Welcome to Office Hours, a series brought to you by the Features section! In these articles, Argus writers speak to faculty, staff, and members of the administration about their interests, classes, and lives on and off campus.
Professor Hari Ramesh may have only started as an Associate Professor in the Government Department in the Fall of 2021, but he has quickly found his place within the Wesleyan community. Ramesh specializes in political theory, democratic theory, histories and theories of social oppression, and the intersections of South Asian, Afro-modern, and American political thought. If you haven’t had the chance to take a class with him yet, The Argus will bring you an inside scoop on the origins of his interest in political theory, his love of cooking and basketball, as well as his path to Wesleyan.
The Argus: What sparked your initial interest in political theory? Were there any influences from your childhood growing up that informed your path in academia?
Hari Ramesh: I was always struck by and interested in why some people suffered immeasurably while other people lived lives of relative comfort and happiness, and why the people living lives of relative comfort and happiness often had a lot of power over the people who suffered. When I was a child, I would often spend summers in India with my family, and I saw that very starkly. It was just extreme, not just the amount of poverty, but the kind of relationships in which people stood, and it really struck me. Political theory ended up giving me a language to think about this, to articulate it, and understand what was objectionable about a world structured in that kind of way. I didn’t actually come to political theory first; it was through literature, actually, that I often made sense of this kind of thing when I was in high school. I took a high school class at the Harvard University summer school on nationalism in Latin America. That’s where I read political theory for the first time, and I was really struck by how much it could reveal to me about the things that I really cared about and the things that bothered me the most about the world.
A: As an undergraduate, you studied government with a concentration in political theory and then studied English. How did you see the two subjects interacting with each other while you were at Williams College?
HR: In literature, especially in novels and poetry, there was a sense of the affective dimensions of the lived experiences behind inequality that I found so interesting. The literature that I was most drawn to captured the inner world of inequality, and then political theory helped me think in broader, more structural terms and more explicitly normative terms. I was drawn to literature first because I really found, and still find, close reading intuitive. I like paying close attention to how language works to communicate ideas. I started doing that, as we all do, in high school with literature, and then I found that it was a method of reading political theory that really appealed to me.
A: Because of your background in English and literature, do you find yourself drawn towards more emotive theory compared to rational, analytical works of political theory?
HR: I used to be drawn more towards the literary side of political theory. In college, I ended up studying abroad in England at Oxford University, where the type of political theory on offer was much more of the Tommie Shelby, John Rawls type. After initially having a really hard time with it, I ended up seeing the value in this kind of analytical political philosophy. I think that one of the values of analytical philosophy is that we can speak logically about the seemingly intractable, quite fraught questions in political life. There’s a kind of clarity of thought with respect to normative questions that I appreciate in analytical political philosophy.
Also, after college when I went to grad school, I started to appreciate that the questions I was interested in didn’t always yield to disciplinary boundaries. There are a lot of ways of thinking outside of political theory that are important and useful. For example, after I graduated from college, I lived in India, working for economists on a large-scale randomized control trial, and I started thinking more about the tools of social science. Then I worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with empirical political scientists who were studying American political behavior and public opinion, and I was like, “Oh, there’s stuff to learn here from other ways of thinking.”
A: What was on your mind when you graduated from Williams College? How did you decide your next steps?
HR: I just knew that I wanted to live in India after college, and I wasn’t terribly picky about what I did. I was really very lucky. I ended up in a rural part of South India in the state Tamil Nadu, where my family’s from. I was able to get a good job working for economists based in the U.S. who were interested in this new model of microfinance, a job that allowed me to learn a lot of new skills in the social sciences. Most importantly, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, which was really nice. They were getting older, and I was kind of in a period of my life when I was really happy to be around them and to be experiencing India in new ways. I also traveled around the country quite a bit with my friends. I just had a genuinely fulfilling personal experience.
A: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your time at Yale University as a graduate student in political science?
HR: I tell people sometimes that I entered grad school like I was entering the priesthood. I really thought, “Okay, my life’s over. I’m gonna be in the books all the time.” It was not that at all. I actually had a lot of fun in grad school. I got fortunate in a few different ways for my specific experience. One, I had a really good advisor who was not only a gifted scholar, but also a nice human who was really supportive. I had friends and colleagues in my program, who were, again, not only gifted, but also cool people. Yale was an oddly good fit for me, because there were scholars outside of political theory who were very interested and supportive of the kind of work I was doing. There were also scholars in South Asian Studies, African American Studies, English, and anthropology who were really helpful to me. So I ended up branching out and meeting a bunch of people and learning a bunch of new stuff. Then I got really involved in the campaign to organize a graduate students union at Yale.
A: What were your biggest takeaways from doing that type of organizing work?
HR: The biggest takeaway was how difficult and how much skill the work of political organizing requires, not just skill at the level of understanding the complexities of organizations and institutions, but also skill at an interpersonal level to build coalitions and hold people together. It can be very difficult. I think the other thing I learned was, and this is a little deep, but that some things really scare us are actually not that scary. There’s something about many institutions that makes us meek. But good organizing and solidarity can help you release some of these feelings of meekness, and make you feel like you actually have a voice that is valued. You can stand and speak about what you care about, and others will have your back. It’s something that I still think about a lot: in what instances do we make ourselves smaller than we are?
A: I would love to hear more about your dissertation. I read that your dissertation grew into your current research project for your book.
HR: The current book project is an extension and a deepening of the dissertation. Basically, the broad ideas that it looks at are the intellectual and historical connections between John Dewey and B.R. Ambedkar, as well as at arguments in Brown v Board that analogize caste in India with race in the United States. It also looks now at some of W.E.B. Dubois’s writings from the 1930s. It develops, out of that intellectual history, a set of normative considerations about how states can intervene in persistently oppressive social relations. The question for me is: “What is the role of the modern contemporary state in addressing these persistent forms of social oppression?” And there’s actually not an obvious answer. And there is something in the specific intellectual history linking caste and race that I think is useful. I was always interested in combining different types of political theory. I didn’t want to just offer an interesting intellectual history about how Indian and American, especially Black American thought are linked. I want to examine the actual lessons that we can learn from this for ongoing political design and practice. That’s what I’m working on right now.
A: How did you decide to teach at Wesleyan? Have you enjoyed teaching here?
HR: I always wanted to end up at a place like Wesleyan. Partly because I went to a liberal arts college, so I had a pretty good idea that it was what I wanted in terms of a professional life. But also partly because the government department and the other political theorists here are so great. I was very excited at the prospect of working at Wesleyan. The question is not really why did I choose to come to Wesleyan, and more like, why did they choose me? Because there’s not that many jobs in the field of political theory, and a lot of people apply. I just feel very lucky. It is a matter of real luck to end up at a place where you know you would fit in well, and where you feel like you’re valued at the institution. The best part of Wesleyan is the students; the students are exceptional.
A: What do you do for fun? Have your hobbies and interests changed as you’ve gotten older?
HR: I always really enjoyed playing sports and exercising and stuff like that. I grew up playing a lot of basketball, less so now after the pandemic, though I have heard that there was a good group of faculty who play basketball here. The main thing that has really changed since I was younger, is that I love to cook now. My wife is quite a good cook, and she really helps me love it. We’ve been trying to cook a lot of different cuisines. Our families come from different parts of India, so we’re trying to learn the cuisine from the different regions. Her mom showed me a couple of recipes that are comfort food from their region of India that I tried out. I didn’t always love to cook, but I really find a lot of relaxation and pleasure in it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ella Henn can be reached email@example.com