningful conversation specifically on issues such as sexism and sexual harassment, LGBTQIA+ acceptance, caste, mental health etc.

  6. Creating more safe spaces for conversation: Perhaps the rigour of the academic programme leaves the student body with little time to be concerned with matters beyond their own, and conversations beyond their cliques. However, if we are to move on from the tokenistic or materialistic empathy of the “+1″s, “^^”s or “more power” texts on the batch group – we need to listen to our peers. Spaces like the Mental Health Support Group’s sessions and game nights, or simply organised student meetings meant to rant and whine (not solve, like a GBM aims to) could be key to this free flowing conversation.

  7. Non-competitive activities for community building: To offset the hyper-competitive atmosphere of Law School, we need non-cutthroat, non-CV-hoeing, engaging activities which help us build community and enjoy with our peers. Qaafila nights, inter-batch sports/PFL, SF, PubPools, Quizzes and Univ Week have served this purpose in the past – and we should work towards creating more such avenues. However, it is essential that such activities emerge organically, that they do not take the shape of another mandatory course requirement we have to fulfil (like mandatory sports at 6AM), and that these activities do not become clubs or groups that perpetuate marginalisation.

All of the above suggestions could finally change the way we communicate from feeling like a stupid game of chess (sorry, Queen’s Gambit fans). Instead of waiting for the next move (emails on reopening) and trying to avoid losing a piece (5th years losing their rooms), we could achieve a truce (a detailed email clarifying reopening related doubts) and find common ground (send results of a student Google form to admin to apprise them of present concerns) to avoid checkmate. And in the end, perhaps, we might emerge victorious, “legit” and sane.

 

[1] As a senior said, ‘NLS stakeholders have lost faith in the social contract and are returning to state of nature’.

[2] By concessions, we are referring to any kind of requests from the students’ end towards the administration. These could arise from entitlements within the AER, or arise on account of some extra-ordinary event which requires deviation from standard timelines etc. For example, some students received an extension on their project submission due to cyclones in their areas which led to power cuts.

[3] The only feedback which has been very well received is course feedback. Courses structures have changed, professors have changed, the teaching methodology has improved in a lot of courses based on our feedback, and the work by the faculty. We are very thankful for that.

[4] There have been instances where batches have received marks for a subject, then they were taken back, and the revised marks were released after another two weeks with almost ten marks being slashed for every student – with no explanation at all. In another instance, another batch’s results were revoked, and re-released with an increase of about 10 marks for everyone.

[5] We recently received a draft plan for moderation – in mid May 2021 and were asked for student feedback on the same.

[6] The Mental Health Support Group is a student collective which comprises students trained by professionals from NIMHANS. They were trained to offer peer support to students facing mental health issues. MHSG conducts peer support sessions, wherein students get on call and discuss their feelings, worries, and current events. These sessions have been quite useful as a form of cathartic release for students.

[7] Some words used by students in the survey responses were “apathetic, not trained, formality, no follow up, no empathy, too formal, forced, insensitive, pointless, uninterested prof, did not happen, timings not intimated, can be fruitful if faculty are trained.”

[8] Care feminists dispute the idea of the rational, autonomous, liberal, self-serving individuals and point out how we are all relationally connected.

[9] Yes, solidarity is more than just a tokenistic email saying “We are in solidarity”. A good example of student solidarity was when students allotted project mentors to those who were directly impacted by the second wave to ease academic burden.

[10] 71% of students who filled the survey believe that mental health issues and academic burdens are inter-related to some extent, and that we necessarily need to re-examine the academic structure and pressures, especially in such unprecedented times.

[11] Our approach towards mental health has been fragmented and not holistic: the admin keeps reminding us of the counselors and the mental health infrastructure available while the students keep bringing up the academic burden. We need to acknowledge that addressing mental health requires a combination of efforts: mental health infrastructure needs to be supplemented with an environment that can sustain positive mental health.

[12] See, The Elusive Island of Excellence: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2788311; Representation Report Quirk

[13] By changing the committee selection process for example and having diversity points. The changes made by CoCo to the committee selection process still have issues though – 1. Filling written google forms with essay-type questions for multiple committees is inherently exclusionary and takes a lot more time than circulating 1 list of school achievements across committees – committees received less people than usual; 2. The changes were against the SBA Constitution – students were not allowed to join both ABCs and non-ABCs; 3. There were diversity points – however, we should also have ways to check if this actually makes committees more inclusive (eg: representation survey).

[14] Our survey responses were evenly split on the question of whether there should be general relaxations or customized individual ones whenever any extraordinary change/measure is undertaken.

[15] Shortsgate is slang for an incident a few years ago (2016) where a Professor, during and in front of the whole class, had proceeded to criticize and shame a female student for wearing shorts to class. The next day, the students responded by all wearing shorts to class. See a Quirk article on the student response here.

#quirk #Admin #Mistrust #Apathy #NLSIU #inclusivity #LawSchool #SAC #sba #administration #studentbody #nlsiubangalore #faculty