Week 13: Gratitude

I will be the first to admit that as the semester draws to a close, I spend less time writing my weekly Black Girl Does Grad School posts, and more time pouring over books and articles to sustain one of the multiple arguments for my final papers. I have spent much of the last couple of weeks stressing and wondering how it’s all going to get done.

This is my fifth semester as a graduate student, so you’d think I would know by now that it always gets done. Some way, somehow, I always manage to pull through to the end of the semester.

As it stands currently, I have three more class sessions in which I have to be present. 8.5 hours of class time standing between me and the end of the semester– me and the last time I ever have to be in classes as a student (Unless, of course, I decide to pursue a MFA in creative writing after I finish this whole enterprise, but that, my friends, is a beast of an entirely different nature).

As I approach the end of this stage of my doctoral program, I think it would be a great moment to practice some gratitude for everybody and everything that has gotten me through the past two and a half years.

Thank you:

  • First, to my parents. Thanks Mom, for always listening patiently when I called home with some story about miscegenation law from the 19th century. Thanks Dad, for throwing in your two cents when I read off some of my Critical Race Theory texts to you, confirming or denying these very abstract theoretical claims from your personal perspective.
  • To my family generally, for supporting my education however you could– from all the Barnes and Noble gift cards to showing up at my graduations (But like shout out to TJ in particular for never missing a single important occasion even after you moved away).
  • To my best friends, Micah, Kelsey, Alexis, Leah and Kaili. Y’all are the sisters I always wanted. The best friends I could ever ask for. Thank you for all the texts, the phone calls, the FaceTimes, the meet ups, the coffee dates. Thank you for your time and support.
  • To my favorite professors– Dr. Weiss, Dr. Ely, Dr. Losh, Dr. McGovern, Dr. Donnor– for always pushing me; for challenging me to think deeper and harder; for knowing that I am capable of more and always encouraging me to show that; and for believing in me as I am, and me as I will be.
  • To my Master’s committee: Dr. Knight, Dr. Weiss, and Dr. McGovern
  • To my Comps committee: Dr. Weiss, Dr. Losh, Dr. Pinson and Dr. Ely
  • To James Padilioni, Jr. Thank you for being a role model for me. Always trying to get like you.
  • To Chris Slaby (and Cameron Slaby) for all of the stimulating conversations and for always welcoming me into your home.
  • To those in the digital humanities/twitter community who have welcomed me, valued me and my contributions and encouraged me: Nathan Dize, Dr. Parr, Dr. Wernimont, Dr. Phillips, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Foreman, Dr. Steele, Dr. Lothian
  • To the many Black graduate student digital networks that I remain on the fringes of, but whose work I admire.
  • The Lemon Project Team, particularly Dr. Allen, Dr. Sarah Thomas, and Dr. Vineeta Singh, for caring for me so diligently.
  • Dr. Wulf for being supportive of me and my endeavors.
  • Thanks, as always, to Dean Gregory and Ms. Cathy for always happily responding to my (sporadic) calls and emails.
  • To Professor Harold. I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for several conversations with you on the Corner, in your office and around Grounds.
  • To everyone involved in any way with Black Girl Does Grad School. I LOVE Y’ALL. Y’all are making my dreams come true every day.

But also, thank you:

  • My lovebug, Genghis. You’re getting an honorary degree when I get this PhD, bud.
  • To the staff of Aromas on North Boundary. The caffeine fix keeps me sane.
  • To Charles Benbow and the staff of The Coffeehouse. When I do go, I stay all afternoon and work, drinking cup after cup of delicious coffee. Thanks for the good drinks and ambience.
  • To Lorelai and Rory, for keeping me company so many difficult evenings.
  • The Library, ILL and the librarians. Y’all are the real MVPs.

…Did I already thank my parents? Eric and Faye, seriously, thanks for giving me the world.

Week 11: A Critical Self-Reflection on my Fighting Spirit

It’s time for some critical self-reflection.

I’ve always been a self-starter, and a little loud, probably to the chagrin of my mom, who had to work at the school where I was always doing something. I distinctly remember mobilizing the entire third grade to sign a petition against soggy cafeteria trays, which in my eight-year-old mind, ruined the sanctity of the chicken nugget. That same school year, I remember coming home determined to write my Black History Month report on the first Black woman involved in civil rights who wasn’t Rosa Parks that I could find: Angela Yvonne Davis. Then, at age ten, I decided that my fourth grade class needed a school magazine. So, naturally, some friends and I organized a bake sale, the proceeds of which went to the annual fair when the plans for the magazine proved too difficult.

By high school I had only gotten louder; spending a great deal of time fighting against the initial structure of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program in Suffolk, Virginia. As my class would be the first through, we dubbed ourselves “The Guinea Pigs.” I wanted more flexibility (at the time I wanted to do the Governor’s School of the Arts, which I was waitlisted for classical piano, and IB); more class offerings, including an IB music class; and I wanted to keep our IB director, but budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. I spent a great deal of time ranting in our IB director’s office, to my friends, my teachers, at school board meetings, to anyone who would listen. We lost student after student during the pre-IB years (freshman and sophomore year) until we were down to the sixteen that crossed the stage together in 2012.

I used to be loud, I used to demand change, I used to fight hard.

My fighting spirit came and went as I ran the gauntlet that was the University of Virginia (UVA). I spent a year on the Black Student Alliance executive board, and, disenchanted with the bureaucracy and male domination despite the female majority, promptly resigned the summer before my third year. The often hours long meetings in which I had to take ruthless comments, being talked over or ignored had finally taken its toll on me. So I left, determined to find another way to make a difference. To be sure I found ways: I became a leader in the language house community, eventually making my way up to RA of the French House; I took point in helping organizing my scholarship weekend in the spring of 2015 and 2016; I took on more responsibility in my position as an intern in the Outreach Office of Admission; and I became stage manager of a show that was more of a movement, the Black Monologues.

I’ll be brutally honest, UVA beat a lot of the fight out of me. Between the constant pressure to perform, the isolation that came with being the only Black person in many of the classes and spaces I inhabited, and the severe depression that I fought most of my four years there, it was nothing short of a miracle that I made it out of Charlottesville alive. Living there was rough. My class lived through the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone article, and the Martese Johnson incident. It felt like I spent most of my upperclassmen years at rallies and vigils, condemning racially motivated brutality and sexual assault, then alternatively mourning the loss of classmates. In addition to all of these horrifying events, I, the golden child of Suffolk, Virginia, was learning for the first time what it meant to fail spectacularly at UVA. I will never forget the string of rejections I got my first year there, one after another, until I finally got a rejection in January 2013, which prompted a panic attack so severe I ended up calling the counseling center for an appointment that day.

It’s my third year out of UVA, and I think I’m still undoing some of the damage to my thought processes that happened while I was there. I don’t think I could pinpoint the moment that undid the fight in me, but I know when I recognized how broken I was: when I did Black Monologues. Black Monologues was a salve to my soul, my chance to simply be. To make art, and to be moved by it. To be in a community with Black people who understood me and loved me. Pouring myself into words for the first time in years, building something, saved me. It healed the wound I didn’t even know I had. Black Monologues gave me back my voice, and even amplified it.

Black Monologues built me up just enough to send me into the world armed with at least part of the confidence which UVA had stolen from me. But I’m realizing now, even with part of my confidence restored, I am still not the girl who demanded change from her school board. I’m not even the girl who mobilized the third grade.

Somewhere in that journey, I decided my moves would be in silence; that my calling was teaching and writing, and those would be my contributions. I decided to use my “self-care card” to self-preserve rather than fight back, but this week in particular has me questioning how I feel about that. I don’t know if I like that I’ve become a silent, but engaged observer; intervening only when particularly provoked or when I “have the time.” I consider myself to be strategic with my energy, picking and choosing my battles with care. Mental health wise, it’s been the right decision, but I do have to ask myself, am I being true to myself– am I feeding my spirit?

My tactics have changed and so have I. William & Mary has brought me to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, where I do a lot of work educating people on enslaved labor and Jim Crow segregation at William & Mary. I work with and teach students; help put on programming; run our social media; but most importantly, I learn and share. And when I realized the Academy might not make room for me, I decided to write my way in on this very blog; working countless hours to make sure that BGDGS became a space where Black women could share and fellowship together. I may not be making statements at school board meetings anymore, but I’m still working, moving slowly and intentionally.

Sometimes I wonder if my sixteen year old self would be proud of the person I’ve become.

I think she would be. I’ve taken my fight to paper, armed with a pen. I think she would be glad to see that I transformed my fighting energy into building.

Week 10: #MyMotherWasAComputer: An Overview and Lingering Questions

“My Mother Was a Computer: Legacies of Gender and Technology” was a one day symposium (November 2, 2018) at William & Mary organized by my professor, Dr. Liz Losh. The day was packed from start to finish with smart conversation, witty one-liners, and open-ended questions, many of which I will point to here. The symposium featured three panels (Gender and Programming, Gender and Gaming, and Gender and Online Community), an artist talk with Mattie Brice, Lightning Talks by members of the Equality Lab, and a stunning keynote by Dr. Wendy Chun.

One of the most interesting concerns raised from the Gender and Programming panel was the question of opportunity and empowerment. Dr. Janet Abbate spoke on the ways that we praise the talents of children learning to code, thus enforcing the idea that coding is somehow innate and must be fostered if the talent appears early, but Dr. Abbate reminds us that this is a skill that can be learned at any age. In terms of empowerment, Abbate spoke quite eloquently on the fact that we empower girls to code, but then what? Are the skills that we teach then to be used to serve a narrow demographic? How do we empower? Do we get women in the door and let them change from within or do we empower them as entrepreneurs? As someone with a particularly entrepreneurial spirit, I personally like the idea of providing women with skills to go forth and create their own path. As Audre Lorde says, you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools– we either need new tools or to move away from the house and construct a new one altogether. (Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”)

In addition to Abbate’s concerns about opportunity and empowerment, Dr. Mar Hicks and Dr. Sarah McLennan both spoke about absences in the archives when it comes to finding diversity in the history of programming. McLennan discussed the importance of combing through African American newspapers for information about Black computers, because often those communities new about the work they were doing, and filling in the gaps from there, but Hicks points out that locating non-heteronormativity in the archive is so difficult because a lot of that information was simply not recorded at all.

Mattie Brice’s artist talk was one of the most intriguing aspects of the symposium. I appreciated the transparency with which she talked about her journey to being the game artist that she is– but within that title of artist is the work of an activist, as Brice spoke about wanting to create games that “did the work they said they were doing.” She wanted games that “changed things.” And again, a concern that recurred throughout the course of the day was this idea of Do I stay and change things or do I go? I personally struggle with that issue a lot, particularly being within the confines of the Academy, knowing that this system is not set up for Black women to succeed. (Or at the very least, it’s a system that puts up 500 more barriers between BW and success than it does for white men, but hey, that’s just my opinion.) Sometimes it is so appealing to imagine creating an entirely new path but then I think of my future students and I decide to stick this process out, for me and for them.

In the Gender and Gaming panel, one of the first and biggest questions raised by Dr. Amanda Phillips was, What happens if you center queer women of color in games? And then, Where are the moments of absence in games studies? Again, we circle back to these questions of absence– even in what I consider the most innovate fields of study, such as games studies, we always have to ask ourselves, who is absent and what do we do about these absences? Finally, Dr. Bo Ruberg asked the audience to reclaim “sloppy scholarship,” and what it would mean to do sloppy scholarship as a feminist enterprise. It incorporates the messiness of dealing with things that cannot be easily categorized and what is fluid. There is something so appealing to me about thinking of the ways I can free myself as a scholar, and engaging with “sloppy scholarship” is one way of doing that.

The last panel, Gender and Online Community was intense. From Dr. Dorothy Kim’s assertion that “If my mother was a computer, she was also probably a fascist and a white supremacist” to Alice Marwick’s work on online harassment. In all honesty, I’m still reeling from all the information and connections that I absorbed during that panel. I think most striking to me was Dr. Marwick’s comparison of online harassment to street harassment. It’s a spectrum: it can go from something as “seemingly benign” as telling a woman on the street to smile to full out stalker. I inherently know that the internet and having a public persona can be dangerous, but I am exceptionally lucky to have not been exposed to much internet harassment. My twitter community is as much home to me as my actual apartment. My internet friends are just as important to as my IRL friends. It scares me to think that there’s a potential for someone to destroy that positive internet experience for me through harassment. But it happens every day. Marwick points out that women who work on social justice enterprises are even more subject to this targeted harassment, and as a Black woman who does work on injustice and whose work is more and more becoming public, I now have a nagging fear in the back of my mind.

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Ravynn Stringfield giving a Lightning Talk at #MyMotherWasAComputer

The day’s events concluded with Lightning Talks by members of the William & Mary Equality Lab: Jennifer Ross, myself, Sara Woodbury, Laura Beltran-Rubio and Jessica Cowing. I gave a talk on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation and the digital humanities projects that I have worked on with Branch Out students in 2017 and 2018, as well as a preview of what we will be doing for the 2019 trip. I actually got a lot of positive feedback on my talk from some of the amazing scholars I’ve written about in this piece and so I think next time, I will take another step forward and present on some of my own personal work– maybe even a talk on Black Girl Does Grad School.

After a short break, we all reconvened for the evening’s keynote lecture by Dr. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. What a spectacular piece of scholarship. She managed to weave together the personal and political with the historical and an unapologetic infusion of Korean language and culture. She began with the story of computing’s star figure Grace Hopper and her rejection of feminism and slid seamlessly into the story of her own mother, who was a keypunch operator. Chun spoke of the fact that English proficiency wasn’t required for a successful keypunch operator, only the ability to input data quickly and efficiently. She moved quickly from this lighthearted discussion of her mother and childhood, into a conversation around the Montreal Massacre, which happened during her second year of engineering school. In the chilling narrative, Marc Lepine killed fourteen women in the engineering program and the story around the massacre blamed feminists for the violence and hate, something that tweeters of the Symposium (particularly Adrienne Shaw) have identified as a recurring theme in many tech spaces.

As I reflect on this symposium, I return to the image of Chun’s mother as a keypunch operator. I think frequently of how I can weave my parents’ stories in to my own academic narrative because their stories intersect with my own. In order to adequately explain my interest in visual culture, it’s necessary to know that my father is a transportation planner, and I grew up with a drafting table and special blue pencils that I wasn’t supposed to play with (but did anyway) in our room over the garage. Because of him, I wanted to be an engineer– I went built popsicle stick bridges, drew my own highways and when I got older, built an electric keyboard at an engineering camp. It’s this love of making and building that I think draws me to the digital humanities, but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew my story, which is also my father’s story.

Wendy Chun gave me a model for combining the personal, the political and the historical in a deeply engaging and critical way and I thank her for that. In her talk, she prefaced it by saying she’d never done anything like that and may never again– but in the off chance she reads this, I hope she will. We need those stories.

My mother wasn’t a computer, but thanks to this symposium, I’m more interested than ever in these gendered legacies of technology. Many thanks to Liz Losh for organizing another great event.

Week 9: Redirecting and Expanding Mid-Journey

If you read this thread that I posted on Twitter Wednesday night, then you’re familiar with the story I am about to tell.

Two years ago, I would have told you quite confidently that I was not a digital humanist. My first year of graduate school was established scholars telling me which boxes I fit into: I was a cultural historian, I was an intellectual historian, I was a comics studies scholar, I was a digital humanist. I scoffed at all of them because while I might have identified as a comics studies scholar, that was not all that my work was, and in fact I preferred to self-identify as a literary scholar who happened to do comics. Even though identifying as a comics studies scholar sort of fit, I knew with certainty that I was no kind of historian– which left me with the mystery of the digital humanities.

The first advisor that I was matched with when I came into William & Mary was a Digital Humanist (capital D, capital H). Based on my writing sample, which was an exploration of identity in Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” I think it was assumed that I would want to come to do digital humanities, media studies and literature– in that order. The truth? That was the only 20 page paper I’d written in English during undergrad so it was the only thing I had on hand to submit. Former French major problems.

During my first advising meeting, my advisor asked me all kinds of questions about long term goals, publications I was hoping to write, conferences I wanted to attend, books and articles that I hadn’t read. I felt so in over my head that the only possible answer was to retreat into the world that I knew and had always excelled in: literature. Instead of diving head first into an unknown that I was attracted to, I crawled back into my comfort zone. I switched advisors, stopped going to Equality Lab meetings and I kept my head down.

I did well in my comfort zone. I did my master’s thesis. It was passable. It was interesting. It was exciting. After I wrote that thesis, however, my energy started to fizzle out. Then came Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities last fall. It was my first time being in an academic space with so many women, particularly Black women, doing incredible work. Watching rockstars like Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson and Marisa Parham dazzle the audience was the equivalent of watching academic Beyoncés perform. I knew I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t know how. At the time I was still not considering myself a digital humanist; I was an outside observer, a literary scholar come to watch the festivities.

Another year passed. No conference presentations, no talks, no potential publications on the horizon. I told myself that I was just feeling burnt out after my Masters, which is probably at least partially true, but really I was feeling uninspired by my work. I was existing, but I wasn’t excelling.

Enter “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I enrolled in an Introduction to Digital Humanities class and my professor urged me to go to “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I knew Catherine Knight Steele from Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and from Twitter, so I knew it would be a good time. Once I got there and was surrounded once again by Black women scholars doing incredible work, I finally started to understand where I fit. I was inspired by the words of Timeka Tounsel and Grace Gipson and their work on Black women digital content creators. I saw work that I could contribute to based on my own identity as a blogger. They showed me an opportunity to work smarter not harder. My former advisor has been telling me from the beginning that my identities as a blogger and a scholar do not have to be mutually exclusive but I didn’t have a model for how I could have them work together. “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” gave me models. Black digital humanities stitched my identities together.

And then I read Steele’s articles on Black women bloggers and for the first time, I finally had a good answer for “who do you want to be in scholarly community and conversation with?” My former advisor told me that half the battle of grad school is finding the communities where you feel supported. That’s what helps you finish. My community is in digital humanities. It’s where I fit.

So am I digital humanist? Not yet, I still have a lot of work to do– lots to read, lots to write, lots to think through. But I’ve decided to redirect, or even just add to, my identity as a scholar. I’m still figuring it out. But for the first time in a long time, I feel confident that I’m moving down the right path. This feels right. It feels both good and hard all at once, but it also feels very, very right.

So hi, digital humanists, it took me a while to realize this is where I belonged but I’m here now and I’m ready to get to work.

Week 7: Fall Break Reflections

Fall Break is often a time of reflection here on Black Girl Does Grad School. In the past, I’ve taken the break in classes to reflect on the first half of the semester, assess my progress on my goals, and even highlight some of the better texts I’ve read.

So, as I enter the fourth quarter of the year, I think it would be a good practice to assess the goals I set for myself a few weeks ago in “Week 1, or Goal Setting for a New Semester.

  1. Get through this last semester of coursework in one piece.
    1. ASSESSMENT: At half way through the semester, I think I can say that I’m getting through coursework okay. I’m reading the assigned material, I’m completing the writing assignments, and I’m going to class and participating. Fall break means it’s time to finalize those final project/paper ideas so that when I come back next week, I’m ready to start the projects in earnest.
  2. Finalize my Comps Committee.
    1. ASSESSMENT: This is done! I’m working with my advisor Professor Lynn Weiss on the first half of my African American Literature field, Professor Hermine Pinson on the second half, Professor Mel Ely on African American Intellectual History, and Professor Liz Losh on Comics and Media Studies.
  3. Set a date for my Comps Colloquium.
    1. ASSESSMENT: This is also done! I had my colloquium three weeks ago on September 21. I even set a date for my exams at the colloquium: April 29-May 3, and May 9th for the oral examination.
  4. Start reading for Comps.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m rocking and rolling on comps prep. I have a color coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet where I itemized every text I have to read, and then started a tab where I planned out my reading schedule for each week until December. (I’m reading on average 10 texts per week: a healthy mix of peer-reviewed monographs, articles, essays and fiction/poetry.)
  5. Prioritize my health.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I don’t know how well I’m doing on that front. I started cooking for myself again, which is a step up from existing on popcorn and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In “Goal Setting for a New Semester,” I said, Instead of laying in bed watching all of my favorite CW shows, I think I’ll take my iPad to the gym and walk on the treadmill while I watch instead. That, in all honesty, has not happened. In a half hearted defense, my favorite CW shows just came back on this week. (Okay, stop judging me, I’ll go to the gym, I promise.)
  6. I am going to prioritize my joy.
    1. ASSESSMENT: Because I’m reading for comps and doing coursework and trying to work for the Lemon Project, I haven’t been doing too great at prioritizing my joy aside from making time to catch up on TV. I did paint one small quotation for my new office last week, but I think I need to just take myself on an outing to Michaels and get new craft supplies so I’m inspired to make something with them.
  7. I am going to write again.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m doing it! It’s been hard to do but I started a new novel, I’ve continued to work on Black Girl Does Grad School, and I have a few ideas for a new short story that I need to just sit down and write. I’m not going to let rejection turn me around. I wrote more about my relationship to my words last week after meeting Nell Scovell.
  8. I am going to spend more time with people.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m definitely doing this. I’m not sure why all of a sudden I’m so social. Perhaps because this is my third year in this city and I know people from my last two years who want to catch up, or because I’m in my second year in a position that has brought me in contact with a lot of undergraduate students, or because I simply am feeling up to making new friends or connecting with old ones, whatever the case may be, for the first time, my network of friends in Williamsburg is big enough that I feel taken care of here. It’s ironic, because the last couple of weeks I’ve been wanting to withdraw again, but I’m reminding myself now that my goal was to embrace sociality.

I’m doing well on 6/8 of my goals from the start of the semester! When I reassess again at the end of the semester, hopefully I will have kept my promise to myself to hit the gym and to prioritize my joy. Even though there are two goals I haven’t worked on, I take heart in knowing that there were six that I have completed or am working on. I’m always doing so much better than I give myself credit for.


As you enter the fourth quarter, how are you doing on goals you set for yourself this year?

Week 4: Comprehensive Exam Colloq

Two very important and exciting things happened this week:

First, I had a paper accepted to the Southeastern American Studies Association Conference in March! If you remember the secret project I was working on all spring, this is the fruits of that labor. I’ll explain more as I get closer to the presentation. I am particularly excited because the conference is going to be in Atlanta, a city I’ve never been to and am dying to see.

I also successfully completed my comprehensive exam colloquium. For those of you just joining me, the main purpose of the comprehensive exam colloquium is to meet with my committee members to ensure we are all on the same page about my exams, and to set a date for them. Mine will be April 29-May 3, 2019, with an oral exam on May 9th. As a refresher, you create three fields, one major, two minor, with the major field split into two lists, and you have a professor work with you on a list that represents each field. Altogether, I have four professors working with me; two on African American literature, one on African American History and one on Comics and Media Studies. At the colloquium, you set the final lists and you can’t change them; so at this point, you can officially start reading for your exams.

I have three main pieces of advice for anyone that has a colloquium or some similar meeting before they can embark on the journey that is comps:

  1. READ THE HANDBOOK. I made the rookie mistake of asking my advisor if there was anything I needed to have for the colloquium without reading the handbook for myself. When she said no, I took that as gospel, only to find out that I was actually supposed to have written a 1,000 word intellectual autobiography and a one page description of my dissertation project. Fortunately, there are no consequences to that; I just have to write the two pieces and send them out to the committee via e-mail by Monday. Mostly, I’m just shaken because I don’t think I’ve ever been unprepared for something. I’m working on both pieces now and all will be well but please, please, please, DON’T DO WHAT I DID! READ YOUR HANDBOOK!
  2. ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF. Again, I didn’t do this and now I have 286 items to read before my exams in April. If you think you have too many texts on your lists, tell your chair and see if they will advocate for you. In an effort to please everyone, I said yes to all the additions without actually thinking through what would be feasible for me to accomplish in the next 7-8 months.
  3. ASK QUESTIONS. Don’t know how the exam is structured? Ask. Don’t know what paperwork you have to do? Ask. Want to know best practices for acquiring books? If your committee has any advice for studying? How many meetings are usually required? Ask, ask, ask. Comprehensive Exams, or Qualifying Exams for many people, mark the end of your professors seeing you as a student in their class; you’ll now be an independent scholar. There are no more syllabi with deadlines and no more required papers. If you want to know how something is going down, you need to ask.

All in all, my colloquium was a good experience. It was mostly my committee suggesting books to add, suggesting that I re-organize my lists and setting the date for the exam. It was also peppered with many compliments about the way that I think and write, which definitely helped my self esteem. Having my committee members all in one room together was great because it gave me a sense of how my oral exam is going to go. I have a low key group with very different personalities and skill sets, but the one thing that they have in common is that I truly believe they all have my best interests at heart. Not a single one of them is going to let me in the room if they think I’m at danger of not advancing to the next stage of my doctoral career. I can tell they all believe in me, and that’s going to sustain me through this process.

Balancing Being While Becoming

by Arriana Covington

Transformative would be the word I’d use to describe my graduate school experience thus far. I find it amazing to acknowledge that everything I am evolving into and learning is what I asked the universe to give me. Prior to graduate school, I asked for a challenge and an opportunity to be able to discover who I am. I knew that I needed to be away from my home, and the familiarity of my loved ones, in order to have time to dedicate time to myself. Little did I know, this journey would be nothing short of easy. On the first night of me being completely alone in my new state, I kneeled down beside my bed and simply just prayed. I prayed for protection, discernment and patience as I began my new journey in an unfamiliar place.

When I asked for a challenge, I knew my experience wouldn’t be easy; but, I knew that this sacrifice would be worth it in the end. Obviously, I had a lot of faith; but, I needed to really trust myself. Within my first four months of my first semester of graduate school….I survived the challenge. Unlike my undergrad experience, graduate school required me to really tune into myself. Some days I enjoyed exploring and being in a new space, while other days I wanted to be alone to simply just cry. I spent a lot of my time feeling as if I was missing out on everything going on back home. The hardest part for me was having to acknowledge that I placed myself in this new space and that I had chosen to be here. I questioned myself and my abilities (especially when my grades didn’t match my peers), when there was knowledge I didn’t know, and when I was in spaces surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. Managing being a student, while also learning how to be a professional, is a whole journey in itself. Self-reflection, phone calls with my loved ones and making new friends is what really got me through my rough moments.

Completing my first semester of graduate school was a relief and the achievement I needed to confirm that I am capable of getting through this. During my second semester, I turned all of my negative energy into opportunities. Instead of aiming to go home at any chance I had, I became a part of opportunities that would keep my mind busy. I still missed home, but I learned how to cope. It’s hard to be in a new place and not really give it a chance, so I kept an open mind. My mind was so open that I accepted a summer internship opportunity that was further away from my home than my graduate school was. I was more at ease with the thought of being across the country during the summer because I knew the experience was not nearly as long as my time in graduate school. During my summer, I managed my homesickness a lot better and I was even a lot more open than my prior experience.

Now I am in my second and final year of graduate school and I am in a weird space. A weird space because I am now aware of how fast time flies. All of my worries about being in this new space are now nearly coming to an end. In less than eight months, I will obtain my Master’s Degree, yet I still have mixed feelings about what’s next. In this time of uncertainty, I have honed in the mantra, “I already am, the woman that I aspire to be.’’ My constant urge to figure out what happens next defines why I enjoy having complete control of my journey. I am learning that this desire to have control is what will get the best of me. I am learning to just be and to acknowledge my accomplishments, while being confident that my destiny is literally within me. The future me needs the current me to focus on today; and this is how I continue to learn how to balance being, while becoming and just letting things be.


IMG_7793 2Arriana Covington is a North Carolina native, but is currently pursuing her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis on College Student Affairs, at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Arriana received her B.A. in Organizational Communications and Africana Studies. She aspires to use the knowledge from her degrees to contribute to the field of Higher Education by focusing on access for students of marginalized identities. In her free time, Arriana enjoys podcasts, naps, cookies and working out.

Week 3: Comprehensive Exams Advice

As I approach the end of coursework for my Ph.D. program, it’s now time to start worrying about what I’m calling “Phase 2”: Comprehensive Exams. I’ve written before about what these exams are and how I prepare for them, but still found myself nervous about this next phase.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I asked for advice. I put out a call for people’s best comprehensive exam advice on Twitter and Instagram; I even e-mailed a few old friends. What follows is the tips and tricks I’ve collected from various friends and followers:

On Preparing for the Exam (Studying, Note Taking, Etc):

Matthew Teutsch: “For one of my areas, Rhetoric and Composition, I entered my PhD program not knowing anything about classical rhetoric. After taking a class that covered Augustine to Nietzsche, I, along with most of the others in the class, were utterly confused. To help us get caught up on classic rhetoricians, we decided to form a study group. We went through the anthology, reading each text, and commenting on each one. Then, we met, like a book club, to discuss. Honestly, that helped me on that comprehensive exam more than anything else.”

Jan Huebenthal: “Take good notes, each with a concrete example, and no more than one page per book!”

Amanda Gibson: “Do something physical between books for the mind and body!”

Maggie DePond (@AcademicAuntie): “For oral exams: meet with professors in your committee early and often. A lot of my committee asked me questions that were the same ones we talked about in their office!”

Amanda Roberts (@phdproductivity): “Get a study buddy if you know someone taking exams at the same time as you! My friend and I made ourselves a syllabus of readings with due dates for discussion. Keep all your notes organized in a shared folder on Dropbox or Google Drive.”

@genuinely_jo: “Obvious but it never hurts to be reminded. Back up your work in a couple different places.”

Sarah Thomas, PhD: “Think of prepping for comps as your full-time job. Start working at 8 or 9 am, take a half hour lunch, then get back to work till 5 or 6 pm, then stop. Your brain needs a break in the evening. I watched a lot of cheerful British television. Try to get to bed by 11 at the latest, then wake up and start the process over again the next day. Getting into a routine and compartmentalizing that process was how I got through it. My dog and I got into a pattern of working, walking, eating, working, walking, etc. Routine helped me deal with the impossibility of the situation—how could I actually get through hundreds of books while still being mentally okay?”

On Taking the Exam:

Matthew Teutsch: “For the orals, I would just suggest looking over the graders’ comments and looking at places where you need to show more knowledge and understanding of a question or concept. If it is a timed exam, you won’t be able to say everything you want to say, so this would be a good time to do that. I would also ask around to see what your committee members might ask. Sometimes they will oblige, sometimes not. If they don’t, ask other colleagues who have had those members in their orals. Finally, talk with your professors and ask them questions. You can gather from these questions what they expect you to know and possibly how they expect you to answer.”

Zanovia Tucker, MA, LPC, NCC: “Don’t stress about what’s going to be on the test. You’ve been preparing for two years during coursework.”

Vineeta Singh, Ph.D.:

1. You don’t have to know everything. I was really scared of being asked a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. Like what if they asked me about something I hadn’t read about? Or what if they asked about that one book that I read first year and never got back to? So it really helped me during prep to be reminded that the point of the exam isn’t to show that you have mastered every bit of research ever produced (that would be impossible!) but to show that you have a broad base of knowledge for your field and the capacity to do research in it.

2. It’s not just a test, it’s an opportunity to get feedback! Okay, I do hear how corny that sounds, but it’s true! How often do you (or any scholar) get to convene 3-6 scholars whose work you respect and have them engage with YOUR thoughts?! That is pretty dope! There are people out here thirsting for feedback, so don’t sleep on what an opportunity this is! If you have had success building a committee that’s truly invested in you as a scholar, they are going to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge you in GENERATIVE ways. The ‘exam’ setup can feel adversarial or confrontational, and many profs take that role very seriously, but (and I might just be spoiled because of my E[nthic] S[tudies] background) at its best, this is a CONVERSATION and a chance for you to shape your future work. So (if you have a supportive committee) don’t get defensive; this is your team.

Some Pep Talks:

Dana Cypress: “You always know more than you think you know by the time your comps date arrives. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves quite enough credit but if you’ve done the work, it’ll show.”

Holly Grunter: “Take it one day at a time! Every day you’ll be motivated differently. Be kind to yourself!”

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D.: “Remember that you’re more prepared than you think! So when you get nervous, believe in yourself and your skills!”

James Padilioni, Jr, Ph.D.: “Make sure you look up from the trees to glimpse the beauty of the forest: try to enjoy reading these books, and the opportunity you have, maybe for the only time in your life, to just sit down and read, expand your mind, and to tarry with some of the thinkers on your list. The aggressive schedule of reading makes it hard to appreciate the privilege afforded by it all. Oh and also, on the back end after everything sifts and settles, you’re going to be (even more) knowledgeable AF and have the receipts to prove it if need be!”


There you have it, folks, some of the best comprehensive exam advice from people who have either been through it or are in the midst of the storm as we speak. I want to take this moment to thank those who offered their advice, and to say that whether comps are impending, or a ways off, I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.

Week 2: On Rejection and How to Deal

Let me begin with a moment of transparency: I have been rejected more times than I care to count in the last three months. A professor I wanted to work with on Comps rejected my request. In a moment of intense vulnerability, I submitted two stories to literary magazines for the first time in my life and was rejected by both. I submitted an abstract to a conference at Princeton on the Black Impossible, thinking there could be no better place for my scholarly work on Black superheroes, only to be rejected weeks later. To rub salt in the wound, I also dealt with a personal rejection, which resulted in the dissolution of a long standing friendship.

And that is just in the last three months. If I go back further, the list of rejections might seem endless, peppered with deserted abstracts, denials from grad schools, and papers with biting feedback that, despite the grade, made you feel as if you had failed. I think of my rejections in grad school, my most spectacular failure was submitting three different blog posts to Black Perspectives, only to have all three promptly rejected within five minutes.

This list not an invitation to commiserate with me on my failures. It is not an invitation to pity me. It is an attempt to be transparent about a fact of graduate school: you will apply for things that you will sometimes not receive. You will be disappointed sometimes. And I am here to tell you that it is okay.

Fortunately, the list of triumphs outnumbers the failures for me. For every misstep, I found two more to guide me in the right direction. I have to believe that life is about balance, that even if I am having a season of rejection, it means that a season of “yes” is coming my way soon.

So, if rejection is inevitable at some junctures in your life, how best can we deal? One way is to be open about what you are going through. It may feel that the best way to handle it is to hide the rejection letter in a box under your bed and bottle up the feelings. Short term, that’s reasonable, but ultimately not sustainable. I’m not advising you run through the streets screaming that you’ve been rejected; however, it might be a good idea to let a few, trusted people in to share in your frustrations. Sharing your feelings will make you feel a little better and, if you have the kind of friends that I do, they are going to let you cry it out, but then hype you up and insist that you try again. Sometimes, just hearing someone say that they believe in you can go a long way. Seek out those who will support and encourage you, but also make a point to return the favor when they need the same from you.

If opening up to people is not your style, I still recommend you find someway to rid yourself of the negative feelings that come with rejection so they do not fester. Try having a long conversation with your pet, journaling it out, or writing a strongly worded letter and then tear it up.

Make sure you allow yourself some time to feel the sadness, to mope and to declare you will never write/apply/submit/create again. Watch a sad movie, eat a pint of ice cream, cry if you need to, but then when you are done and you are ready, tell yourself that you are going to be resilient and that you are going to try again. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this experience? Be vigilant in this process. For example, one of the literary magazines I submitted to offered me some positive and helpful feedback on my story. I took heart in the fact that there were aspects of the story that they liked, but that they also took the time to identity the features which weakened it. I can take that information and go back to the story and rework it. Even if I never submit it anywhere else, at least I know I will have made it a stronger story than it was before I first submitted it.

While I have placed a lot of emphasis on getting validation outside of yourself (leaning on friends and positive feedback), I implore you to also seek internal validation. Affirm yourself. For me, affirming myself was taking an evening off from everything, grabbing a journal and a pen, and writing a long letter to God and then a long list of things that I liked about myself. I wrote that I loved my hair, that I was an excellent writer, that I was smart, that was compassionate and a go-getter. At the end of the list, I reminded myself that even if these literary magazines or conference committees did not want some aspect of me, it did not make me any less of the amazing things that I listed. When I am feeling down, I come back to that list and even add to it, because it is such a beautiful thing to be able to lift yourself up.

Finally, the last thing that seems to help me is to have a mantra, a phrase, or a few, that you can come back to that consistently give you energy. For me, those phrases are: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing,” (Audre Lorde); “Someone, somewhere is waiting to read my words;” and “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14). Put your mantras somewhere you can always see them– on your mirror, next to your bed, on your desk, or in my case, on my body. (I have “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” tattooed on my wrists.) Allow yourself to be moved by those words.

There is no magic potion for recovering from rejection. Dealing with rejection is an act of courage and requires extreme vulnerability, courage because you choose to be resilient and vulnerability because you made the radical decision to share a sometimes very private part of yourself with those who have the ability to judge you. It takes time and a willingness to be as kind to yourself as you would be to someone else in your position. Allow yourself to feel everything that comes with a rejection, but then be resilient enough to learn from it.

And most importantly: always, always try again.

Fade to Black: Take 2, Food for Art

No, y’all, I have not started grad school yet. But I’m still a Black Girl and they gave me a column, so…read on!

I’ve come to realize that my artistic practice is HEAVILY dependent on reading. I like to think my writing style is similar to improvisational jazz or freestyle rap—words and images sort of just flow out of me with no rhyme or reason…until all of a sudden they do. If you know music, you know improv and freestyle take skill. You don’t just start off spitting ten minutes of off the dome lyrics like Black Thought. That takes mad skill. Yes, you’ve gotta practice. But you’ve also got to consume a lot of ideas and cadences in order to have enough “stuff” inside of you to regurgitate in an innovative way. Let’s call it artistic vomit (or maybe not…that was kinda gross). The same goes for me. I hit my dry spells and notice distinct differences in my work when I’m not reading or taking African-American Studies classes. When I feed myself intellectually, my art makes connections that my brain doesn’t realize until 2 weeks into editing or rehearsing. Since I figured that might be a good place to be before beginning my NYU journey; ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my [SPOILER FREE!] summer reading list:

Citizen // Claudia Rankine

I told myself that I was going to take a writing break this summer (to rest up before grad school/the rest of my life). If you know me, you know that I pretty much suck at resting because I can’t keep my brain still. This summer, you can thank Citizen for my accidental creative frenzy. I had this beautiful moment where I was sitting on the porch, looking at an orange Kansas sky, just reading because I finally had time. Suddenly, I was taking notes and pausing to imagine; and before I knew it, I was at my laptop typing up ideas for new projects. I felt free. That, my friends, is the mark of a good read in my book (Ha. Ha. see what I did there?). Citizen is essentially a long form poem. Its nonlinear structure uses lyricism, narrative, and imagery to create a collage about what personhood means for Black bodies in America. Because this is how my brain works, I can’t help but compare it to Kahlil Joseph’s short films or Kendrick Lamar’s albums. It’s a hyper-visceral, non-linear reading experience. Rankin’s poetic chops are un-freaking-deniable, but let us not forget how fine-tuned her critical analysis skills are, too. My favorite chapter was on the Queen of Everything Magical and Black, Her Royal Highness Serena “Slay Me With A Racket” Williams. It’s not a long book, but will absolutely go down as one of the most important contemporary texts I’ve read thus far.

Swing Time // Zadie Smith

This novel tells the story of two London dancers: an unnamed biracial Jamaican and her friend Tracey. While one of them reluctantly takes a transatlantic journey, the other follows her dreams of stardom.  When I first read the back cover in the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago, “Black,” “dance,” and “bodies” were enough to catch my attention. I’d heard really great things about Smith’s White Teeth, so I was pretty excited to start my summer reading with Swing Time. I’ve gotta say, though, I was kind of disappointed. It began with some very nostalgic moments that reminded me of my childhood as a little Black girl in ballet class, and tackled issues of celebrity and colonialism.  While there were some really lovely, vivid moments in the text, I kept waiting for the whole story to come together, you know? I kept turning pages and reading sentences thinking “okay, THIS is why she chose to tell this story; THIS is going to make these 300 pages worth my time.” That moment never came. It’s not that the story was confusing—I think Smith did a great job of articulating the mundane in enlightening ways; I just never found the “why”. Why now, why these characters, why this structure? There was so much bubbling under the surface, I just needed a single sentence, or even a single word that would make this experience satisfying. I wanted this novel to dance in the same way that its characters do, and while there are sparks of that, I didn’t feel Zadie Smith’s soul.

Eloquent Rage // Brittney Cooper

Cooper begins by telling the story of her feminist awakening, and goes on to explain the ways in which this new lens has informed every crevice of her life. This book is smart. Cooper is smart. But this book isn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yes, she is absolutely making well researched and thorough arguments…but it feels like you’re hearing all of this from your “woke” auntie instead of your professor. It’s mad real. While I couldn’t agree with all of Cooper’s arguments, I understand why this book is important and enlightening. What I found really successful was her ability to expound upon the struggles that I feel every. single. day. as a Black girl, and validate them with academic prowess. Her analysis was broad and thorough—she cited everything from Beyonce, to scripture, to Michelle Obama, to DuBois. I vibe with this because she takes the many things that she’s been feeding her Black Girl Mind with and uses them to make sense of and condemn violence that I’ve come to see as normal—being at the bottom of the dating totem pole and being the token Black girl, for example. If nothing else, Eloquent Rage has given me new awareness of what it means to navigate the world with my Black Girl body. Chapters of this text, particularly the ones about police brutality, Michelle Obama, and Cooper’s relationship to white feminism, also informed my own work this summer. Oh, did I mention how I LOVE the way she capitalizes Black Girl every single time? Yeah, that’s about to be a thing in every script I write from here on out.

Long Division // Keise Laymon

During my last semester of undergrad I wanted—more than anything in this entire world—to take a class called The Black Voice, with UVA’s new hip-hop professor A.D. Carson. I signed up and went to the first class. Unfortunately for this artist, I had to drop the class because I was shooting two films and putting up a play. But I kept all of the books and am determined to get through the entire syllabus. Long Division was first up and I’ve gotta say… It’s wonderful. And I mean that literally—filled with wonder. Laymon is somehow able to lead us through a story that simultaneously feels deeply familiar and otherworldly. It’s one of those novels where I can’t say much without giving it away (yes, it’s one of those!). But what you should know is that it follows a teenager in Mississippi as he discovers the power of his own voice—the power of words. Maybe we can call this book science-fiction, but it feels too…real to be put in that category. Maybe afrofuturism? Or maybe just intensely imaginative. I think my favorite thing about this book is the descriptive language. Perhaps there are some TMI moments, but through the voice of our protagonist, City, Laymon lyrically articulates the mind of a really smart, but really suppressed, rural teenage boy. I found myself wanting to enter that world time and time again.

Telepathologies // Cortney Lamar Charleston 

I picked up this book while I was in Chicago shooting my Emmett Till film; an eerie and beautifully appropriate scenario. Telepathologies is a collection of poetry that explores what it means to walk in fear and danger as a Black person in America. You know when you’ve been listening to a song and for the first time hear a lyric in a different way. You rewind and you say to yourself (or, in my case, very loudly) “BARZZZ.” That was pretty much my entire experience in reading these poems.

I read, watch, and write a lot of stuff about death (…maybe we should unpack that)—it’s been my way of mourning and trying to make sense of lost Black life. But these poems felt fresh. They felt raw. They felt delicate. They felt intentional. As I read, there were so many moments when I thought I’d figured out Charleston’s style and mode of thinking, but then he’d take me for a turn and I’d have to stop, breathe, and ponder. I’d come out of my trance with a billion questions, yet I’d still just want to sit and keep rereading the same line that made me stop in the first place. A new perspective on the familiar. That is what I need from a poet; that is what I desperately come to the art form searching for, and Charleston delivered. I recently found his twitter (after realizing that there’s no “u” in his first name)…so he can look forward to tweets about how badly I want to make his poems into films.

There you have it! I didn’t meet all of my reading goals this summer, but I have We Were Eight Years In Power// Coates and Meridian// Walker in my camera bag, and lots of train rides from theatre conferences to film festivals. I’ve got a stack of books ready to ship to my new place in New York, five more that I found at this delightful outdoor used bookstore in Connecticut (check out Book Barn, y’all!), and at least two years worth of subway rides in my future. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of artistic fuel ready to take me through this next phase.

P.S. If I had to make a playlist with all of these books in mind:

Swing Time—Chameleon x Leah Smith

Citizen—Rollcall For Those Absent x Ambrose Akinmusire

Eloquent Rage—Blk Girl Soldier x Jamila Woods

Long Division—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik x OutKast

Telepathologies—FEAR. x Kendrick Lamar

5 Steps to Prep and Study for Comps

In a recent post, I detailed the next part of my PhD journey after finishing coursework: Comprehensive Exams, better known as Comps. The post described what Comps are, what their purpose is, and how to create lists for them. Now that I have my lists, a few people have asked me to describe how I am preparing and studying for the exams, so here’s a step-by-step guide to my process.

Step 1: Get organized.

I’m pretty sure this is the number one step for most of my how-to guides when it comes to graduate school. For some people, just having the lists is enough. I need more.

One of the first things I did was create an Excel spreadsheet that has the title and author of the text, along with some other pertinent information. What else you choose to include is up to you, but I included: whether or not I had read the material; read it but not recently; whether I had reread it; whether I owned it, needed to get it from the library, or could get it online; if I needed to Interlibrary Loan (ILL) it, or whether I wanted to buy it for my personal collection; and a separate section for notes.

Having the Excel sheet setup like this helps me see at a glance what I need to read, how I need to obtain the text and gives me an opportunity to write down any additional notes.

Step 2: Plan it!

I admittedly do not have an intricate plan for the order in which I’m reading things, at least not right now. Because I’m starting early, I’m mostly choosing things off of my lists that I wanted to read anyway for fun.

Once I’m in the thick of reading (i.e. when I’m doing nothing but comps), I will do another post about how I’ve planned out my readings. As of right now, my goal has been to read 1-3 books per week.

Step 3: Read!

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I try my very best not to overwhelm myself with reading, especially during the summer when I’m supposed to be relaxing. As always, I read in small chunks, either one chapter at a time for academic texts, or in intervals of 25 pages for novels and comics/graphic novels, making sure to take breaks in between each section. I spend the most time on the introduction and conclusion, making sure to highlight or underline the author’s thesis, the goals of the text, the evidence they will use and their methodology. I try to spend no more than 30 minutes per chapter, unless the chapter is particularly pertinent to my own research interests.

For novels and graphic novels, I try to simply enjoy reading them, because it was, after all, my love of them that got me into graduate school in the first place.

Step 4: Take notes

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In addition to the Excel sheet, I also keep a physical journal where I take notes on the texts that I am reading. My process for note taking varies by the type of text I am engaging with but here are the key subjects I hit during my note taking:

  • For novels and short stories, I read the entire text, highlight and underline key passages to my heart’s content. Once I’m done, I provide a brief summary, pull out themes and motifs from the text, note fast facts like the date published and etc, write down main characters and then my thoughts and questions. I like to use the “thoughts” section to synthesize and make connections between the current text and any others that I have read. For example, when reading The Bluest Eye, I used this section to make connections between Maureen, Pecola and tragic mulatto narratives that I read in my Interracialism class.
  • For comics and graphic novels, I like to note keywords, themes, and visual and/or verbal motifs. I have a “thoughts and questions” section for things that troubled me during my reading, as well as things to bring up during Comps meetings with my faculty members.
  • For academic texts/non-fiction, I cite the main argument, the goals of the text, evidence used, and methodology with a brief descriptive summary of the text. If I can discern it, I like to note the scholarly lineage of the text, which is to say which other scholars is the text in conversation with, and from where does it draw its secondary sources. I also have a section to discuss ways in which the text may be of service to my own scholarly work. (Where does my scholarship fit?)

Step 5: Decompress!

Be sure to give yourself time in between texts to take care of yourself. Reach out to your friends, go to the gym, eat a good meal. You will spend a lot of time with just you and your thoughts, but don’t let it consume you.


So there you have it: a step-by-step guide to preparing and studying for Comps. As the year progresses, I’ll have even more detailed guides to prepping for the big exams, but this is how I’ve been doing it thus far. I hope at least some of this was helpful to you. Happy reading!

Comps Reading: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider has been on my reading list for years. Ever since I read “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” for the first time years ago, Audre Lorde has been high on my list of favorite theorists– though it is mentioned in the book that she did not view herself as a theorist, but rather a poet. (Introduction, p. 8) I even have a pair of Audre Lorde tattoos on my wrist which read, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” (“New Year’s Day”)

Poetry reveals itself through out this text as Audre Lorde uses prose to do what she claimed poetry did for her: help put words to an unnamed feeling, unmask that which has been hidden away, and build community between those who have difficulty hearing each other. She sprinkles actual lines of poetry amid her prose, because as she tells Adrienne Rich in an interview, “somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information….The poem was my response.” (p. 82) The lines slip in when she gets close to a feeling that it seems she might not otherwise be able to identify. It’s moving.

Reading Sister Outsider had me feeling like Lorde, in that her sentences provided vital pieces of information, providing a response for feelings that were previously unnamed. I think this is interesting, this need to name feeling that she has. This is one part of the difference between pain and suffering that she notes in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”: pain becomes suffering when the feeling is “incomplete” and unnamed. (p. 172) I find her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering intriguing, but I do not know if I am convinced. She writes that pain is an event and it must be named, but suffering is something that one can “condemn” oneself to, a relieving of unnamed pain over and over again. I suppose the part which I take issue is the condemnation because it implies that suffering is a choice. What I think Lorde may mean there however, is where pain can be named and acknowledged, it should be, because it is one way to avoid suffering.

In a similar vein, Lorde describes the difference between hatred and anger in “Eye to Eye,” stating that anger is a “passion of displeasure” and hatred is an “emotional habit or attitude…which is coupled with ill will.” (p. 152) Lorde writes that anger does not destroy; hatred does. She writes that anger can be a powerful fuel and in “The Uses of Anger,” a piece which compliments “Eye to Eye” nicely, in my humble opinion, she writes that “anger is loaded with information and energy.” (p. 127) Again, I believe her discussion of both anger and hatred are novel and convincing, but not perfect. I am not sure that I believe that anger cannot destroy, but I suppose when it has morphed into hatred, the point is mute. But that raises a question: she argues that hatred becomes the source of anger, but is it not the other way around? Wouldn’t anger about a situation lead to hatred?

But her main point of these particular essays, or at least what I am taking away from them, is that Black women have internalized self-hatred and thus are angry at each other in a self-destructive way. While Lorde struggles to unpack the inexplicable animosity between Black women, I struggle to unpack that she believes that animosity is there at all. She struggles with this animosity because she cites women as the main source of her restorative energy and thus finds it concerning; as someone whose main support system is a pack of Black women, I really want to know what kind of relationships has she had which have exposed such powerful hatred that she felt compelled to write two separate essays about it. It makes me want to write about Black female friendship and relationships because there is no power greater than the feeling of being supported by Black women.

On an unrelated note, I found it interesting that Lorde bookended her text with essays about other countries. The first are notes from her trip to Russia, in which she basked in the glory of the country like an other tourist, while also being sensitive to racial difference in order to provide a comparison between Russia and the United States. It seems every Black intellectual that I admire has some notes on “Another Country” (for a little Baldwin joke), in which being abroad makes even more stark the state of American racism. The last is “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report,” which was mostly interesting to see Grenada through the eyes of an outsider-insider: Lorde herself is Grenadian but she views the country with the sensibilities of an American, having lived there all of her life. (Brief and related side note: no where in her text is “American/America” capitalized. Because it is consistent, I am sure there is a reason for such a choice, but I do not know what it is. If someone knows, please leave me a note in the comments.)

Lorde has so many different identities, which she weaves seamlessly into the text to create a complex interwoven web, and I’ve chosen to simply follow a few of the strands. Among those that I have missed in my brief discussion of her work are her identities as a feminist, as a lesbian, as a Cancer survivor, as a Grenadian-American, and particularly as a poet. What she says about these things which make her different is that we must not merely tolerate difference. It must go deeper than that. We must not merely say “Black is beautiful.” It must go deeper. The question which springs immediately to my mind is: How? Lorde is invested in the means of offering solutions: a solution is what she is offering when she says “the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” A solution is what she is offering when she says that we need to practice being as kind to ourselves as we are to our neighbors, for only that will off-set the hatred which we have internalized. We must raise our children to feel for themselves and not do the feeling for them. I think her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response” which discusses raising a boy as a lesbian feminist, tackles that issue justly.

The last thing I want to think about is the relationships between Black women, white women, and Women of Color, which can sometimes include Black women, but the way that Lorde uses it, (when quoting white women) is a way of including the issues of Black women, but softened by the perspectives of other non-white women. I do not believe this is a view that Lorde holds herself, but rather the way that white women use the term “Women of Color.” (See her discussion of This Bridge Called My Back in “Eye to Eye.”) Some of these tensions become most prevalent in Lorde’s interview with Adrienne Rich, who sometimes seems impatient with Lorde’s view of intuiting and feeling as a way of understanding and knowledge making. When she says the white man says, “I think therefore I am” and the Black woman says, “I feel, therefore I can be free,” Rich points out that people have found this sentiment anti-feminist, drawing on preconceived notions of femininity. I don’t agree: I think there is something very feminist in reclaiming emotion for women, which is so much of what Lorde’s work is. She is reclaiming anger, helping to reshape hatred, teaching us that guilt is ineffective. But I guess my question is, if rationality is to the white man as emotion is to the black woman (which is a problematic dichotomy in of itself) where does that leave Black men and white women? It seems as though white women get clumped into the rationality of white men. But what of Black men? Just something else to think about while I’m driving through town tomorrow.

There are so many things to think about when discussing Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and I do not believe I can do it justice in a short blog post, but I did want to take the time to write down a few of my many thoughts because for one, I had a lot of them while I was reading, and two, it is probably a good practice to review my books as such as I read them. I probably won’t have time to do such an in depth review of every one of my books, but I probably will do this for the important ones, my favorite ones, and the ones which have given me the most to think about.

So to leave you today, I want to offer you some of my favorite quotes from Sister Outsider, on the off chance you don’t plan on reading it yourself. (Which you most definitely should.)

Favorite Quotes and Ideas:

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” (p. 37)

“The Black mother within each of us– the poet– whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (p. 38)

“I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” (p. 41)

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” (p. 60)

“One oppression does not justify another.” (p. 63)

“Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” (p. 78)

“Documentation does not help one perceive.” (p. 104)

“The mythical norm.” (p. 116)

“Change means growth, and growth can be painful.” (p. 123)

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” (p. 138)

The Finale of Part 1: Graduation

For those of you who have been following along, you know that I am a PhD student at William & Mary. You might also know that I have recently graduated from William & Mary. For clarification, I was accepted into a MA/PhD program in American Studies, and last September I successfully defended my Masters thesis, thus officially moving me into the PhD portion of my program. Because it’s a rolling program, I defended and kept moving forward in my PhD work, moving through coursework and preparing my comprehensive exams lists– I was so busy that I barely got a chance to truly celebrate getting my Masters.

Until this past weekend.

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My Uncle Edwin and I

I participated in Commencement here at William & Mary and it was a truly magnificent occasion. My uncles drove up from Jacksonville for the graduation and spent the entire weekend with me and my family. My uncles, my parents, my grandma, my great-aunt and my aunt all celebrated me by coming to my ceremonies and going out to celebratory dinners and lunches with me for three days straight.

The festivity of the three day Commencement weekend was Donning of the Kente. This tradition was primarily meant for African American graduating students and a chance for the Black community to celebrate its graduates together, though our ceremony is open to anyone who wants to participate. Because it was a Lemon Project event, I spent most of my time before hand checking people in and handing out stoles. However, when it was time for the ceremony to begin, I was able to participate with everyone else. It was fantastic. When it was my turn, I went on stage to applause and my parents donned me with a kente stole. We took a picture and then we returned to our seats and watched as the rest of the students were donned. Though you are only allowed up to two people to don you, some students appeared on stage with their entire families. Grandmothers cried, children of the graduates cheered, many thanked God as they left the stage and others took selfies as they marched across.

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Me after Donning of the Kente

Afterwards, we had a big family dinner at Ruby Tuesdays and then everyone their separate ways for the big ceremony the next day.

Everyone congregated at my apartment around 7 AM Saturday morning in preparation for the outdoors ceremony to be held in Zable Stadium. Thanks to the ceremony being held on the football field, I was able to invite 7 guests instead of 4. However, let me stress that the ceremony was outdoors– in 90 degree weather. While it was a beautiful day (comparatively, my UVA ceremony was held outdoors in light rain) it was still sweltering underneath the mandatory ceremonial garb we had all donned for the occasion.

I marched in with the other Masters and JD students to the William & Mary hymn. Two surprises awaited me as I went to take my seat– first, I was able to spot my family amid the massive crowd. They had managed to find incredible seats near the front. Their seats were perpendicular to my own, which was incredibly, in the front, near the middle and directly in front of the stage, next to two other American Studies masters students. As the rest of the graduating class filed in, I waved at my family wildly, amazed that we could see each other and spent the rest of my time taking in the massive book-like program that had been made in honor of the occasion.

The ceremony was about two hours long and very traditional– the President of the University gave remarks, awards were given out, and senator Mark Warner gave the keynote address, advising students to stay involved in our democracy, not be afraid of failure and to, most of all, call your mother. There were however a few highlights: the President gave honorary doctorates of letters to the first three residential African American students at William & Mary, Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely. An honorary doctorate was also given to Katherine Johnson, one of the first computers for NASA (you know, the one Taraji played in Hidden Figures? Yup, her.)

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Me with my 9th grade IB Coordinator Micah Smith

And after all of that was over, degrees were conferred. The most amazing part was watching people that I knew walk across the stage and receive their doctorates. I actually knew a lot of people graduating: James, who has been like an older brother to me in this program, walked across the stage; my dear friend, Sarah, who worked with my on the Lemon Project; Renee, Nabeel, and Janine, all American Studies graduate students; my friend Patrick from Anthropology; Beth from History; and incredibly, the woman who worked with my 9th grade class of International Baccalaureate students as our Coordinator. She was so beloved that we fought to keep her, only to eventually lose her to a more stable position in Newport News. Though she left, she kept up with my class, meeting up with us for dinner upon occasion and sending love and well wishes whenever she could. Running into her on her graduation day nearly sent me into a bout of tears.

Finally, we were dismissed from the heat and I was able to reunite with my family for pictures. We eventually made it back to my apartment for quick naps before heading out for a late lunch at Red Lobster.

My parents came up one last time on Sunday, which also happened to be Mother’s Day, for my American Studies Departmental ceremony. It was short, sweet and to the point, the highlight of which was receiving flowers from my friend, Kelsey. We ended the day by heading to Wakefield, where my parents grew up, for a barbecue at my grandmother’s and to spend some time with my great Aunt.

I woke up this morning, groggy and still a little tired from all the excitement, only to find one last surprise. I checked my grades and saw that all of them were in, and I had managed a 4.0 this semester. Yup, I got an A in my Comics class, my Histories of Race class and my Black Arts Movement Directed Research. I’m actually really proud of the work I did for all of these classes. For Comics, I wrote a tribute to Lois Lane adaptations in the last 10 years that I’m considering getting published. For my Black Arts Movement class, I wrote “Beneatha Younger’s Afro,” which attempted to modernize a classic character and discuss how she is politically relevant today. And for my Histories of Race class? I still can’t say what I did for that class because this might actually turn into a huge project for me– things are still unfolding, but just know this paper might be the first time you see Ravynn K. Stringfield’s name in print.

Now everything is over. My family has gone back to the regularly scheduled lives, I can stop holding my breath while I wait for grades to come in, and I can lay in bed watching Netflix all day for days at a time if I want to. Knowing myself, however, I know that will only last a few days before I’m back at the grind, working on comps lists and planning my research trip to the Schomburg Center. Side note, I applied for research money for the first time and received about a third of what I applied for, but if I stay with a friend, I should still be able to make the trip. (I will, of course, post about the trip when I make it, not to worry.) I also have a stack of books that I’ve been dying to dig into and art that I need to make, so I have some good, relaxing plans for the summer. I just hope that I can get it together and make it through one last semester of coursework. Then, onto my next adventure: Comps.

Stay tuned, guys, you won’t want to miss what’s next.

 

Week 15, or Finding Your Tribe

I think the primary reason I have yet to leave grad school is because I am so close to my support systems.

I have two really good sets: my parents and my UVA family, which consists mostly of the students I did the Black Monologues with my fourth year as well as the Dean and her administrative assistant that got me through my time there. My parents are an hour away and my UVA family is two hours away.

That’s how I spent my first weekend post-classes, split between Suffolk and Charlottesville.

My professor offered me an extension on a paper that was originally due on Friday but I didn’t take it because I knew that I was gearing up for one hell of a weekend. And I was not disappointed.

My soul sister, Micah, (whose post you should read if you already haven’t) was commissioned to write a full length play for the drama department at UVA. As soon as I knew that had happened, I asked for dates, knowing full and well the only place I’d be that weekend was in Charlottesville. I read a draft of the play, which she titled Canaan, followed her casting decisions, and waited.

As it turned out, everyone that she had cast had also taken part in the Black Monologues, the show that I had stage managed in 2015. (Plus Roberto, who did it in 2016 but I count him as one of my babies.) I reread the show in their voices. I waited.

Then, finally, classes were over and I could plan my trip to Charlottesville to see my loved ones. I made sure to go prepared. I created fan signs for all of them because I wanted a way to show my love and affection for each and every one of them. So I carried all six signs with me on my way into the theater, with my dear friend Caroline in tow.

Before the show, I snuck backstage to surprise everyone and was greeted with gasps and big hugs. I had never felt more loved.

Then Micah’s family arrived. I hugged her parents and her sister and was introduced to her cousins as Mrs. Watson’s “Extra Daughter” for the afternoon. My heart swelled. I sat in the middle of the row of Watsons and next to Micah’s sister while I watched the show. We laughed, we cried, some times we responded to events on stage, sometimes we could only watch in stunned silence. I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed with emotion watching Jordan on stage, knowing how far he had come. Taylor made me want to join the revolution; I’d follow that girl anywhere. B brought her Southern charm and sass to church girl, Lisa Sawyer. Roberto made me love and hate Eddie all at the same time. And I laughed at Madison’s slapstick humor and gossiping nature as Ms. Wilma, but felt moved by her more meaningful scenes.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to put into words how astonishing it was to see the same group of young adults I stage managed nearly three years ago grow into such accomplished, talented and amazing people.

All I know is that they are my tribe.

I found them late in my career; I basically had one foot out the door when I came to Black Monologues my fourth year at UVA. Ever since that experience, however, every time I have come back to UVA has been for that group of students. They are my heart. This was the last time I’m sure I’m going to get to see many of them in the same place for a long while because they are all graduating next month.

Their art sustains me, it breathes life into me, it helps me carry on.

This was the perfect way to end my semester, getting a jolt of love from those I love the most.

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Me and Micah Watson, the author of Canaan

Week 14, or Dealing with the Urge to Quit

I have been struggling with whether or not to write this post the entire semester. I pride myself on writing blog posts that have a positive tone because I recognize how difficult graduate school is without added negativity. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes you stew in the negativity and you can’t help yourself.

That’s where I was for much of this semester. I wanted to quit. I wanted to take my Master’s degree and find a job in publishing or editing. I avoided doing my readings and spent my time job hunting, googling What kind of job can you get with a Masters in American Studies? My parents didn’t take me seriously, but I spent much of January waiting for my Master’s degree to be conferred so that I could leave with it on my transcript. I hated talking about school, I was second guessing everything that came out of my mouth in class, and I was so tired of it all that I even told my advisor that I was considering walking away. I couldn’t fix my mind to write and I wasn’t retaining anything I was reading– it all slipped through my mind like water through fingers.

I managed to pull myself out of that funk, but not before I had scared my parents, my advisors and my friends. I wish I could say that love convinced me to keep going, but nothing anyone said made any difference. It lasted so long and I became so brittle that my friends in my program felt like they were walking on eggshells around me.

What did help was a project. I can’t say much about it because I don’t want to scoop myself, but thanks to a little help from a colleague, an amazing academic project fell right into my lap. It was perfect, a little black studies, a little comic studies and a little literature, all in one. I enjoyed the pursuit of the story, getting to meet people, getting to write about something I truly cared about. I wanted the story to be good because this was something that was bigger than me. I suddenly found myself rewriting history.

What did help was a community of Black graduate students also blogging/writing/podcasting about their graduate school experiences. The creator of the podcast “Blk + In Grad School,” Allante Whitmore, wrote a post featuring about 40 resources people of color had created for other POC in graduate school. While the post was amazing, what really helped was that she then invited all the creators that she had featured to join a GroupMe together. Through this community, we have been helping each other build our respective empires by lifting as we climb. Black Girl Does Grad School was no longer an island, but one of many sites working to aid women of color in their journey through the Academy. It made me want to redouble my efforts because working with this coalition made me feel like I was no longer shouting into the void.

What did help was time. Sometimes, you just fall into a funk and the only thing you can do is wait it out. I’ve written about how I journal, get organized and meal prep to make myself feel better, but occasionally, it just isn’t enough. If you discover that what you need is time, I hope that you have friends and family who are patient enough to weather the storm with you and they will continuously remind you that this, too, shall pass. And if you don’t find that support, be your own support system. Be gentle with yourself. Be firm about what you need to feel better. And be kind to yourself and others.

In order to get through this process, you really need to know how to prioritize yourself. It is mentally taxing, overwhelming and enormously lonely. I pulled myself out of my funk by first recognizing that I was in one, then taking the necessary measures to take care of myself, but I mostly gave myself time. I was unusually patient with myself, even when others weren’t with me.

I wrote this post because I owe to myself. This isn’t the first time that I’ve wanted to quit and it won’t be the last. I owe it to myself to acknowledge my discontent and to also acknowledge what helped to gently move me back to solid ground. I owe it to myself to write about how I sustain myself during this marathon when it feels like I’m running on fumes. Everybody has these moments, but what matters is how you pick yourself back up and keep running the race.

Week 13 or How to Write a Comps List

So, first things first: what are Comps?

Comps, short for Comprehensive Exams, is the next step after you finish coursework, at least in my program. Comprehensive Exams assess your knowledge of your chosen fields of study, whether you know the main arguments, can assess them, weave them together, and explain them effectively. Most people have told me to think about my Comps in terms of fields I would one day like to teach. The number of fields vary, but most people do one major field, and one to two minor fields of study.

Second: How are you tested?

In my program, I create a list of books (the number varies) which you think exemplify the major arguments and discussions of your field and work with a professor or two on each list. Specifically, my major field is African American Literature: as this is a big field, I plan on breaking it up into two lists and working with two different faculty members on each list. My minor fields are Comics and Media Studies and African American Intellectual History Since Reconstruction. When it is time for your exams, each of the professors you worked with on lists will ask you to answer essay questions, to which you will have six hours to respond.

Summary: 3 fields of study, 4 lists, 50-70 books per list, 4 exams, 6 hours each, plus an oral exam.

Third: Wait, so you have to read, like, 200-300 books? How long do you have to do that?

Yeah, pretty much. Technically, I can start reading after I pass my Comps Colloquium which will take place at the end of September of this year, leaving me around eight months to read all 200-300 texts. But I will still be in course work, so reading extra material will be difficult. I’ve been working on my Comps lists all semester in the attempt of getting at least two lists finalized so I can start reading over the summer.

Finally: So, how do you write your lists?

I can’t tell you exactly how do this but what I can give you is a set of advice on how I’ve been going about it thus far:

  • First, think of your lists as a bibliography. Pick a formatting style you like, and list your books in accordance with that style. (I chose to do mine in Chicago. It will also save you time to cite properly the first time when you start putting books on your list. I had to redo mine.)
  • Second, when you first start thinking about comps, the best thing I can suggest to you to do is to open a word document and jot down books that inspire you from class, books that you want to read, books that you think are fascinating and important but didn’t quite grasp the first time through.
  • Third, when it’s time to get serious about writing your lists:
    • Add books from your to-read list
    • Go through your syllabi for books that were particularly relevant to your fields of study
    • Use Amazon! Look through the “People who have selected this book have also liked…” section. I found a lot of great books that way that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
    • Ask to see your peers and All But Dissertation (ABD) students to see their lists if they have similar fields as you.
    • Check online to see if your school (or other schools) posts sample comps lists and check those out for inspiration.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask professors for book suggestions, even if they aren’t working with you on your fields, specifically.
    • Most important of all, when you start working seriously, don’t forget to put on some music! Putting together what is essentially a bibliography can be long, tedious and thankless work. It takes time and bumpin’ music always helps me get pumped up to work on my lists. (I’ve been listening to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy while working on my lists.)
  • Fourth, be prepared to go through several drafts of your lists. You will work with your advisor to represent your field, which may take more than one try.

So, there you have it. My not at all comprehensive guide to writing comps lists. My main piece of advice is to just keep plugging away at it. It won’t come together all at once. 200-300 books is a lot, and the texts you chose are important. Set aside a little time every week to update your lists. If you add to your lists little by little each week, your lists will come together in no time.

Week 12, or How to Handle the End of the Semester Without Burning Out

If you’re reading this, more than likely you are where I am right about now: in the midst of classes ending, staring at a vast sea of papers to write and books to read. You might be wondering how am I going to juggle readings for class but also finish the semester out with strong papers and preserve my mental health?

I definitely do not have all the answers, but what I can provide is a guide to how I’ve survived the last three semesters and the push for final papers.

  1. Put your health first. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Make sure you’re getting enough to eat, you’re resting enough and you’re emotionally supported. The fact of the matter is that you cannot be productive if you are not physically able to.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you don’t meal prep, maybe try it out during finals season, or at least cooking in bulk. Save yourself time and always have some fresh food around when you don’t feel like cooking or going out.
  2. Create a Schedule. When I’m about a month out from the end of classes, the first thing I do is create a schedule. I figure out when all my final papers are due, and then map out how much I need to write per week, at minimum, to reach my page minimums for the end of the semester.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Write your schedule down. Put it in a notebook, in an app, on google calendars, but put it somewhere that you will see it so that you will hold yourself accountable.
  3. Start Early. We are so past the time when we could write papers the night before and get an A.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Start early to give yourself as much time and space to work as possible.
  4. Set Goals for Yourself. In the same space where I create my schedule, I also create weekly and daily goals for myself. If, at the end of a week, I want ten pages written, I set a goal for two pages per day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Don’t forget to reward yourself for reaching goals, and be kind to yourself if you don’t get as much done as you’d hoped.
  5. Work on a Little at a Time. As I mentioned in Step 4, I break my weekly goals into smaller, workable pieces that I can do in one day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Setting my mind to working on two pages rather than trying to just tackle 25 pages is much more manageable.
  6. Get Drafts to Your Professors, if Possible. Many of my professors offer to read drafts, which is why you should (step 3) START EARLY.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you can get feedback on your work, you should!
  7. Peer Review. If your professors do not read drafts, read each other’s work! Just getting a fresh pair of eyes on something you’ve been working on for weeks can do wonders for your piece.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Form writing groups with your colleagues. It’s a great way to hold each other accountable and also get feedback on your work.
  8. Leave Enough Time for Edits. Even though getting words on the page can be the hardest part, editing can take an even greater amount of time.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Make sure that you start writing early enough that you can take a week or even a few days, to sleep on your words to make sure that you’re saying everything you need to say.
  9. TAKE BREAKS. Circling back to Step 1, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to conserve your energy, not blow it all at once.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Watch Netflix. Go to the gym. Take a walk. Play with an animal. Chat with your friends about something other than what you’re working on. If you’re close to family, visit with your family– if not, maybe FaceTime them.

The most important thing to remember is that this too shall pass. Do your very best but take care of yourself in the process. As long as your priorities are straight, everything will be just fine.

Week 10, or “Fake News” and Real Mentorship

My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.

The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.

Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.

In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.

Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.

Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.

For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.

Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.

Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.

Week 8, Ravynn’s Spring Break Reads

I needed Spring Break more than I even realized. What I thought would be an uneventful week turned into a deep dive into texts I’ve been dying to read for the last few months. Before I knew it, I had devoured four books, plus a graphic novel, the 6 episode Black Panther television show, and all of my usual CW shows.

I realized I needed to give my mind a break and consume things I wanted to read for me when I was developing my blog post for Week 7 (which you’ll notice does not exist). It was supposed to be a “mixtape” of all the best things I’d read for classes since the last time I did a mixtape, which was during Fall Break. I quickly realized that I was having trouble gathering up a list of the things I’d loved, but the list of things I wanted to read but hadn’t was nice and long. I scoured my apartment for unread books and made a quick trip to Barnes and Noble to amass a nice stack of things to read on my week off.

So, here’s a mixtape of what I read (and loved) this Spring Break:

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

How I found it: I follow Morgan Jerkins on Twitter because she’s an editor at a literary journal I’ve yet to work up the nerve to submit to. But I’ve been following her work and was excited to find out that she had a book coming out. I bought it impulsively at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago but hadn’t had an opportunity to read until now as I’m on Spring Break.

2 second summary: Essays on being a Black girl/woman in white America.

What I loved about it: Jerkins’s essays really resonated with me, from topics as sacred as Black hair, Michelle Obama and why finding a man is so difficult. She’s raw and honest, brutal and yet touching. I cried twice from the sheer pain of seeing on the page what I’ve felt a million times but never dared to say. She’s a literary role model for me– I can only hope that one day I can decide to be equally as fearless and write my truth, too.

Rating: 12/10 would absolutely recommend


Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing

How I found it: I actually rediscovered this after I bought it during a Haymarket Books sale last semester. I bought it because I also follow Eve L. Ewing on Twitter. In addition to being a dope poet, she’s also a scholar and I try to follow as many Black women doing the things I aspire to do as possible.

2 second summary: Poems (and accompanying visuals) set in 1990s Chicago that explore Black womanhood with an afrofuturist twist.

What I loved about it: In lieu of an exhaustive list of all the poems that I loved from this work, let me simply quote my favorite lines for you:

Love is like a comic book. It’s fragile

And the best we can do is protect it

In whatever clumsy ways we can…

“Origin Story”

Rating: 10/10 would absolutely recommend


Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

How I found it: I was perusing a call for book reviews when I noticed that this novel was tacked to the end of the list of books up for potential review. Always eager to pursue my literary side, I made a note to read it but never got around to it. Until now…

2 second summary: A young boy, Jojo, coming of age in Mississippi deals with manhood, his relationship with both the Black and white sides of his family, and a relationship with the spirit of a story unfinished.

What I loved about it: I have a grotesque fascination with death and I wonder about the departed, in particular my Grandma, whose presence I often feel. Death and spirits are complicated but fixtures of our lives which demand attention. I loved getting to spend some time thinking about the living’s relationship to the dead and why the unburied sometimes sing.

Rating: 9/10 would recommend


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

How I found it: My friend, Micah, put me on to it. Only the best of the best can impress her and so when she raved about just the first fifty pages, I knew I had to pick it up and see for myself.

2 second summary: An 8 generation story which follows the lives of two Ghanian women and their descendants, which lead to a beautiful story about the impact of both slavery and the diaspora.

What I loved about it: Yaa Gyasi is an extremely talented writer. She’s got some beautifully clean sentences in her novel, sentences that make me want to pick up a pen and try to see if I can replicate words with even half the impact. The story that stood out to me the most (SPOILERS) was Willie’s story about her husband who passed for white and then simply slipped out of the Black world. (Not without traumatizing her first, of course, though.) I’ve read a lot of passing stories that take place during the Nadir and then into the Harlem Renaissance, but this particular story hit me where it hurt.

Rating: 11/10 would absolutely recommend.


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

How I found it: I don’t remember the exact first time I heard about this book but I do remember all the hype surrounding it. It was so impactful that I suggested it for review for a potential publication I was working on at the time I found it.

2 second summary: Cora is a enslaved person who decides to escape via the Underground Railroad, which Whitehead has reimagined as a literal railway.

What I loved about it: As I was reading this, I thought back on many of the enslaved histories I’ve read over the last two years in grad school and picked up on many of the details from those histories in Whitehead’s story. Never before had those histories come to life for me more than when I read Whitehead’s novel. Maybe it’s a personal failing, but I simply don’t process informational nearly as well if it isn’t presented in a literary way– if it isn’t a good narrative. It was an extremely informative read, with a strong Black female protagonist (indomitable, is the word used in the novel to describe her.)

Rating: 10/10 would absolutely recommend


There you have it: everything I’ve read– and loved– over Spring Break 2018.

I still have some books on my list that I want to read (including Citizen, An American Marriage, and Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching) but I’m so grateful for the break and the chance to read some of the novels that have been on my mind for the last few months. I hope this post inspires you to take a look at least one (or 5) new read(s)!

Week 6, or The Psychic Violence of Graduate School

I had one really rough class this week. At the break in my three hour seminar, one of my classmates approached me and asked me why I had been quieter than usual so far. I told her that I didn’t have much to say considering that one of the pieces we had read for the week involved a grotesque amount of explicitly described violence against enslaved people, particularly assault against enslaved women. Another African American student from the class described the experience of reading such things traumatic. I was angry because it taught me less about a history of racial formation than it did about a history of the horrific things white slaveholders could do to enslaved people.

I am an incredibly sensitive person, despite whatever impression one may have of me. I found myself unable to watch movies about slavery until I was in college because I would have a panic attack. Even then, I still haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave because I know how much violence is in it. It is a psychic assault in some ways to be forced to read about the traumas suffered by your ancestors as written by a man whose ancestors would have been enslavers.

So I did the one thing that I have a hard time doing: I spoke up.

I expressed my concerns about the gratuitous violence and fought back against the students that tried to assert that violence is an effective learning tool. I countered by saying, “The first time you think to yourself, ‘oh, Black lives do matter’ should not be when you see a dead body on the 5 o’clock news.” We shouldn’t need violence to prove that the institution of slavery was horrifying and we shouldn’t use violence as a tool because it becomes a spectacle. This is one of the main arguments of another text that we read for this week: Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. I appreciated the ways in which she acknowledged violence without letting it become the focal point of her work and therefore a spectacle.

Black pain has been a spectacle in this country for as long as Black and white people have coexisted in America. (To put ‘being forcibly removed from one’s own continent and forced to do hard labor’ gently.)

Because Black pain has moved into different arenas, including the classroom, we need new tactics to deal with it. For the purpose of thinking productively, I want to include a list of things that you can do, and that I have done, to protect yourself in moments of psychic violence in the classroom:

  • Take a break. When I find myself overwhelmed by a classroom discussion that just isn’t going my way, I excuse myself and take a walk around the hallways.
  • Write down your ‘would be’ responses. One thing I started doing last semester in a similar class was to write down my responses to the problematic statements happening in the event that I didn’t get a chance to get a word in edgewise.
  • Speak up. This is hard to do and requires a lot of bravery that I do not have, often preferring to internalize the hardness of the conversation and reflect on it in writing later on.
  • Speak to your professor privately. I have always found talking to my professors about concerns I have in their classes to be productive. This is something that I haven’t done yet, but I think I might do in the future.
  • Tag team. My friend pointed out that when there are moments of violence that you are trying to address but that might be difficult or traumatizing for you to do, tag in a friend to help you fight.
  • Self-care. Sometimes the best option is to opt out and preserve yourself to fight another fight, which is usually my option. It’s a cop out option to be sure, but I admit that I simply am not a fighter in the conventional sense.

These moments happen. They happen more often than one would care to admit. They’re troubling, difficult, disappointing and sometimes can drive you to want to leave this whole world of the Academy behind. This moment happened on the tail end of a week where I have very seriously considered taking my Master’s degree and calling it quits. One of the things that gets me through is the hope of creating my own classroom where I can minimize the degree of pain. I don’t want to be the type of professor that turns away from conversations regarding my students’ pain because it is uncomfortable. I want my students to be able to come to me with that and I want us to be able to work through it together. I’m in this race because I simply don’t want other students of color to have these isolating and traumatic experiences. I’m in this for them.

Week 5, or Confessions of Black Panther Scholar

WARNING: Black Panther spoilers ahead.

I was worried I wouldn’t love Black Panther.

I’m an aca-fan, a term that scholar Henry Jenkins uses to denote someone who is a fan of the things they study. I’m an aca-fan of Black Panther, in a very serious way. I have so much personal investment in the character, the narrative, and the authors that Black Panther turned into the focal point of my Master’s thesis.

I spent so much time wading waist deep in the comics from the late 1960s, critiquing, speculating, diving for meaning, that I worried I would not be able to simply enjoy the Black Panther film. Coupled with my anxieties about still enjoying the film were the expectations regarding my response. People laughed when I said I was not planning to write anything about Black Panther. I had inadvertently become– to some– an authority on Black Panther. I don’t believe that I am and to be frank, I don’t want to be. It doesn’t give you space to make mistakes, learn, grow. I am a Black Panther scholar with lots of questions I need to ask and still more to learn. I was worried that people would be expecting too much of me and I think that worry robbed me of a little of my joy in the weeks leading up to the film.

I tried my best to separate my academic self from my fan self so I could enjoy the film, but in the same way I cannot tear my womanhood from my Blackness, I was not able to do so. But I am so glad that I couldn’t– because it makes my love for Black Panther all the more rich.

So here are my top three favorite things about the Black Panther film:

  1. The diverse displays of Black womanhood. My favorite thing about Black Panther is all of the amazing Black women that surround him. Shuri represents a force in the STEM field, while managing to provide most of the laughs in the film, keeping her brother on his toes and also still managing to kick a little ass. Nakia gives T’Challa the Wakandan equivalent of a “Boy, bye” when he tells her if she weren’t so stubborn, she’d make a great queen. And Okoye– by far my favorite of all the fearless and strong women that make up the cast of characters in Black Panther. She gets to strike fear into the hearts of her enemies, deliver some of the funniest lines, and be in love with with her partner and her country. Needless to say, I’d drop out of grad school in a heartbeat if it meant I got to join the Dora Milaje.
  2. Killmonger as a character and the fact that he is driven by desire to liberate African Diasporic peoples. Michael B. Jordan as a person is a fan favorite for me but as Killmonger he was impeccable. Killmonger, in this rendition, is a Black liberationist. T’Challa and Killmonger are represent two strands of a potential strategy for liberation, and, to be honest, Killmonger’s arguments were compelling.
  3. The actual space of Wakanda. Walking into theaters filled with excited Black people made the on screen space of Wakanda even more real. My love letter to Wakanda would include a line about my pride for this powerful, culturally rich nation. It would praise the traditions and the King. It would give thanks for providing a space for me to be the fullest, most uncontained version of myself. My love letter to Wakanda would include how glad I am simply for Wakanda to exist, even if just in my imagination. Wakanda is real. It is my home. It is my heart. This is why representation matters.

Since Thursday, I’ve seen Black Panther three times. It gets better every time. I love it more every time. The characters become my friends. Wakanda becomes my home.

Maybe someday I’ll write that think piece that everyone is waiting for. But today, I just want to enjoy Black Panther.

Wakanda Forever.

Week 4, or Meeting Henry Jenkins

One of my favorite things about being in grad school is getting to meet people. Through conferences, public seminars and video calls, I’ve gotten to meet amazing people, including quite a few authors whose work I’ve come across in course work. Within just the last two weeks, I’ve been able to talk with Dr. Johnnetta Cole (a post about that experience can be found here) and, this past week, Dr. Henry Jenkins.

I first encountered Henry Jenkins’s work as an undergrad in a required critical theory course for my Comparative Literature major at the University of Virginia. After stuffing my head full of Althusser, Freud, and Barthes all semester, I distinctly remember finally being able to breathe– I could finally read an article once and get the gist of it. Not only did I understand, I was enthralled by his discussion of fan culture. As an avid Tumblr user at the time, I didn’t know that there were people who studied and talked about communities in which I belonged. Jenkins was my key to understanding that not everything academic had to be dense and difficult to engage.

My second encounter with Jenkins’s work was just last semester in my New Media, Old Media class, in which we read Convergence Culture. As we read through case studies of collective participation through Survivor spoilers and political activism through Harry Potter, I found myself again utterly inspired by the clarity of Jenkins’s prose and the innovativeness of his ideas. My ideas were no longer an island. Through Jenkins I found a way to ground my work and a model for moving forward.

Getting to meet Dr. Jenkins in person, therefore, was quite an experience. Liz Losh, my professor and mentor through the Equality Lab, arranged for a group of us to have a private lunch with Dr. Jenkins, during which we had an informal conversation. The conversation produced questions such as how do you stay true to yourself as you pursue work as a scholar? How do you withstand disappointment and critique? Do you have any writing tips? All questions to which Jenkins had generous and “therapeutic” answers. He told us all writing is rewriting, encouraged us to write with colleagues and develop an online presence. He told us about his personal experiences with being openly and somewhat hostilely critiqued and encouraged us to take a high road– engage, cautiously, and look for points of commonality and misunderstanding rather than investing yourself in a counter attack. And most importantly, I think, he encouraged us to think of doing interdisciplinary work as “undisciplined,” in the best way. This means that we should not limit ourselves based on discipline but follow our interests as far as they take us, borrowing from whatever toolkits we have available, using whomever we find inspiring, to come up with exciting new ideas. Strictly following the rules of any one discipline will only get us so far. We are the intellectual entrepreneurs. We are the undisciplined.

That night, after the excellent lunch, I attended Jenkins’s public lecture in which he discussed the civic imagination, its functions and results. It was a multifaceted presentation which drew from a broad range of sources: from Foucault to Stuart Hall, Superman to J. K. Rowling, Black Panther to Ms. Marvel. In essence, the talk encouraged us, the audience, to think of the civic imagination as something that can help better the world: it can help us imagine a process of change, imagine the self as a civic agent, and imagine the experiences and perspectives of others. This is what helps us go out into the world and create better futures based on what we have imagined.

Dr. Henry Jenkins is a self-proclaimed optimist. It was refreshing to encounter someone so celebratory after learning to do nothing but critique for a year and a half. He’s inspired me not to give up on my ambition to become a public intellectual, because public-facing academics are what we need. He reminded me to think of the real root of the word that will become my career: professor, or one who professes. Knowledge is not mine to hoard but something which I profess. Now that is something I can believe in.

Week 3, or Student Activism

One of the best things about my life as an American Studies graduate student this year is my role as an assistant to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. I’ve written about the Branch Out Alternative Break that I’ve done with the Lemon Project, yet never about the other responsibilities that I have. As a project committed to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College of William & Mary, we bridge the gap between the College, community members and the greater Tidewater area through research, community outreach and student engagement. We are responsible for putting together an annual report on the Lemon Project’s findings and other engagements, putting on an annual Symposium, organizing a Alternative Break trip that is public history oriented, and orchestrating a couple of smaller gatherings (Porch Talks) every semester.

The idea behind the Porch Talks is that they would be informal gatherings where you learn from your elders. The topics would be pertinent to the Lemon Project’s mission or things that are relevant to the College or community. I was deeply excited for the first Porch Talk of this semester on Student Activism because it was my brain child. The Lemon Project team went to a symposium on slavery last fall at the University of Virginia, where my coworker, Sarah and I, attended a panel on the removal of Confederate monuments at Clemson University. One of the panelists, an undergraduate student named Khayla Williams, stood out to us. Passionate, quick-witted, and oh so smart, Khayla was the portrait of successful student activism. As we listened to her story about how a group of students at Clemson had staged a ten day sit-in (now referred to as the Sikes Sit-In) and how the administration had begun to listen afterwards, we knew her experiences and her story might be a valuable one for student activists at William & Mary to hear.

After the panel, I gave her my card and she e-mailed me, which began a steady stream of correspondence in which we arranged for her to visit the College to give a talk similar to the one she had given at UVA.

Before I knew it, February 1st was here and I was eagerly awaiting her arrival for her talk that evening. 5 o’clock came and I was astounded at the turn out. We had amassed a substantial crowd of around twenty or so people primarily composed of undergraduate students, an atypical make up for Lemon Project Porch Talks. After I introduced Khayla, I sat with my camera out, ready to take the occasional photograph, when suddenly, I found myself enthralled by her words, eagerly taking in every bit. She spoke about herself, how she came to activism, how the term activist was strange to use to describe herself, yet one that she accepted. She spoke about Clemson, about the culture, about the Sikes Sit-In. And she spoke about what they did after the Sit-In to keep the momentum going. Her suggestions were encouraging and manageable. Khayla suggested that first, we continue to talk about the event after it happens. Educate younger students about how and why protests have occurred so they can pick up where you left off. She suggested, second, to work in teams. You need a variety of people to make a movement happen. And finally, she reminded us to make it bigger than a one organization problem. An incident of racism shouldn’t just be a BSO problem– it should be a school wide problem. Make it so.

I was impressed with how she commanded space so easily and how conversational her talk was. It flowed neatly into a workshop, where she came prepared by looking into incidents which had happened at William & Mary and helped students work through how they could then organize to address these problems. Her suggestions were primarily based on things which had worked at Clemson: a sexual assault alert system, making demands of the administration, keeping a record– but that was the key, these things had worked. I hoped the students in attendance understood her point that her suggestions were “not a blueprint” but also understood that these were actionable things.

I’m glad William & Mary students got a chance to meet Khayla. Sometimes it’s nice to have a fresh pair of eyes on your situation to give you some perspective. I don’t think Khayla gave them any answers (though she never claimed to, and at any rate who could?) but I do think she gave them something to consider as they move forward onto whatever their next activist project may be and, hopefully, some perspective.

I dropped her off at the airport after passing an amicable hour alternatively chatting and humming to the radio. As she walked through the doors, I found myself thinking about how much I learn outside of the classroom and from people who aren’t my professors. I’m so grateful for my assistantship with the Lemon Project, which forces me think critically in a different way and has brought me so many teachable moments.

Guest post: “Sometimes You’re Santiago”

When I first read The Old Man and The Sea, I hated it. I truly hated it. I do not think it is fair to make junior high aged students read Ernest Hemingway. But even though I hated the book as a 7th grader, I constantly find myself coming back to that story over and over again in my head. And I think as I started graduate school I found myself relating more and more to the Old Man, Santiago.

I am sure you are wondering how a twenty-four-year-old Black woman can relate to a character written centuries ago by a white American man; however, have no fear I am going to explain.

It is only right that I use a classic novel to explain my struggles as a graduate student. I would even call it ironic because at the age of twenty-three I found out I have a reading impairment, along with two other learning disabilities.

In my first semester of graduate school I had hit a wall so to speak. It seemed like week after week I was unable to pass a quiz in class or even write a decent enough paper for my professors. I literally felt like Santiago who had not caught a fish for eighty-four days. Nothing seemed to be going right.

I knew that I had general anxiety disorder before I moved from Texas to Iowa City, Iowa; however, I really had not had too many anxiety attacks until I started graduate level classes. I even began to question who in the hell told me to sign up for this shit; however, I knew I had goals to reach so I pushed through.

And even with all of my personal perseverance—again much like Santiago—it really did not matter. It actually made me feel like I was not good enough to even be in this program. And to make it worse, I was the only black person in almost all of my classes, so I felt like they were just calling me the stupid black girl in their meetings. (I later found out that they weren’t calling me stupid, but they were saying that I was incapable of doing their work—that’s a story for another day).

I do not know if you have ever had that feeling of something being so close but yet being so far away at the same time. Like Santiago fighting with the fish to get it shore and with every mile he got closer but the struggle also got harder and harder. That is how I felt in every class and even after finding out there was a reason behind why I had been struggling so much, it still felt like I still had so much further to go.

How was a I supposed to process this information about these learning disabilities when I literally have a processing disorder? It honestly makes no sense and if you have the answers, please let me know. All I am trying to convey is that I really did not know what to do even though I was happy I received some answers.

But what does having a learning disability look like in graduate school? Will professors think I am making it up? Will they care? Will they work with me? How do I talk about it and not make it sound like an excuse? Obviously you can see that this new diagnosis caused quite a bit of anxiety in me—and I already had enough. The questions just kept coming of how and what I should do. I finally just had a complete breakdown; and to be quite honest it felt amazing to the tears to flow down my face because it was some sort of release.

Even after that release, I still did not have the answers; however, I knew that I could find them and that it may take some time.

Santiago was very prideful and that is why he did not give up with the fish and I can relate to that; however, I the fight he had with the fish just to bring it to shore left not just the fish but him as well, extremely mangled and broken. I knew that I did not want my graduate career to leave me like that. I did not want my pride to end up breaking me just to prove a point. And that is when I realized that I was going to have to reach out for help and that meant letting the university know about my diagnosis. If I did not tell them, I was going to fail out of school just to not disclose learning disabilities. Honestly, I do not want to pressure people reading this to disclose your personal business; however, people cannot help you if they do not know what is going on.

Learning this lesson was hard to learn. I am not a person who likes asking for help. It felt weird to make a conscious decision to be vulnerable when it came to my schooling. I can write a blog about my struggles with depression and anxiety but I liked people thinking I had school under control (because I had for so long).

I have written about my learning disabilities on my personal blog and I even allowed the university to use me for an awareness campaign and I even was interviewed for the school website. I realized that my pride was not going to not only hinder me from achieving greatness in my academics but it also was not going to stop me from being a voice for others.

I do not think that I will ever read Old Man and The Sea again, but I never knew a book that I read in 7th grade could later be used as an analogy for my life—I guess that is why it is called a classic. I guess the moral of my story is that the struggle has a purpose and that pride can really hold you back.

I hope that this story helps someone and if it doesn’t, it helped me to write about it once again.


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Joy Melody Woods, masters student at the University of Iowa studying sociology of education and sport. She is a native Texan and loves all things southern cooking. She is an advocate for mental health and learning disabilities. Her writing can be found on withoutaspace.com and her podcast Morning Joy.

morningjoypodcast@gmail.com

Twitter @smileitsjoy

Week 2, or Meeting Johnnetta Cole

Meeting Dr. Johnnetta Cole was the highlight of what might have otherwise been a very sad week. I ended up walking twenty minutes to class on Tuesday morning in torrential rainfall, and the feeling of being wet and angry did not dissipate until Thursday, when I remembered that class had been cancelled for that afternoon.

Just the day before, at a meeting I attended with primarily anthropology graduate students, the group’s advisor mentioned that Johnetta Cole would be hanging out with him in the afternoon before her Martin Luther King, Jr. keynote address later Thursday night and that we were welcome to drop in and say hello. As the group and I had read Dr. Cole’s work the previous semester, watched a documentary on Herskovits which featured her, and talked about her work as an activist scholar, I knew immediately how I wanted to spend my Thursday afternoon off from class.

Meeting her in an intimate setting was a lovely experience. She simply had to know everything about you and made it her mission to listen to our stories. However, she also had a way of getting to your core; the first thing she asked me, after my name and what sort of work I did, was where I saw myself in ten years.

Of the four of us, she turned to me first, and “Tenure-track in English or American Studies” sprung from my lips before I even realized I had said it. I qualified it, saying that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing and the Academy offered an unprecedented amount of creative freedom (comparative to many other jobs), but I also mentioned that it was my ambition to start a magazine someday. She smiled at me gently, approvingly and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Indeed, I had. I have host of things I want to get done in this lifetime, so I’ve got to plan accordingly.

Before long, our audience with Dr. Cole was over, and my colleagues and I left the room, feeling inspired, and in my case, heard. For all her many achievements, being a professor, a president of college, a director of a museum, she was grounded and it was so easy to talk to her. Despite only knowing her for a few moments, she felt like a favorite teacher who had known me my whole life.

Dr. Cole’s evening talk was riveting; she has such a striking stage presence. Before she even got into her address, she made a point to thank everyone who had been a part of helping her to come to William & Mary, and talked about the wonderful day she’d had. The highlight of said day, she told the crowd, was getting to spend time with her “star student,” our advisor, and his four students. I swelled with pride from my corner of the auditorium: I was one of those four students. She called us her “grand-students,” and the same warmth I had felt from her in the classroom spread into the massive auditorium. Then, she began her address, thinking about how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would feel about today’s issues. She drew not only from Dr. King but from his wife Coretta as well because Coretta had her own vision of peace and justice. She called on the crowd to affect change using a three word approach: educate, legislate and agitate. Dr. Cole reminded us that our responsibility was to speak the truth as we see it, for it matters not where we stand in moments of comfort, but rather where we “stand in moments of challenge and controversy” (Dr. King). Honoring the legacy of the freedom fighters before us means that we need to refuse to be satisfied, Dr. Cole told us. We need to fight the way of the current syllabus which is too often only “Western, white, and womanless.” Most importantly, she called on us to do the work necessary.

Meeting Dr. Cole and hearing her words made me think about my place in all of this: Am I doing the work? Am I refusing the be satisfied? Am I speaking truth as I see it? I think, perhaps, I’m trying to; I’m making a solid attempt, but I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done so far. It’s not enough. In terms of affecting change, I’ve chosen my approach, to educate, but I do little with legislating and agitating. Is it enough to chose one path, or do you need to do all three? I think a good change-maker does a little of everything. Meeting Dr. Cole has made me ask myself: what can I do to affect change?

I may not know yet, but I do thank Dr. Cole for sparking the thought.

Week 1, or “Branching Out” and Growing Up

This post marks the beginning of my fourth– yes, fourth— semester at the College of William & Mary. Before I know it, this semester will have flown by and then I will be standing at the precipice of my last semester of coursework in the fall.

This semester will be great. I’m speaking it into existence. I am currently enrolled in a Comics course, Histories of Race, and an independent study on Black Arts Movement literature. I’m bringing in a student activist from Clemson to speak at a Porch Talk for the Lemon Project. The Lemon Project 8th Annual Symposium will be in March. Johnetta Cole, Henry Jenkins, and Nikki Giovanni will all be coming to speak at the College this semester. And I had a paper accepted to a conference in April just a few days ago.

I already had an amazing start to the semester with Branch Out Lemon Project Alternative Break. If you don’t remember me raving about Branch Out, feel free to check out my post from last year’s trip. Students at William & Mary can sign up for Alternative Breaks, which are typically off-campus service trips– the Lemon Project Alternative Break is the only one held on campus. During the course of the weekend, the students learn about the Lemon Project, conduct their own original research and participate in a variety of other workshops. This year, as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of residential African American students at William & Mary, our project was timely: the students conducted interviews with the first residential African American students and created an Omeka exhibit based on their findings. (For a more detailed description of what went down, check out my article about the weekend on HASTAC.org.)

As amazing as the final product was, as happy as the students were with themselves, as much as they praised the trip afterwards, it was still extremely nerve wracking for me. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself– I love the Branch Out Trip. It’s been a highlight of both of my years at William & Mary. The problem was that the bar had been set exceedingly high for the trip because the Lemon assistant before me put her heart and soul into organizing a project that would be meaningful, productive and effective. I had a large pair of shoes to fill.

Through a few well timed pep talks with Adrienne, who helpfully tagged along for the entire weekend (you the best, Adrienne!), I came to realize that I was gripping onto the project too tight. I was taking any minor setback too personally. And I was doing it because I cared so much. I wanted the same effect, the same magic, that I had come to love from last year’s project. But in trying to recreate the magic, I neglected what unique skills I could bring to the table. I was trying too hard to teach in someone else’s comfort zone instead of my own.

I did some growing up last weekend. I realized that I don’t teach like anybody else– and that’s a good thing. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but there’s so much to be said for making your own path. I think the next time I try this, if there will be a next time, I’m going to not be so afraid to be myself. It was also encouraging to realize that despite all of the difficulties I was going through, the students didn’t see it. They thanked me for the trip and said all kinds of nice things about me as a person and as someone to look up to. One of the students spoke about me as if I were a role model for her but, little does she know, I feel it is the highest honor to know her at all. I’m proud of one of the site leaders for going from the quiet girl in the corner last year to the leader of the pack this year. And she still has two more years to go! Who knows where she’ll be by the time she’s a senior.

What these students don’t know is how much they are an inspiration to me. It brings me so much joy to be around people outside of my program, in particular undergrads who are so bright, intellectually curious and genuine. They make me laugh, they challenge me and make me want to work to be a better teacher for them.

If this was only week one, I can’t wait to see where I go from here.

Guest Post: American Anthropological Association Conference 2017 Recap

On Thursday, November 30, 2017 I attended my first ever American Anthropological Association (AAAs) Conference. I’ve been regularly attending professional conferences for over seven years, but the AAAs were both overwhelming, exciting, and unlike any other conference I have been to before. The sheer size alone was almost jaw dropping. There were approximately 6,000 people in attendance (!!), meaning that there were over 40 sessions at any given time between 8am and 8pm – totaling 750 sessions across five days. In fact, the conference was so large that it was held in two adjacent hotels in Washington, DC. Session topics ranged from roundtables on feminist ethnographies to oral presentations on manhoods and masculinities, from presentations on the global refugee and migrant crisis to the rise of 21st century nationalism in Europe and the US. The AAAs are an international conference and presentations focused on diverse cultural issues from an array of locations across the globe.

Dr. Faye Harrison presenting “From Ferguson and Flint to Standing Rock: Resisting Racializing Assaults on Community Sustainability and Human Life” at the 2017 AAAs Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

This year’s theme was “Anthropology Matters” and numerous sessions focused on diversity, social justice, and the role of anthropology in a politically and socially turbulent world. One of the most intriguing sessions I attended was “Between Visibilities and Invisibilities: Forms of Racism and Anti-Racism in the Twenty-first Century”, organized and co-chaired by Faye Harrison (University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign), Yasuko Takezawa (Kyoto University), and Akio Tanabe (The University of Tokyo). This panel examined race, racism, and racialization in the contemporary globalized world, juxtaposing transpacific and transatlantic experiences and perspectives. Ultimately, this session aimed to “provide a common platform for interrogating the various forms and mechanisms of racisms where visible and invisible modalities operate in diverse yet connected ways.” Oral presentations included the racialization of social movements in Ferguson, Flint, and Standing Rock (presented by Harrison), a comparison of the transracial and transsexual movements (presented by John Russell – Gifu University), an examination of the “othering” of Eastern Europeans in Iceland (presented by Kristin Loftsdottir – University of Iceland), racial discrimination in Japan against invisible groups like the Burakumin (an outcaste group that generally lives in small rural communes in Japan; presented by Takezawa), and an exploration of how marginalized social groups have been racialized in Odisha, India during the age of globalization (presented by Tanabe). I especially enjoyed Harrisons presentation, “From Ferguson and Flint to Standing Rock: Resisting Racializing Assaults on Community Sustainability and Human Life.” Harrison illustrated how racial subjection and violence have undermined the well-being and human dignity of racially subjugated communities (namely, Black and Indigenous groups) in the Americas. Additionally, she outlined how groups like Black Lives Matter and the Water Protectors are banning together for their rights to ancestral territories, clean water, and other basic human rights.

Jennifer Porter-Lupu, MA, presenting “Sex Workers as a Stakeholder Community in Washington, DC: Incorporating Harm Reduction Philosophies into the Archaeological Praxis” at the 2017 AAAs Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

The range of diversity at the conference was so refreshing. Over the years, I have become used to being one of the only (or one of a handful of) black scholars at many of the conferences I attend. The disproportionate population of Euro-Americans scholars to Black and Indigenous scholars is well known within the archaeological community and has led to calls of a more inclusive archaeology over the years. But I have noticed that ethnic diversity is still severely lacking at the two to three archaeological conferences I attend or present at each year. Although, Euro-Americans and Europeans are still generally overrepresented in anthropology, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx scholars were well represented throughout the AAAs. This allowed for a variety of sessions and individual papers to focus on topics that commonly effect marginalized groups like decolonizing institutions (including anthropology and archaeology), health and sustainability for marginalized groups, activist scholarship, and race and racism. Although these topics are not new to anthropology, minority scholars allow for emic perspectives of the issues and fresh ideas for possible solutions to these challenges.

Dr. Kristen Barnett presenting “Archaeology as a DEcolonizing Mechanism: An Indigenous SURVEY and Response to Archaeologists” at the 2017 AAAs Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

The first session I attended and perhaps, the one I took the most away from was the “Enhancing the Presence of African Americans in Anthropology: Discussion of the Problem” roundtable organized by Tony Whitehead (University of Maryland). When I walked into the room it was jammed packed with mostly African American graduate students and professors (including Michael Blakey, Faye Harrison, Rachel Watkins, Kalfani Ture, and Anna Agbe-Davies). The roundtable style allowed for an open, honest, and critical discussion of the issues that face Black anthropologists throughout our careers. How can Black anthropologists successfully navigate the persistence of anthropology as White space? Will it ever be possible to establish (or in some cases, reestablish) Anthropology Departments at HBCUs? What is the role of Black anthropologists in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock? As we worked through these questions, a point that was stressed time and time again was the importance of being connected to uplifting communities, mentors, and groups (like the Association of Black Anthropologists). Graduate school can be very isolating and self-doubt plagues many, but having a community to reach out to will help you navigate through the often turbulent waters of academia and remind you that you’re not alone.

Dr. Joseph Jones presenting “Making Black Lives Matter: Lessons from the New York African Burial Ground” at the 2017 AAAs Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

Finally, the dual African Burial Ground sessions, “Beyond the African Burial Ground: Anthropological and Trans-Disciplinary Innovations in Theory, Methods, and Technologies” and “Anthropology Beyond the African Burial Ground Project: Epistemologies, Ethics, and Interpreting the African Diasporic and Native American Pasts”, were thought provoking and inspiring. Presentations included with the African American descendant community members at James Madison’s Montpelier (Matthew Reeves – the Montpelier Foundation), the intersection of science and social justice in community-based anthropological investigations (Joseph Jones – William and Mary), the value of Black feminist anthropology (Rachel Watkins), the use of paleogenomics in African Diaspora archaeology (Hannes Schroeder – University of Copenhagen), lessons learned through the Werowocomoco archaeological project (Danielle Moretti-Langholtz), Indigenous archaeology and anthropology for and by Indigenous people (Ashley Atkins Spivey – Pamunkey Indian Tribe), and much more. These oral presentations highlighted the importance of ethical public engagement in anthropology and key takeaways from activist anthropological projects.

AAA President Alisse Waterston presenting her farewell address “Four Stories, A Lament, and an Affirmation”at the 2017 AAAs Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

Although, I was thoroughly exhausted by the end of the conference on Sunday, December 5th, I really enjoyed my first AAAs and learned a lot. I saw old friends and made new contacts at the nightly mixers. I met a few of my favorite anthropological scholars which allowed me the chance to ask them questions about their research and get advice on my own research interests. It was an invaluable and encouraging experience as a whole.

The next AAAs will be held in San Jose, California from November 14-18, 2018.


About the Author:

 Chardé Reid is a first year M.A./ Ph.D. historical archaeology student in the Department of Anthropology at William and Mary. She received her B.A. in Archaeology in 2009 from the George Washington University. She has a wide range of archaeological field work experience, having worked on archaeological sites in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, and Athens, Greece. Chardé served as the co-field director of the Shotgun House Public Archaeology Project, Yarrow Mamout Archaeological Project (recipient of a SHA Gender and Minority Affairs Committee’s inaugural Mark E. Mack Community Engagement Award and a 2017 DC Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation), and the Stanton Road Archaeological Project, all in Washington, DC. She is interested in the relationship between landscape and memory in historically Black spaces. Chardé’s graduate research will focus on the intersection between race, identity, cultural landscapes, and materiality through community-based archaeology.

My attempt at joining the Academy