11 September 2020

Interview with Prathi by Student Department Advisor Sarah Hussain

This year, Carleton awarded tenure to the Economic Professor Prathi Seneviratne. The nerve wracking process took over a year and half and consisted of being observed in the classroom by her colleagues, receiving difficult feedback from students and faculty, and doing a massive self-reflection on the work she had done up until that point. Despite this otherwise stressful and trying experience, she stayed optimistic and believes she has come out stronger than ever.

Prathi grew up in Sri Lanka and went to an all women’s school and then to an all women’s college. Up until graduate school, Prathi was a part of the dominant gender in her classes, insulated from the vast gender inequality we see in our Economics courses today. However, because of those experiences she was able to develop confidence in her abilities and knowledge of the field very early on. This helped her actively engage in discussions and debates without ever feeling overwhelmed by the dominant male presence which she encountered later on in her professional life.

She reclaims one of her favorite professors in graduate school to be a staunch conservative and Republican. While she wasn’t particularly fond of his values and beliefs, she appreciated his efforts to engage with his students in open discussions where they criticized each others’ viewpoints and encouraged his students to challenge him. She hopes for more dynamic conversations and debates to resurface in academic circles especially due to the onset of COVID-19 and the recent discourse on racial inequality. These unprecedented times have forced academics in all fields to rethink the mainstream theories and ideologies which have been on the forefront for many years. We tend to fixate on the positive aspects of theories and highlight those in discourse but push away the negative spillover effects that they have. She believes now is a good time to bring the work of academics who have been sidetracked for many years because of their ‘radical’ approaches and she hopes to take “baby steps” towards incorporating the ‘other side’ in the classes she teaches.

One of the most notable lessons Prathi cites she learned through the tenure process was that, while it’s important to take your colleagues’ feedback seriously, everyone’s teaching style is different and you must find your own in order to connect with students. She mentioned an example of this being when Aaron Swoboda told her not to use blue chalk on the board. He feels students can’t decipher anything written because of the lack of color contrast, however Prathi’s students told her they weren’t bothered by it and liked the variety in color. Through this encounter she was able to realize that the evaluation process ultimately boiled down to the student’s experience and while Aaron’s friendly feedback helped her take greater notice of her students’ preferences, she ultimately decided to stick with her gut and the blue chalk (sorry Aaron)!

While most people in the past four months buckled into lockdown and whipped out their banana bread baking skills, Prathi hit the books and online workshops to learn to become a “better teacher”. With only two weeks in Spring Term to prepare for online courses, Prathi felt things spiraled out of control. She wants to make sure the new normal of online learning goes well for the forthcoming academic year. Like a true economist, Prathi is treating this time spent navigating online teaching as a fixed cost, “I don’t want that fixed cost to go to waste, I want it to be actually something I can use when I go back to in person teaching.” For her, the online teaching experience is very adaptable to in-person teaching and definitely provides important life skills.

We wish Prathi the best of luck for her future years of teaching even if she uses blue chalk on the board!

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