Dept. of Political Science: A Thinning Herd
by Devansh Mittal and Ragini Bakshi (UG '24)
Riya, a freshman in Ashoka, wanted to take the introductory course in Political Theory this semester. But she couldn’t get a seat in the 100-seat course. She also didn’t get a seat in any of the other introductory level Political Science courses. Riya’s predicament is emblematic of a deeper issue that has long been festering in the department, that of inadequate number of faculty members in general, and a more acute inadequacy in some subfields of the subject.
On March 18, 2021 a report in The Indian Express broke the news that Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta was resigning as a Professor of Political Science from Ashoka. Professor Mehta’s resignation left everyone in shock.
There were apprehensions that after this untoward incident, scholars would be hesitant to come to teach at Ashoka. Priavi Joshi, the Political Science Department’s Student Representative, says that this has not been a concern. “It didn’t have an impact as the department got quite a few faculty applications and a lot of them were shortlisted as was evident from the job talks,” she said. Every single applicant who got shortlisted asked a question about academic freedom in the university, according to Priavi, however it didn’t affect their ultimate decision.
The Department was also planning to create a new Legal Studies Department at the time. This plan also took a hit in Spring 2021. Priavi admits that last academic year they were in a good position with regards to faculty members for the new department who had a law background, mentioning Professor Mehta, Professor Madhav Khosla and Professor Vinay Sitapati. Prof. Khosla is no longer associated with Ashoka. A new faculty member, Prof. Raeesa Vakil, was also recruited at the rank of an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies, but she quit soon after too. Priavi says the University is still keen on establishing the new Department and is looking for faculty members for it.
Prof. Neelanjan Sircar, Assistant Professor of Political Science also didn’t come back after Spring 2021 to teach at Ashoka for the Monsoon semester. The particular timing of two faculty members, Prof. Neelanjan and Prof. Khosla, leaving Ashoka after Spring 2021 has led to speculation amongst the student body that Prof. Mehta’s controversial resignation may have influenced both their decisions. At the same time, two faculty members, Prof. Matthew Baxter and Prof. M.A.A Khan went on a sabbatical from Monsoon 2021.
4 new visiting professors were brought onboard in Monsoon 2021 to complement low department strength. The department didn’t hire permanent faculty members then because the process is much more “time consuming” and “has a lot more implications for the University”, according to Priavi, as opposed to visiting professors. “It’s also easier to convince people to come as visiting professors because they don’t have to leave their current jobs or make a long term commitment to the university,” she said. It will be pertinent to note here that 5 speakers were called in for Job Talks on June 15 and 16, 2021, but none of them ended up teaching at Ashoka.
Vaibhav Parik, who completed his ASP in Spring 2021 and was also a Department Representative, says that he had written a letter along with his predecessor (Representative) to the Department (both students and faculty) mentioning a high possibility of people being discouraged from taking up the discipline, and that the department may encounter issues in supporting its senior students with their further endeavours, including specialised courses and theses. These concerns can be said to reflect the anxieties of many students at that time and afterwards. The department was certainly shaken when Professor Mehta left. But the particular conjunction in which all the ensuing events took place really scared students.
The discontent with the department is evident when talking to students. Pratul Chaturvedi, a third-year student says that the inability of junior students to get introductory courses is due to the fact that they have not been offered regularly and senior students are taking them now. He holds the shortage of faculty members due to resignations and sabbaticals responsible for this situation. Another third-year student, who wished to stay anonymous, complains that the majority of courses are South-Asia centric and little is taught about political systems in other parts of the world. “The electives offered each year have become very repetitive. There’s nothing fresh or exciting about the course offerings. And because there’s a lot of thematic overlap between existing courses, the content can also at times feel reused,” he said, also adding that crowded required courses could discourage students from entering the department.
Opinion is also divided on whether mandatory courses should have large classes or not. Some feel that large mandatory courses are a norm across universities and don't affect teaching. Others feel that large classes don’t let students build proper relationships with professors and become a hindrance to discussions and interactions. Some also criticise the lack of diversity of faculty members in terms of caste and gender. When asked whether the Department thinks student concerns like less electives or large classes are valid, Priavi says the Department is cognizant of these issues and thinks they are extremely valid. She points out that many of these problems have to do with the fact that the Department is severely understaffed.
There is a perception among the students that all the problems arising out of an unfavourable faculty-student ratio are the result of the events of Spring 2021. However, that is not exactly the case. Parik says the problem predates Prof. Mehta’s resignation. “Political Science has been a very fast growing major, and the hiring and department expansion has not been as fast as the number of new students taking it up,” he said. As Priavi also highlights, even before the resignations, the Department was “short of faculty members and needed more”.
It would’ve surely gotten much worse in Monsoon 2021 in terms of faculty-students ratio if not for an anomaly. The batch graduating in 2022 has 72 political science majors but the batch graduating in 2023 has only 40. While it is true that the UG’23 cohort is smaller than UG’22 (unlike all other years where batch sizes have consistently increased) by approximately 10%, the number of students majoring in political science dropped by approximately 40%, according to Ashoka’s Academic Management System (AMS). Thus, the course loads of some faculty members in the last two semesters have actually decreased in comparison to the previous semesters, in contrast to the popular perception. The problem seems to have gotten more attention and people talked about it more after so many familiar faces of faculty members were not visible anymore in Monsoon 2021.
The fact of the matter is that even if one doesn’t consider it to be a problem across the department, the department is really in a pickle in two of its subfields: political theory and quantitative research. Prof. Mehta had been the only one teaching the Western Political Thought I (a mandatory course and it’s higher level elective, Western Political Thought II) course from Monsoon 2019 till Spring 2021 (when he left), always with large classes.
Prof. Neelanjan Sircar was also the sole professor teaching Quantitative Research Methods (a gateway course that a student chooses from the set of a qualitative course and quantitative course and its higher level electives) first in a large class and then in two sections, before he resigned in Spring 2021. Fahad Hasin, who also completed his ASP in 2021 and was also a Teaching Assistant to Prof. Sircar, says that as a result “he always had to teach Quantitative research methods courses (often 2 batches) & was unable to offer new electives”. Monsoon 2021 saw the least number of students studying this course and was the first time that students who are going to graduate after 2 years (in this case UG '23) were lesser in number compared to their senior batch. This was the result of the lowest number of Political Science Majors (going to graduate in 2023) that Ashoka has seen since the batch that graduated in 2019.
The Political Science Department has offered Assistant Professorships to six candidates after the recent round of job talks in January and hopes to double in size by the next semester. This is only appropriate as the batch size of UG ’24 is considerably larger than previous batches. Thus, the department hopes to begin a new journey next semester, with old hands and new faces alike.