Jigna Desai Will Not be Categorized
Jigna Desai headed to college intending to become an astrophysicist—but she left knowing that sciences were just the start of the many things that fascinated her. She graduated from MIT with two bachelor’s degrees: one in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and another combining literature with cognitive science. “I refused disciplinary monogamy,” she half jokes.
This sense of openness, exploration, and expansive ambition has characterized almost every move Desai has made since then. And this past spring, Desai, a professor in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies (GWSS), was recognized for her efforts with a CLA Dean’s Medal. The annual award recognizes faculty members for excellence in scholarship and other creative activities.
After earning a PhD in English with a minor in feminist studies at the University of Minnesota in 1998, Desai was hired as an assistant professor at the University in what is now GWSS. While the then-fledgling field sometimes felt more scrappy than stable, Desai thrives in the environment. “There is so much freedom and capacity to imagine work and to produce knowledge in new ways,” she says of the scholarly environment.
In her 2004 book Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film, Desai embraced that broad and sometimes difficult-to-categorize approach to scholarship. “Publishers would say, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” she says of the book that not only engaged South Asian migrant communities crisscrossing Britain, the US, Canada, and South Asia, but also analyzed this diaspora through the lenses of gender, sexuality, and race. “There wasn’t a ‘shelf’ for imagining these geographies.”
Over time, Desai has found an increasingly eager audience for her work and ideas. In 2016, Desai and Kari Smalkoski, now an assistant professor in GWSS, launched Minnesota Youth Story Squad, which partners with Twin Cities public schools to support racial and social justice storytelling for middle and high school students while building mentoring relationships with undergraduate students. The organization has worked with over a thousand students since its inception.
Desai is also part of the MN Transform leadership team that landed a $5 million “Just Futures” Mellon Foundation grant in 2021. The grant supports a multidisciplinary team of University faculty who collaborate with more than a dozen community partners to support racial justice and social equality initiatives.
For Desai, mentoring and advising is field-building. Through Desai’s mentoring—she has mentored about 100 graduate students and nearly twenty junior faculty members over the course of her career—she hopes to encourage even more enterprising and enthusiastic work in the field. While mentoring is critical to field-building from Desai’s perspective, she wants “to make a commitment to students and their futures in whatever way they see them, whether that’s in academia, at a nonprofit, as a public intellectual,” she says. “What can I do to help them get there?”
Her current advisees say that she does just that. Sayan Bhattacharya, a doctoral candidate in feminist studies, says Desai has been an encouraging mentor who has nudged them to stay open to possibilities. “She would say, ‘Be promiscuous in [what you do]: read everything, take different classes, go to different departments, meet different people, and then decide what you want to do,” Bhattacharya says. “I found that idea really liberating.”
For Desai, it is this kind of exploration that can be most rewarding and meaningful in an academic life. “Academia is always trying to catch up to things that we know exist in real life, but haven’t always been captured,” she says. We have so much liberatory knowledge to create collectively. “I don’t just want to ‘make shelves’ for myself. I want to make shelves for scholarship by other people and about their experiences. I want there to be shelves for their work, too.”