left: Dr. Bannerjee at Convocation last October where she gave the citation for an Honourary Degree. right: Dr. Bannerjee giving a lecture.

Rohini Bannerjee

A Passion for the Arts

By Anne Simpson | spring 2016

When Dr. Rohini Bannerjee was young, she thought she might grow up to become a medical doctor. She did become a doctor, but not the kind she expected. As a student she volunteered as a French reader at the IWK, reading regularly to a little boy. One week, his bed was empty, and the nurses told her he had died. Medicine, she realized, was not for her. 

Bannerjee went on to study French, earning a doctorate in French Studies from Western University. Now she teaches in the Department of Modern Languages & Classics at Saint Mary’s. 

“I knew that being excited about not going to medical school meant that French was my way,” Bannerjee says. She loves her work as a professor, looking for ways to enrich learning. About five years ago, she said to her students, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just talk French outside class?” So began the Immersion Café. She still meets a group at a coffee shop twice weekly, where, she says, “We talk about everything. I’m not a professor there.” 

At an awards dinner at Saint Mary’s in 2012, she listened as the winner was described as a dedicated professor who had started a café for her students. “I dropped my fork!” she recalls. Students had selected her for the Saint Mary’s University Student Association Award (for Overall Excellence in the Field of Education). “It meant the time and energy I was focusing on students was not in vain,” she says. The award gave her the confidence to redouble her efforts. 

“As far as student-friendly professors go, she is a prime example,” Isalean Phillip, a fourth-year student, says. “Many times I have just stopped by to have a chat and she has always been welcoming with chocolate or goodies to share.”

It is not just that she encourages her students to speak French outside class, she helps them appreciate the context in which French language and literature developed around the world. She says, “The French courses I teach about the literature of the Indian Ocean are the only ones like this in Atlantic Canada.” She herself wrote a dissertation on Ananda Devi, a novelist and poet from Mauritius who reclaims Hindu myths to tell stories about silenced women. 

Her interest in women’s issues led to an invitation for her to join the Women and Gender Studies Program. This allows for a flow of students back and forth between courses in Women and Gender Studies and Modern Languages. She is also a faculty member in the Asian Studies Program. To engage students in the culture of India, she proposed a special topics course about Bollywood. It’s not about “musicals and flashy dance numbers and sparkly make-up.” Instead, she says, “It’s about globalization, history, gender—a lot of very big issues.” She looks at Bollywood films in terms of music and dance, the construction of the hero and heroine, and the way Indian epics have influenced cinematic narratives. 

She brims with enthusiasm when she talks about the Faculty of Arts. “We have a lot of young faculty—there’s a vibrancy here.” She is involved with the Arts Ambassador Program, which matches faculty members with first year students to provide mentoring through the degree program. “Ultimately, university is not a service,” Bannerjee points out. “It’s an experience.” 

Students benefit from Bannerjee’s multifaceted view of the world. “I have the perspective of being born here in Canada; I have a Western point of view,” she says. “At the same time I have that other perspective of being someone whose origins are from India.” She has an instinctive ability to relate to students, wherever they come from. 

Melissa Nguyen, a student currently working on her Honours thesis under Bannerjee’s supervision, says, “She makes every class interesting…I’m thankful and lucky to have worked with her.” Shallon Costello, a former student, remarks, “Having in-depth literature discussions with Rohini is better than going to the movies!” Four years after Costello had been Bannerjee’s student, her professor helped her young protégé land a job teaching French in Halifax. 

Certainly Bannerjee helps her students realize what is possible. “There are layers and layers that make up who you are,” she says. “I tell my students no matter what you do, you’re going to be disturbing the peace.” Just as she challenges her students to think beyond their limits, so she challenges herself.

Campus Notes: “I give because I believe in Saint Mary’s University.”

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