Category Archives: Conferences

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.

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.

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.