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

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 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. 50 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 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.

My attempt at joining the Academy