The Humorous Humanist: Prof. Seemita Mohanty
"I am no celebrity, to be interviewed," says Professor Seemita Mohanty seated in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences on the third floor of the Main Building. The lines of struggles and experiences, etched on her face are enveloped perfectly by her soft-spoken and jovial nature. In a candid talk with Team MM in a 24 degrees air-conditioned room, Professor Mohanty speaks about her life and her journey.
She iterates having a very common and ordinary childhood and experience, which has been extraordinary by the fact that she has lived on a campus, all through her life. Her friends were a really good bunch of kids, and she remembers spending the most valuable time with them, often sending them a text or two through WhatsApp, even today.
Professor Mohanty completed her formal education at DAV Public School, Unit-8, Bhubaneswar and went on to pursue English Honours from BJB College, Bhubaneswar and further, her Post Graduation, M. Phil. and Ph. D. from the Utkal University. The love for literature and language was built into her by father, who was a Professor of English at the Utkal University(Odisha) and mother who was a Professor of Odia.
We had a huge library at our place with numerous books and I think the profession of teaching and literature runs in my blood
She was passionate about Vikram Seth's books and even did her Ph. D on the Critical Analysis on one of his books. Acting as a guest lecturer at CET, Bhubaneswar during her M. Phil, did she realise that she loved teaching.
With a hearty laugh, she points out that she used to be a very curious and an active kid, performing distinctively in academics all the while winning laurels in activities like sports, drama and debating. Even though she was the youngest of all her siblings, she would take initiatives to do all kinds of good things and the naughty ones.
I would lead my brothers and sisters into activities that they were scared to do and would often get punished because of it.
Fast forward to today, she feels that she has grown as an individual in the 20 years that she has been a Professor here at NIT-R.
Akin to all the typical fathers, her father was also very protective of her, and she wasn't allowed to move out of her hometown and study. So, when she joined NIT-R in the beginning, even though she was confident about her job, it was a tad bit difficult to handle living on her own here, when all her life she had lived under the shielding umbrella of her parents and had everything done for her.
20 years hence, she proudly says that she has discovered four major qualities that one requires becoming a teacher that everyone adores. These four things which are,
- Subject knowledge
- Willingness to learn from everyday interactions
- Compassion and,
- A good sense of humour.
I read a lot and watch all of those News-hour debates and discussions and always make it a point to relate my teaching to the real life. This along with the humour angle keeps the students' interest intact
When asked about the additional positions of responsibilities that she has handled other than being a professor, she has trouble coming out of her modesty and beating her drum. Saying that there have been numerous positions that she has been in, she goes on to state a few like being the Vice-President of the Literary and Cultural Society, SAC and the Assistant Superintendent of the Ladies Hostels for quite some period. Presently she is the Chairperson of the Staff Club of NIT-R.
The senior most faculty of the Department of Humanities Sciences also has crystal clear, tangible and convincing opinions regarding the importance of Humanities Sciences for engineers that one cannot help but agree.
We all are humans first. Even in your professional life, you have to work with humans, so more than the technical stuff, the ability to work with your contemporaries, to understand and empathise with them, will make you a better engineer.
As per her, leadership, communication and people management skills, help you to climb the success ladder.
Her voice emulates a tinge of nostalgia as she talks about the HS Department out here, saying that it feels as if she has brought up a child; the way this Department has evolved.
Delving deeper into reminiscence, she recounts her initial NIT-R days when she joined as an assistant professor in the erstwhile REC. At that time, with only three faculties including her, Department of Humanities Sciences was present as a sister department or Service Department to teach few B. Tech. courses. One of the faculties retired a month past her joining, and the other one left after two years. With one or two guest professors coming now or then, Professor Mohanty was the only permanent faculty of the department for one whole year.
There was only one room in the name of department space, and that stayed that way for many years. It was Professor Sarangi who brought research environment with him when he came as the new director of NIT. In bringing the department to where it stands now, Professor Mohanty made a lion’s share contribution. As the sole witness to the journey of HS department from the then one faculty department to now twelve faculty department, she vividly remembers the day they were allotted the space where the HS department is today. It all happened in the corridors of the second floor of the main building where she was requesting Professor Sarangi for better space.
“Do you want to go there?" Professor Sarangi asked her pointing towards the place. In a split second decision she replied ‘Yes.’
“Who would climb three floors”, was what her colleagues questioned disapprovingly as they felt they could have got a better place on refusing this place which was a dump yard back then.
“People who care to meet us will climb and once the labs are started students will climb.”, Was all she replied. She took it as a challenge and transformed that place so habitable that it made people envious. The Building got a lift later which was functional for quite a time. “It’s not functional now, so we climb and stay fit”, she chuckled.
Once the department was complete, and language lab was made compulsory for all B. Tech students the place lost its old status of deserted dump yard.
It is a tribute to her constant striving and consistent efforts that The Department of Humanities Sciences of NIT Rourkela has been recognised as a Centre of Excellence for Tribal Research by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
She also has a bold touch of domain expertise built into her and she has indulged in a lot of research projects. While at the beginning her focus was on teaching the English language, she has shifted, it to tribal languages and literature. One of her major research projects is based on 4 of the major tribal languages, which are present in Western Odisha, that she conducted under the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The outcome of the project which showed most of the tribal languages were in the endangered zone, depicted that the inter-generational transmission of local languages was not happening and it was because of the lesser economic viability of these subjects, they were getting lost. However, Professor Mohanty says with conviction:
Research has proved that when a person is good in his/her mother tongue, they actually grasp the other languages pretty well. It's sad because when a language dies, a culture dies.
She is also the recipient of the prestigious Homi Bhabha Fellowship funded by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which involved a lot of processes, presentations of her subject matter, which again was based on 'Tribal Literature and Culture', recommendations and a final interview.
I remember I was being interviewed by a panel of specialists in one room, and somebody passed by the room and asked us to talk in further hushed tones than we already were talking in because Ratan Tata himself was having a conference in the adjacent room, she marvels.
Apart from this, she also has professional memberships from several respectable institutions like International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), English Language Teachers' Association of India (ELTAI), Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (IACLALS) and the like. She remembers going for an IATEFL conference in the UK with the first ever 'Professional Development Allowance' that she received from the Institute.
Today, she has attended conferences at a lot of places all around the globe like Thailand, Malaysia, the UCLA and the National University of Singapore. She has also stayed a Consultant to the Indian chapter of British Council.
She believes that, during conventions like these, we get the chance to interact with a lot of different people from around the globe, and the more you interact, the more it broadens your perspectives. It also gives insights into newer research projects.
On Team MM's inquiry about a normal day in her life, she smiles and says,
A normal day for me is very normal.
She is all work and no play right now, waking up at 6:00 am and working till 7:00 pm, taking classes, interacting with Ph. D students, writing applications and doing her research. She also loves to travel and occasionally catches a movie or a Rom-Com on 'Romedy Now.'
Speaking from the experience of 20 long years at NIT-R, Prof. Mohanty laments the missing sense of responsibility among the students. She says that both the teacher and the taught need to make efforts in this two-way process for results to be fruitful.
Proper reciprocation from the students keeps the interest of teachers intact. Only if you show interest I will make efforts to improve my teacher. It is really upsetting to see that students lack interest severely and then put the blame on teachers forgetting that exchange of knowledge is a two-way process and requires equal involvement of both teachers and the students.
“Any message for our readers?” we bowled our last question. “Dream big”, she replied and went on to elaborate it a bit, “ No dream is too big. If you dream big, you can certainly achieve it. Don’t expect it to happen in a jiffy because good things take time to happen but if you keep working towards your dream, sooner or later they will come round the corner”. The epitome of struggle herself, whose consistent efforts and tireless striving brought radical developments in the Department of Humanities Sciences quoted the words of Mahatma Gandhi:
Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.