Published July 25, 2013
As a sophomore studying religion at Columbia College, and needing to fulfill a distribution requirement, Anya Bernstein wandered into a class in Chinese philosophy and, she says, “got wrapped up in it.”
She went on to pursue a certificate program in China at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center, then earned a PhD in anthropology at the University of Chicago, with a dissertation on political participation in Taipei, Taiwan.
But, Bernstein says, “I came to feel like anthropology wasn’t really getting me at the questions I wanted to get at. I’m interested in how the state is organized and how people within the state operate, questions that I think are essential to help understand government and law in general. I thought studying law might help me get there.”
Bernstein received her JD from Yale Law School in 2010. After a year clerking for Judge Guido Calabresi in the federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, in Connecticut, she taught legal research and writing and “Topics in Chinese Law” as a Bigelow Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School.
Now Bernstein is joining the UB Law School faculty this fall as an associate professor and she says she’s delighted to be in a place where scholars bring social science disciplines to bear on questions of law. “In most places a PhD in economics or political science is pretty standard,” she says. “What I think is remarkable about Buffalo is the diversity of the intellectual training that people have had—including anthropology, sociology, philosophy, even literature. These disciplines give you a really interesting and different way to approach the law.”
Born in Russia, Bernstein was 5 when her family moved to the United States and settled in western Massachusetts. She learned to speak English in kindergarten, but kept on with other languages, and now she is proficient in Mandarin Chinese, can converse in Russian, and has some facility with German and Taiwanese/Southern Min as well.
She hopes to use her language skills in January bridge-term courses involving travel to China and Taiwan, much as Professor David Engel takes a group of students to Thailand each January.
“I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to do some interesting comparative work this way,” she says, “so students can see the way these different systems function—that even though it’s a democracy, it doesn’t work the way the U.S. system works. ... The shock of confronting something that doesn’t make any sense to you, and then working through until it does make sense to you, is really powerful. Then, when you turn it back on your own country, it helps you see connections and fissures that you wouldn’t see otherwise.”
Having just completed a major article on “predictive government databases,” Bernstein is looking next to a project of reading case law about the boundaries of government. As government functions are increasingly being outsourced to private contractors, she says, the Supreme Court has struggled to draw the line between what is government and what is private industry.
Bernstein comes to Buffalo with two children—Isaiah, 4, and Mila, almost 1—and her husband, Nicholas Day, a writer of narrative nonfiction who has just published his first book, “Baby Meets World: Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle” (St. Martin’s Press). Their downtime, she says, tends to be spent at zoos and children’s museums, but “we’re really looking forward to exploring upstate New York.”