Enriching engagements, deepening knowledges:

The in-between moments from projects in Critical University Studies


Dina Zoe Belluigi and Nandita Banerjee Dhawan


In our journeys of considering what can be learnt about studying the moves towards social justice within universities in South Africa and India, we’ve engaged in processes of deliberation, exploration and scholarship together since 2017. In this blog we’d like to briefly reflect on some of the events – formal and informal – that have enabled us as CUS scholars to engage in a wider dialogue with space, institutions, texts, each other and the range of communities of scholars and activist. These have been enriched through embodied engagements with the campus and domestic spaces of Belfast, Port Elizabeth, and Kolkata. Around us was disquiet in each of those societies.


The fragments of reflections and images below offer a feel of those moments. While the ‘outputs’, findings and arguments related to our work is accessible in reports, papers and our CVs, what we’ve realised is that the informal conversations - over meals, while waiting, working and walking in the contexts we are situated – are often where the more nuanced whispers of the darker sides of higher education emerge, where vulnerability and memories are shared, and where friendships and solidarities are forged.



Probably some of the most enriching times for our scholarly collaborations have been in the background engagements and conversations in preparation for engaging with others – participants of our research, our students, and those who have attended and presented at the events we’ve had the honour of coordinating together. We begin with two of these.


The most recent was the time Dina and Nandita spent in Kolkata deliberating the organisation and framing of the colloquium ‘Transformation for Sustainability: Gender and its intersections within participation in higher education’ (10-11 February 2020). Sitting on Nandita’s bed (see below) we played with evocative title-making and framing of the streams of the colloquium, drawing from the varied abstracts that participants had submitted. The hours of discussion and laughter were welcomed to deepen the knowledge of each person’s thinking, and to share our understandings and experiences of the university, our disciplines, our own scholarship and lives. The colloquium brought together over 25 gender scholars and activists from higher education institutions (HEIs) across India.



Another was the time in the Port Elizabeth and East London, where we spent three intensive days with Dr Grace Ese-Osa Idahosa for the project on which we three are collaborating – ‘Transformation towards sustainability in higher education: Interactional dynamics in gender and intersectionality’, which looks at participation dynamics of academic staff in universities in India and South Africa. Nandita and Grace travelled the country in July-August 2019 for fieldwork, while Dina prepared for the ‘Emancipatory Imaginations: Advancing Critical University Studies Winter School’ later that month. As all this was happening, we came together on South Africa’s ‘Women’s Day’ in August 2019 for three days together in a small rented apartment to talk for hours – offering each other genealogies of our scholarship, where it was ‘at’ at that point, what we hoped to learn from the ‘transformation-sustainability’ project, and what were our fears and joys.


While we continued these conversations virtually and again when we came together to present at the Transformation for Sustainability colloquium in Kolkata, it was during this intensive time of talking that something was cemented, giving us the stamina to persevere in a project tested by its difficult contexts and now the pandemic of C19. This snapshot was taken at the end of that period - Grace, Nandita and Dina (left to right).



While in Kolkata, Nandita organised a range of events, talks, meetings for Grace and Dina at her university. Dina was in the city for over a month as a visiting scholar, and so also spoke with Nandita at other institutions. To further enrich her understanding of the great variety of institutions and traditions of university education in the region of West Bengal, Nandita organised for Dina to travel to Visva-Bharati, the university town that was born from the vision of Tagore.


Madhuparna Karmakar, a fellow scholar of university life and of gender, acted as a guide and companion for me, Dina. Below her and I (left and right) share some morning liquorice root tea. Staying on campus, we walked the famous outside classrooms, met with students and academics, participated in some of the institutions processes, and engaged in long discussions from the early morning to late at night.




More about the colloquium, the research project, our papers and the talks from these collaborations will emerge in the next year or so. With restrictions to physical travel; even more restricted university budgets; and inequalities in higher education, our institutions and in our countries continuing to grow, this brief reflection is a moment of remembering with gratitude the times of real connection which our work has enabled.