Editor’s note: This is the first installation in a weekly series profiling professors’ approaches to teaching and academics at Dartmouth.
Once while teaching an advanced seminar on “Contemporary Readings on Justice,” government professor Sonu Bedi decided to let the class run wild. As students discussed the practical and philosophical implications of political theory reaching throughout time and across society, they grew so involved in the debate that “people were actually yelling,” according to Taylor Stevenson ’10
Bedi’s classes often follow this format, reflecting his belief that students must pose questions themselves to discover the “tensions, paradoxes and inconsistencies” in the reasoning behind ideas, Bedi said, thoughtfully adjusting his teal horn-rimmed glasses.
Since he arrived at Dartmouth in January 2007, Bedi has taught classes about the theory and practical application of free speech, constitutional law, civil liberties and contemporary justice.
Influenced by Socratic dialogue, Bedi has honed an interactive teaching style in hopes of engaging students, encouraging them to consider the multiple dimensions of the law, he said.
“When we discuss rights and liberties, we discuss not only their practical, but also philosophical aspects,” said Douglas Zarbock ’10, who has taken three of Bedi’s courses.
The questions raised by students range from “What comes along with guaranteeing free speech?” to “What does the Constitution mean?” according to Zarbock.
Bedi typically starts each of his classes with a short lecture, “making the case” about a certain topic to clarify facts that students can then use to generate discussion, he said. He then asks one or two students to pose a question to the class based on the assigned reading, instigating an informal discussion led by the class, which Bedi facilitates.
“Only the best professors are able to put students’ feet to the fire,” Stevenson said. “Bedi’s style is pitting ideas against each other in order to reach that honest light of truth. Are we being intellectually honest, or just trying to get participation points?”
Stevenson, a double major in philosophy and government, cites the frank discussion arising from his and Bedi’s diverging opinions as an “excellent” way to learn.
“When you’re going into politics, political theory is helpful It provides an ideal to shoot for, while keeping in mind the practical realities in front of you,” Stevenson, who is currently a candidate for the Minnesota state Senate, said.
Bedi’s intelligence is often striking to students, according to Stevenson.
“It just comes out at you bar none, he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” he said. “And through his grasp and mastery of the material, in a way, his talent makes you smarter’ as a student.”
Bedi received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Brown University, and also studied for a year at Oxford University as an undergraduate student. He then earned his law degree from Harvard University, later working as a criminal defense attorney in New York.
Bedi ultimately decided to go to Yale University to earn a doctorate in political science and philosophy. He began to focus on academia and teaching as a way to pose questions and gauge alternative perspectives about certain issues that intrigued him. As a defense attorney, in contrast, Bedi said he felt “confined to [his] clients,” instead of being able to research topics that interested him.
“I believe that the best scholarship comes from synergistic interest between the students and I,” Bedi said. “It’s not a separate thing for me I teach what I write about.”
The College’s commitment to the liberal arts and the “thrilling” experience that Bedi’s twin brother, Monu Bedi ’97, had while an undergraduate drew him to Dartmouth, he said.
“There has to be a time when you can freely and not self-consciously engage in ideas,” Bedi said. “A liberal arts education allows students to raise questions about things that they might not be able to consider in their future careers It makes you a sharper and better citizen of the world.”
Bedi’s students said the academic rigor of his courses serves as an effective tool for future careers.
“You can’t be off-guard. If you try to sleep through an essay, Bedi will see it,” Stevenson, who has taken all four of Bedi’s classes, said. “Bedi’s very respectful, but he will push people who throw out half-digested thoughts That type of rigorousness prepares you for the real world, when adults will call you out if you’re not giving it your A’ game.”
Bedi’s “charisma” and emphasis on engaging in meaningful conversation draws students to his classes, Zarbock said. Many students take more than one class taught by Bedi, he added.
“His ability to engage students, challenge them and put forth and address ideas and issues makes him an incredibly effective teacher,” Zarbock said. “He’s not interested in filling up air time.”
Bedi will be on sabbatical for the 2010-2011 school year, working on a new book project that focuses on rethinking the notion of equality under the law and how race, law and identity are understood.
Bedi said he hopes to hold a new seminar when he returns, “Race, Law and Identity,” that will be based on his research. “[In the seminar], I hope that we can vet ideas, and I can have students help me clarify my argument,” Bedi said. “You can’t ask for anything more.”
He said he also plans to explore the implications of various freedoms of association, such as religion and political parties, and fringe topics associated with abortions.
“Partly focusing on sex-selective abortions, I want to study what we make of abortions that are carried out if the fetus is either male or female,” Bedi said. “Also, even if we do come to the conclusion that abortions are right’, does the state have to provide funding? It’s a very untheorized field.”