All posts by Ravynn Stringfield

I care a lot about books, and telling people about the books, and writing about the books, and writing my own stuff. I like reading comics and talking about race in America and reviewing things. And making things. I also really enjoy making things.

Comps Unplugged: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

I pride myself a little too much on my plucky, “can-do” attitude. The more impossible the task, the more I seek to master it. I mean, you’re talking to the girl whose senior quote was: “It’s fun to do the impossible.” (Walt Disney) I’ve never exactly fancied myself Wonder Woman, but my expectations of myself are incredibly high.

So when comps prep season finally rolled around, I was overwhelmed by the impossibility of the reading but determined to kick its butt anyway. I planned, I organized, I scheduled. I made spreadsheets, lists, and even planned how many times a month I’d go to the library for books. And I counted– oh my, I counted. I count down the number of days I have until exams (currently 36), I count the number of texts I have left to read (for each list and then total), I count how many books I have to read a day in order to finish everything.

All of the neuroticism was eventually going to reach a boiling point.

I sat down in the living room with my mother, who (God bless her) has patiently listened to my daily comps stats reports, my summaries of novels that she’s never going to read and my many attempts at talking myself through this thing. I told her that I was probably not going to finish the last 18 or so books, despite my meticulous scheduling. I decided that giving myself at least a week to review (and rest and recover) at the end was more important than reading up until the day of the exam. I said it as if someone had died. My mom stared at me.

“So you read over 200, almost 300, books and you’re telling me you’re going to let those last eighteen to cause you to have a breakdown? Don’t break down at the end and let all your hard work go away.”

She was right. She’s never been so right. I am the Queen of Anxiety-Induced Melt Downs, and the fact is I’ve worked entirely too hard to let that be the case this time around.

As the days wound down, I began to suspect that these last days leading up to my exams would be the hardest, so now I think it’s time to adjust my plan of attack:

  • I am going to read about a book a day for the next month.
  • I am going to devote more time to doing things that will help me feel more prepared, like meeting with my committee, trying to develop questions, making outline answers to those questions.
  • I am going to stop working myself so hard. The anxiety attacks and the shoulder pain isn’t worth it.
  • I am going to prioritize my health in this last month. I can’t take the exam if I burn out at the last minute.

The truth is this is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re a person that doesn’t have a great work life balance. I don’t know when to stop. It doesn’t help when you’re a perfectionist– I don’t know when to let go. However, it is time for me to ease up. I can’t continue at this pace. The chronic tension (and pain) in my shoulders and back is telling my otherwise. I love myself too much to let a test break any part of me.

Scholarly Insurgency, part 2

Ever since I came back from “Fugitive Futures: Grad Students of Color Un-Settling the University,” scholarly insurgency has been at the forefront of my mind along with a parade of seemingly never-ending questions. What does scholarly insurgency mean? What does it look like? How do we define it? Can we define it? What can we do to achieve it?

I’ve had more than one conversation with a friend in law school who is also interested in trying to parse together a working definition for the term. I went back to Roopika Risam’s #InsurgentAcademics thread and tried to find a common ground between all of the scholars she spotlighted during Black History Month. I found myself dancing around the term, never quite coming close enough to touch, trying to advance a theory, only to backtrack minutes later.

My friend pushed me on my explanation of insurgency in the Academy, asking me for specifics. Did it mean making space for invisibilized populations within the Academy? Did it mean redefining the canon? Did it mean tearing down the institutions already in place and building anew? My answers were yes, yes, and yes. It was making space, busting up the canon and institution building, but that’s not all– nor is it enough.

Then, I started to question where does insurgency happen? Can it happen within the Ivory Tower? Can change happen within the (constraining) parameters that this institution has already laid out? One of the questions that came up during “Fugitive Futures” was can such a conference be truly insurgent and still take place in a University, with University money and marketing tied up in it?

I realized that my answer varied– it depended on how many hoops I had to jump through that day; how many talented, and dare I say insurgent, scholars I saw leaving the Academy for lack of tenure track opportunities; how much red tape stood between me and my lofty goals. And one thing is for certain: anyone working within a system to change it needs to be mindful that this is not the only way to see change. It is dangerous to believe that only educators, only lawyers, or only community organizers can affect change. Scholarly insurgency needs to happen across disciplines, across communities, in a collective effort. When Angela Davis said, “Individual activity…is not revolutionary work” in her autobiography (162), I felt that. I believe that.

The first time I ever felt the impact of truly collective work was my fourth year at UVA when I was the stage manager for the Black Monologues. We were making “art for social change,” as my friend Taylor Lamb would say. I remember our first writing workshops for the show. A bunch of us sat in a dimly lit room in Clemons, writing for a predetermined period of time then taking turns to read out what we’d written. That was the first time I felt it. That was the first time I realized my words had impact, but I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it had I not been surrounded by people who loved me exactly as I was and believed my words deserved to live in the world. It was the first time I let my words free. I gave them to Micah, who gave them to Madison and B, who shared them with the hundreds of people that came to see Black Monologues over the course of five nights worth of shows. I remember the ecstasy of finishing our first show, the thrill of seeing the line for entry snake around the entire theater and back, the responsiveness of the audience. It filled me up because in those moments, I knew our collective words were imprinting on the souls of everyone who came to see the show.

I tell this story because Black Monologues was every AAS class I’d ever had come alive.

Art is theory in practice.

It was all I needed to know I could write for the rest of my life.

That was scholarly insurgency. Our writings and performance were informed by the classes we’d taken, the books we’d read, the experiences we’d had, the dreams we dreamed. These were discoveries meant to be shared with the world, not just a small community of scholars sitting in a classroom together. I had discovered the academic impact of making art, and I was never letting go.

It had been insurgent to talk so openly about Black Love in the space in which we challenged the administration. To talk about queerness where we also talked about class, from those who got those green Cavalier Laundry bags to those whose parents came from nothing to give you everything. It was about Ghana as much as it was about Georgia, laughter and tears, police brutality and hair days. We stormed the Helms theater to tell the administration that we were there to “wreak havoc.”

And we did.

What we did came out of necessity. Black students needed a voice. They needed a space. They needed to be seen. We did what we felt was right and people responded.

That’s why now, as I write this blog, 3 years in, I’m doing it out of what I feel is necessity. I want to give Black women in graduate school a space where they can feel seen. I did what I felt was right and I have gotten positive feedback about it.

I’m not saying academics can’t change the world– I think we can, but we’ve got to get creative in how we go about it. The most insurgent groups I’ve ever been part of have been outside of the mainstream Academy. It’s been with art, it’s been in digital spaces, it been where you can define freedom for yourself. While I’m terribly proud of all my scholarship, this blog is my most insurgent scholarly work. It’s where I have built community. It’s where I come home to. It’s been where I have defined myself as a person and a scholar, rather than be defined.

My contribution to scholarly insurgency is writing and living my truth.


NOTE: For a good definition of academic insurgency, check out Roopika Risam’s website.

Scholarly Insurgency at “Fugitive Futures: Grad Students of Color Un-Settling the University”

Scholarly insurgency is a way of life.

I don’t often think of what I do with this blog as “insurgency.” I do, however, think my work on Black Girl Does Grad School is urgent and necessary, which is how I came to “Fugitive Futures: Grad Students of Color Un-Settling the University.”

I saw the CFP circulating around Twitter and enough people forwarded it to me via e-mail, urging me to submit, that I decided to do it. The title alone was enough to draw me in. Fugitive Futures. Here was a group of young, up and coming scholars committed to reimagining the Academy as we know it. After attending “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” at the University of Maryland last semester, I knew that I needed to be a part of more—for lack of a better word—intentional spaces.

A note about conferences: I honestly don’t think I do conferencing “right.” I’ve yet to present at or even go to a national conference like the American Studies Association or the Modern Language Association conference. I haven’t even presented at many conferences at all—“Fugitive Futures” is only my second. Let’s remember this is my third year in grad school and only my second conference presentation. In the interest of transparency, I was feeling overworked and not very confident about my “research.” I didn’t believe I had anything to contribute, and the only thing I managed to do consistently throughout my three years in grad school was write my BGDGS posts. But then, as I’ve written about, “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” shifted my mindset. I started expanding my own conception of myself as a scholar and started to consider my digital work a scholarly intervention. The moment I stopped pigeon-holing myself as strictly a comics scholar, I started to blossom. After that, I realized I was ready to get back into the conference circuit, but I did wait until I was ready. It may not be the most solid advice, but it’s real.

“Fugitive Futures” marked a huge turn in my life. It marked the beginning of my second decade of life (I celebrated my 25th birthday the day before I boarded my plane to Austin). It marked my first real taste of total independence as it was my first solo journey to a place I’ve never been before. It marked the end of an academic dry spell. There was a lot riding on this trip, this conference, this presentation to be good—and I fortunately was not disappointed.

We kicked off the two day conference with a keynote by Saidiya Hartman. It was her book, Scenes of Subjection, that kept me from walking out of my Histories of Race class last year. Given her work is the epitome of scholarly insurgency, Hartman’s keynote was a perfect fit for the event. And while I could spend this entire post discussing her keynote alone, it is the graduate students and their fugitivity in their respective communities that I want to discuss. Presentations were wide ranging and conversations surrounding them were generative. I admired Carlisia McCord’s brutal honesty and her bravery in naming individual oppressors in her talk, “Can This Be Un-Settled: Why Not Just Flip the Table, and Burn it Down.” I heard from a group of doctoral students from UCLA speak about their collective efforts to organize for themselves in “’The Only Hope’: Black Doctoral Students Reclaiming Their Time.” Creative writers and Ph.D. students Maurine Ogbaa, Onyinye Ihezukwu, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma gave illuminating talks on what it means to be African writers in “(Re)membering Africa: sneak[ing] into the university and steal[ing] what one can.” I was particularly taken with this talk because I had no idea one could get a Ph.D. Literature and Creative Writing and I will admit my mind was spinning wildly, wondering if I could do something like that. I have since come to my senses and am recommitted to my American Studies program. There were collaborative presentations and presentations from across the nation (and even a really cool student from Canada); presentations that made me laugh and made me cry, and both that made me consider what it means to have work that elicits such reactions and what a revolutionary act that is in and of itself.

When I’m in these sorts of spaces, I start to imagine what it would be like if we could coalition build with these people. As a digital humanities scholar, I’m always up for connecting via Twitter and apps like Slack. I think the digital can be a wonderfully generative place to imagine new futures. It is my hope that I will remain in contact with the people that we met this weekend, and that we will be active colleagues in helping each other navigate these spaces that were not designed for people like us to succeed.

If any of the organizers of “Fugitive Futures” are reading this, or even any of the wonderful people I met this weekend: Thank you. I see you. You can do this. You are appreciated.

We are the future, and the future looks insurgent.