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Art for Impact? The Counter//Narratives of Higher Education Pilot Project

Dina Zoe Belluigi

‘Impact’ can be interpreted in quite instrumental ways, particularly in contexts where it has its own system of metrics to game. However, meaningful engagement with the ways in which research processes and ‘findings’ may be used as openings for change in higher education (HE), is another concern altogether. This blog reflects briefly on the Counter//Narratives project which was born from a set of larger conversations, where I have drawn from figurative forms of artistic experience to deliberate the question of ‘impact’ in Critical University Studies in relation to counter-narratives of higher education.

“This project explores how arts-based counter-stories may contribute to creating conceptual change about what and whom is of value and meaning within higher education”.


I’ve been concerned about critical research about the university being ineffectual (or made ineffectual?) when it comes to its potential to in/form change in higher education. With others, I have noted how it may have to do with the ‘form’ of dispassionate research representations (Belluigi, Alcock, Farrell and Idahosa, 2019) and also the conditions of its production and reception. To contribute to the larger conversation about ‘impact’ in CUS, I have explicitly flagged this in discussions and in the papers where we have made deliberate engagement with HE stakeholders, and where participants themselves have expressed an opinion about the efficacy of critical studies on the university on change. Some recent papers to this effect are cited here below:

“… a number of the participants voiced their fatigue and disillusionment with institutional research on transformation, which was experienced as a mechanism utilised by those in power to defer change. In an attempt to increase the impact of our findings, briefing papers have been circulated at committee level within the institution, and are being used to formulate a larger international research network” (Belluigi and Thondhlana, 2019: 951).

“It was due to the Fellow’s discontent at such lack of critical enquiry and fatigue at the ineffectual impact of internal institutional research, that they encouraged the authors to undertake a participatory study to enable the Fellows to explore their differing receptions of group membership and experiences of microaggressions” (Belluigi and Thondhlana, 2020: 6).

Informed by the ways in which people in the various HE courses I have taught, and conversations I had are able to be open, humble or emboldened after engaging with the arts, film and literature (such as those I’ve curated in The Higher Education Arts Archive), in 2018 I started percolating on a particular project.

“We can benefit from the enlarged and varied imagination that literature, films, and other cultural products afford us to start to occupy different positionings than we usually occupy” (Wekker, 2006).

Conversations with the artists of Analogue Eye: Video Art Africa, many of whom were engaged through their practice with exploring knowledge, authority or directly university cultures, led to a range of ideas and commitments about that which artmaking allows for and is cognisant.

“Through activating possible imaginaries and affective connections, it may be possible to create the conditions for social change against the odds. Much contemporary creative practice is pluralistic and heteronomic – avoiding easy solutions, superficial ‘take aways’, single perspectives, soothing impressions, lulling entertainment. Rather, artmaking concerned with justice engages its audiences with mis-readings of everyday and taken-for-granted norms; which it does in complex and demanding ways. In these artworks, the questions of authorship, representation and interpretation are pushed to the foreground: whose stories matter when it comes to authority? What are the obligations and limitations of one person being the author of another’s voice? How does one represent structural change - its aspirations, promises, failures, futures – through the story of one individual without evoking problematic exceptionalist ideas? In what ways can single artworks contribute to dialogue around larger narratives? How does video art, with the moving image, sound, text and experience, extend the possibilities of activating critical consciousness?”

A central concern is with authorship, and academic agency and voice. Those well versed in the scholarship and practice of counter-stories and their relation to counter-narratives would recognise the complexities here and the rich terrain we are walking.

With a larger collaborative vision in mind, we have taken small steps and started a project which entangles academic citizenry-research-teaching-learning. We have begun with a collection of video artworks created by artists interpreting, engaging and re-imaging first-generation academics' life experiences within universities in South Africa, India, Syria and Zimbabwe.

Click the above to open the website Counter//Narratives. It has a page about the project as a whole and how it serves as research; It has a page about the artists; and it has a dashboard with artworks. Each one opens to a page with a small amount of information about the piece, the artist and the academic whose stories it negotiates, and a link for reflections of viewer responses.

Part of this project has been the very question of ‘impact’ and what the possibilities and limits of it is when focused on impact within the university rather than on an ‘outside’ object of focus. This informed the research design, each and every deliberation along the way, in questions posed to the artists, participating academic and those participants reflexing on their viewing (see the ‘record your response’ buttons below each video). At a step away from the insider processes, we have planned staged continual conversation with advisors, scholars and researcher.

Below: Workshops about the project and the potential uses of its impact began just before Covid-19 restrictions hit. This still is from one workshops with postgraduate scholars at Jadavpur University’s Women’s Studies Centre in February 2020.

The responses have been wonderful so far – though just beginning! The artworks have been embedded in websites with a similar political ethic (such as Decolonial Dialogues in April 2020) and engaged with in courses and shown as a part of conference events, such asDivergences: Transitional narratives’ which was part of the ‘Transformation for Sustainability: Gender and its intersections within participation in higher education’ colloquium with gender studies scholars and activists in Indian higher education in January 2020. I have also discussed them in recent talks about the question of impact and advancing Critical University Studies.

Below: Recording from the keynote 'Counter to advance? Observations on the traditions, trajectories & openings of the re-emerging field of 'critical university studies' offered on 18 March 2020 at Liverpool Hope University.


If you are interested in contributing to the project’s impact and growth, some suggestions are indicated below:


Belluigi, D. Z.; Alcock, A.; Farrell, V.; Idahosa, G. E. (2019). Mixed metaphors, mixed messages and mixed blessings: how figurative imagery opens up the complexities of transforming higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the South. v. 3, n. 2, p. 110-120.

Belluigi, D.Z., Thondhlana, G. (2019). ‘Why mouth all the pieties?’ Black and women academics’ revelations about discourses of ‘transformation’ at an historically white South African university. Higher Education 78, 947–963 (2019).

D. Z. Belluigi & Thondhlana, G. (2020) ‘Your skin has to be elastic’: the politics of belonging as a selected black academic at a ‘transforming’ South African university, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education,

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