Week 12, or Deadlines and the Digital Humanities

With November just around the corner, I can’t believe the semester is almost over. It seems like yesterday I was walking aimlessly around the basement of Swem library trying to find the Omohundro Institute on the first day of training. It seems like I just handed in my first assignment with trepidation and tried desperately to manage my work. Now, with barely a month left in the semester, I’m finally reaching a point where I believe I’m working efficiently, but I am also now mildly panicking because I have only about five weeks to write 3 papers which are all in the 20-25 page range.

Well, at least, I am, if nothing else, a very gifted organizer and time manager.

I spent the last few days hiding at my parents’ house, where, when I wasn’t hanging out with them and indulging their love of having yard sales, I managed to get all of my week done for the entire week. Mostly, I attribute this surge of energy to the fact that my cousin is coming to town this weekend to spend time with me, and I really didn’t want to be thinking about all the work I had to do while she’s visiting. Functionally, however, it’s time to get to cracking on my papers.

The more reading I get done now, the more time I have to write. My thought is that if I then start reading for the next week this week, I’ll have Thursday and the day Friday to write. Fortunately, my reading load has lightened, as my popular culture and power professor isn’t holding class any more this semester, after this Tuesday, so as to free up his students to do research and write. If that isn’t kindness, I don’t know what is.

The goal is to have something written by the next time I check in, but, you know, we’ll see how that goes.

Despite finally feeling like I have a firm handle on my work, I’m still doubting myself. These feelings of doubt only doubled on Tuesday, when the apprentices sat through a talk with an editor at OI who made it plain what his feelings were on blogging and digital publications. Essentially, he said don’t waste your time writing for publications like the Junto or other blogs– spend your time working on getting your writing in peer review publications.

Now, I knew that there were people in academia who don’t care for digital scholarship. But in the same way I knew there were Trump supporters, I suppose I had just never encountered one. I typically only spend time with people who are like-minded. (Read: my friends think blogging and digital humanities are really cool.) Really, it’s like any other kind of bias– you’d almost never tell someone who’s into digital scholarship that they shouldn’t publish on webmags, web journals, or other blogs, on the grounds that it’s pretty disrespectful. It’s dismissive of their academic interest.

I had to remember that history as a academic discipline operates under a lot more constraints than does an interdisciplinary field like American Studies. All of my professors are encouraging of the pursuit of blogging and writing for webmagazines, first, because they know it brings me joy, and second, because they can see value in alternative forms of scholarship.

In a logocentric world, I understand why academia values print publications. There’s something inherent in us as a Western, literate society that can only conceive of true knowledge as printed. And even while disciplines like American Studies deeply value other forms of knowledge, there is still a need to try to articulate the knowledge of forms such as music, theater, visual art in words, on a sheet of paper– when in my opinion, if the artist wanted to articulate their knowledge as such, they would have just written a novel or an essay to start with.

Vehicles of expression are nothing to me but different languages. If you want to find knowledge in art, study the visual. If you want to find knowledge in music, listen to music. And, if you want to have a conversation about art, there’s nothing wrong with writing it, but I also think there is something even more valuable about inserting yourself in the conversation in the “language” of choice. I engage with my favorite artists by learning their style, their signatures, and then  making it my own, fusing our knowledge to create something new. That’s why sampling in African-American music is why of the most fascinating phenomena I’ve ever encountered. It’s why the Black Monologues, a theater production University of Virginia students have recently begun producing into an annual event, can speak to a truly diverse audience populace, though written solely by university students between the ages of 18-22. They incorporate all types of knowledge, from literary giants, to musical greats, to inspiration from television shows, to poetry, to dance, to create something visual that expresses the kind of scholarly knowledge about the African-American experience that most people assume can only be adequately  articulated in a monograph.

Sometimes, it’s bigger than a page.

Sometimes, the written word is not adequate.

Expression and “true knowledge” should not be limited by what has conventionally deemed acceptable.

My expression of my knowledge on a blog, or in art, or in a comic, is absolutely no less valuable than when I articulate that same knowledge in a scholarly article.

It is honestly such a shame, that in light of everything this country has been going through with the acceptance of difference, diversity, even in terms of something like scholarship, is not accepted.

I guess it’s a blessing then, that I’ve learned that I don’t need acceptance from others to validate my knowledge. I am proud to be both a scholar and an artist, wreaking havoc and subverting expectations ’til the end of time.


Week 11, or Ravynn and the Coffeehouse

This week I was really missing France, French and the community of francophiles I surrounded myself with in undergrad. We discussed the Lumiere brothers in relation to visual culture in my Intro to American Studies class, I led a discussion on Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” and then I walked home from the grocery store with my recyclable bag filled with fresh veggies for my dinner. With a pang, I realized I was deeply missing one of my favorite parts about France: the cafe.

The French coffee shop speaks to my soul in a unique way. It’s the perfect intersection of introversion and extroversion: one may go to a cafe to be alone among others. It’s the perfect place to see and be seen. During my brief stints abroad, I spent most of my time posted up in a corner of a nearby cafe, nursing a cafe au lait, peering over the top of my book at the passersby. I was my best self in cafes; I was comfortable because I was in my element. As much as we want to call Starbucks a “coffee shop,” the vibe just isn’t right. It’s too…commercial. So, I’m always in search of coffee shops that are independently owned because the independent coffee shops are as close as I can get to my beloved French cafes.

I’d been aware of the Black owned coffee shop in Williamsburg for a while now, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t visited until this week. In search of some desperately needed recharging time, my friend suggested we spend the  afternoon at the Coffeehouse and before I knew it, I was in love.

Quaint and quirky, the Coffeehouse has the kind of character that I love in independent coffee shops. It felt like I was walking into someone’s house because the walls were filled with pictures of the owner’s family and staff, all smiling and happy. The menus were carefully written on chalkboard along the top of the wall behind the cash register. Dozens of containers of diverse coffee beans lined the opposite wall and the staff knew most everyone that walked in by name.

The shop is owned by a man named Charles, who is without a doubt, one of the best and purest people I’ve ever met– despite only having interacted with him about three times, I know can tell what a good person he is. He makes sure to speak to every costumer that walks in and he gets to know at least a little bit about them. He prides himself on his shop being a haven for grad students like me and my friends to come and relax, and is more than willing to do whatever he can to improve the quality of our lives. Without a moment’s hesitation, he agreed to let us host a Black graduate student event in the shop and smiled broadly at the suggestion that we turn his shop into the William and Mary’s Black grad population’s version of the Pit.

Having spent the majority of my time at UVA hiding out in the Outreach Office of Admission, where everyone had invested interest in me, I was so excited to find the Coffeehouse. This off the beaten path coffee shop may become my hide away, the place where I feel safe and cared for. Like my Outreach family, the shop owner is very open about his trials and tribulations, and because of this, he has nothing but compassion to offer to everyone who enters his spot. Though I’ve only been to the Coffeehouse about three times now, I feel like I’ve been going there my whole life.

All that being said, I think this leads to a very important piece of advice for succeeding in grad school: try your best to find a space where you feel safe. Having a hide away for when things get to be too much will get you through many a bad day. With end of the semester stress looming, I’m a lot calmer knowing that I have somewhere to go and unwind, and a new friend to talk to.

Week 10, or “How to See the World” and Other Such Adventures

I only had one class this week because of a very well needed Fall Break, thus there’s very little to report. I’m approaching a very dangerous part of the semester, where my ideas can no longer safely reside in my little Ravynn mind, but have to make their way into a carefully crafted word document.

I’m only mildly freaking out about that.

Despite being here on fellowships– a sign that the powers-that-be feel that my mind is valuable– it’s precisely that pressure that gets to me. I feel like it’s time to prove why I merited all the money and awards. It’s time to produce a shiny, ground-breaking thing, when in reality, I’m just hoping to be semi-coherent.

I’ve planned, and cultivated ideas, and looked theories– and for all of that, I still have to contend with being an American Studies scholar, which has no uniform methodology, which means my beautiful ideas will fall flat if I can’t figure out what approach will best support them.

So, I do what I always do when I realize I’m spending too much time in my head and gave myself over to my homework for the week. My professor assigned two books for class this week and I was fully prepared to skim the second, but I was sucked in so completely by the time I finished the introduction that I read the entire thing, start to finish, in about 3 hours, without realizing I’d done it.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “How to See the World” is my scholarship #goals. It is interdisciplinary, international, intersectional– everything I want my own work to be. It takes one concept, how we see the world today, uses to draw connections across history, between art forms, to science and the environment, to selfies. We start with the first attempts to understand human vision then move to France to understand the Lumiere brothers’ revolutionary work in the autochrome portraits and the first films. Mirzoeff takes us to South Africa, Asia, and the Civil Rights Era American South, discussing everything from signs and symbols of Apartheid to how we represented segregation here. The reader is forced to consider the how we as a society saw huge events that impacted the entire world on the television, everything from JFK’s assassination and funeral to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What’s impressive about this work is that it’s clear Mirzoeff is trained and well educated in numerous disciplines that all touch several different countries and cultures. Despite the broad range of topics he covers, absolutely everything has a point and it is easy to see how it connects to his bigger question.

It’s absolutely awe inspiring.

And it makes me feel a whole lot better.

My training is similar: I was in the International Baccalaureate program, which meant global perspectives were my entire academic career. The mission of the program is to promote well-roundedness in its scholars, so for example, my literature classes not only taught the American and English literature canon, but I got a great deal of exposure to South American, African, African-American, East European, Asian, and Native American literature. My French class expanded beyond L’Hexagone and reached into Africa and the Carribean. I learned about the Cold War from both sides of the coin in my History courses.

My university education was similar. I majored in French and Comparative Literature, with a minor in International Relations, but I also spent a lot of time darting in and out of African-American Studies classes.

My training is not just academic by no means. I was a classically trained, competitive pianist for 12 years of my life, which meant I also knew about international music history, changing currents in artistic life, and how certain styles influenced others. Often these transitions mirrored visual art movements, so I learned those, too. My love of the arts bled into my passion for graphic novels, theater, film, and other visual media.

By far the biggest challenge of my life has been trying to weave all of my interests together in a cohesive statement so that people understand me. My mind has been shaped by so many diverse art forms, cultures and languages that I worried that academia would force me to produce a certain type of work in which I would have to drop certain aspects of my training. Even with American Studies being the most versatile field, I worried about losing all of my international training.

Mirzoeff shows how you can incorporate it all. I cheered when I read about the Lumiere brothers because I knew all of this already from my time in Lyon with the UVA in Lyon program. I learned about “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” at the hanger where it was filmed at L’Institut Lumiere. I studied those early films under the watchful eye of an actual French film scholar. When Mirzoeff discusses the complexity of articulating the meaning of the term flaneur, my heart warmed for my mentor and advisor who not only taught me this term in Paris, but encouraged his students to become flaneurs ourselves for an afternoon, because this was the real way to embrace a culture.

My interdisciplinary training paid off when I followed Mirzoeff’s discussions of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, as my 9th grade Biology teacher taught us from that book. It paid off when he discussed self-portraits and other art works, including my favorite Mondrian, whose work I was able to see at la Musee d’Orsay. It paid off when I could follow his arguments surrounding the famous image of protesters at Woolworth’s.

My own work, hopefully, will be just as interdisciplinary, just as international, just as intersectional as Mirzoeff’s. Reading his work made me realize that my interests are in no way disconnected: I just have to find the right line to connect them.