Category Archives: Dissertation

Dissertation Check-In #4: The Council of Superfriends

My usually carefully planned out, weekly grad school blog has fallen woefully to the wayside since March. All things considered, it’s to be expected. Aside from the pandemic and uprisings and the impending election, it’s already difficult to write a dissertation and to sustain other writing projects while doing so.

So Black Girl Does Grad School has taken a backseat this year.

Nevertheless, I’m still here—albeit sporadically.

I’m currently in the editing phase of dissertation writing. I got the bare bones of what I’m trying to do and say down on the page, and now it’s about tweaking and adding and reading more and fleshing out the ideas that I already have.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, at least for me, it’s not.

Editing is actually the hardest part of writing for me. I think it’s the most valuable part. Much of the diamonds of your thoughts are excavated during editing. The push and pull of working and reworking your writing feels a lot like kneading dough. It’s hard, intense work that requires you to get your hands dirty, and do what looks more or less like destroying your hard work. But if you don’t knead— and importantly, if you don’t let your work sit, or prove, to extend the metaphor— you won’t have much worth showing at the end. It’ll be an underdeveloped bit of mess.

As much as I respect this part of the process, I find it really difficult to do on my own, and with my own writing. Even with feedback from my chair, I still feel rather alone in this journey. The loneliness also stems from writing this particular project about Black girls and fantasy and the digital without having a Black woman on my committee.

Yes, I am aware of how this looks. The truth of it is, when I entered grad school, I knew nothing of the politics of crafting a committee. This was information I learned on the fly. And at that time, a committee didn’t matter much to me, because four or five years ago, when I was applying and starting out, I didn’t know this was the project I wanted. Perhaps a little foresight might have directed me to a different program, with a different set of support systems in place, specifically the hand of Black women scholars.

But I just wasn’t thinking like that yet.

Now I am thinking about these things as I write this creative and genre defying manuscript, knowing in my heart of hearts, that in all likelihood my committee’s not going to get it.

And having to defend my project, and by extension, myself in the process, was enough to paralyze me going forward into edits. I needed to talk to people who would understand, with little to no explanation the why of what I was trying to do as well as the what and how.

So I called a meeting of the Council of Superfriends.

My Council of Superfriends is a collection of Black women I love and who love me from different parts of my life, who all think about Black girls and girlhood in various ways: there’s Dr. Autumn, Black girl literacy scholar and one of my dearest internet friends; Chardé, an anthropology Ph.D. student at my university; Taylor, a theatre artist I met doing Black Monologues at the University of Virginia; and, of course, my filmmaking soul sister, Micah.

I asked them for an hour of their time, to just listen to me try to articulate my project as it exists so far, and offer feedback, suggestions and questions. And as soon as we started, I knew calling this particular group of thinkers together was just what my project needed. More than I needed to be pushed and prodded in my thinking, I needed community. I needed Black women who could show me where the bounds of my own mind were with love and care. They were able to ask the hard questions, and the ones that matter most: if this is a project about the freest manifestation(s) of Black girls’ selfhood, why are you limiting yourself to what you think a dissertation has to look like? Would you even be writing a dissertation to answer this question? Can a dissertation, the way you imagine it, answer this question to your satisfaction? Why did you choose this form? If you’re not planning to stay in academia, why does it matter so much to do this in such a constricting way?

For a project about the potential of limitlessness, I realized I was trapped on every side by everyone else’s expectations. The reason I was feeling so paralyzed by the project was because I couldn’t even imagine what true intellectual freedom would mean and look like for myself under the system that currently exists. And that was the trap. I was trying to fly in a cage. Just because I made the cage bigger so I couldn’t always see the bars, didn’t mean they weren’t still there.

Over the years, I have gotten so good at doing what I want to do inside the lines, inside the cage, that I haven’t truly dared let myself imagine what exploding the lines completely would look like for me. Sure, it’s impressive to be able to do this sort of alchemy within, but that’s not the truest form of my self-expression.

I can’t lie to myself and also do this project.

What a waste. Of time, of energy.

If I’m doing this for who I say I’m doing this for, and if I’m truly doing what I want to do, there is no more trying to fly in the cage.

And in conversation with the Superfriends, Chardé brought up a good point: this is a Hurstonian project. I am a student of Zora Neale Hurston. I am not, nor have I ever been, the only Black woman to find the constraints of the academy and the way things have “always been done,” completely misaligned with my personal mission. I have people I can return to, whose work I can think through and build on, to craft something to ultimately matters to me.

We began the meeting sort of discussing the long standing irritation I have at having to “justify” my dissertation work. I shouldn’t have to explain why my work about Black girls matters: to question that is to question the essential importance of Black girls. And though I didn’t necessarily come to this conclusion in that hour, I did begin to realize that the first step in freeing myself to do this project justice is to stop answering that question. Stop wasting breath on people who need to be taught that Black girls’ lives matter.

It’s time to focus on the questions that do matter, and the people who are asking them.

The Superfriends reminded me who I’m doing this for, and why I’m doing it.

They reminded me that I still have a lot to learn and unlearn and relearn, and that this process is for me. Perhaps this isn’t why other people pursue Ph.D.s, but my project is a labor of love and care.

And it always will be.

Four Years, Four Lessons

Today, August 8, 2020, marks the four year anniversary of Black Girl Does Grad School!

 

On this day in 2016, I published my first post, hopefully entitled, “Ravynn Stringfield, (Someday) Ph.D.” I wrote it the morning before I was due to start my first day of training to become an Omohundro editorial apprentice, my first graduate assistantship. From there, I would go on to become the assistant for the Lemon Project, a position I held, and loved, for two years. I left Lemon to serve as a teaching assistant for a film and modernization class and this coming year I will finally get to teach my own 290 course on Black girls and fantasy.

Two weeks after I wrote that initial post and a couple about Omohundro training, I would attend my first grad class. Over the course of two and a half years, I would take fourteen classes: six courses which counted towards my master’s degree (which I graduated with in 2018) and eight that went towards my Ph.D. There were some really fun ones: I loved my Digital Humanities class and Critical Race Theory; I lived for Interracialism and the comics class that I, and a couple of my classmates, begged my advisor to teach. And some were…let’s say, challenging– and not because of the academic rigor.

I’ve come a long way since the first time I used the term “digital humanities” to describe my work in a blog post: from denying what I did counted as DH to taking my first DH class to being wrapped up in a cocoon of love by Black digital humanists at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” Then from my first DHSI to consistently proclaiming my identity as a digital human(ist) by showcasing it in my bio and wearing a hashtag on a chain around my neck (Left).

I’ve also come a long way since coursework. Since I finished my last semester in December 2018, I spent a semester reading for comps, I took the exams, defended my prospectus and began writing my dissertation in earnest.

I’m now in my last stretch of grad school, a stretch that could admittedly take a while to get through, but I have faith that everything will work out okay. Four years ago, writing a dissertation was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to figure out how to read at the graduate level, manage my time, and find ways to infuse my work with my own signature flair. But, as I said so long ago:

“But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here.”

So in honor of my four years in graduate school and my four years of this blog, I decided I wanted to share with you four lessons I’ve learned since August 2016:

 

  1. You can chase clout if you want to, but I’d much rather work with someone who cares about me and has my best interests at heart. Picking an advisor is one of the most difficult parts about graduate school. In my early days, I switched about three times, only to land with exactly who they suggested for me to start with. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready to work with her in the early days; but as I matured and figured out who I wanted to be as a scholar, writer and person, I realized I wanted someone who would respect my work as both scholarship and art. Someone who would help me protect my work and find the right homes for it. I found an advocate, and I’m extraordinarily lucky, because some people don’t.
  2. Find your people. And accept that sometimes your people may not be in your program or even at your institution. I have a few folks that I can turn to from my university, but for the most part, when I have graduate school related concerns or need support, I trot to my digital network of peers I have developed over time on Twitter. (Shout out to the Digital Dreamgirls, Allante, Joy and Autumn + so many more.)
  3. Know your audience. Ultimately this advice has saved me so much heartache and grief. The moment I disavowed myself from the notion that my writing had to be all things to all people, I became free. Knowing who you’re writing for, the folks you’d like to serve, can help you focus your work and questions, and also helps you tune out voices who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.
  4. Grad school may be a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life. You have a whole identity, full of parts who aren’t served or fulfilled by what you do in the classroom or in your research. Make sure you’re tending to those parts of yourself by doing whatever you need to do to feel full. For me, it was yoga, making art, spending time with my family and dog and continuing to write across genres.

*

To all those who have been on this journey with me thus far, thank you.

To all those about to begin their journey, good luck.

And to all: be well.

Dissertation Check-In #3: Organizing, Scheduling and Tools of the Trade

It’s been a while since I did a post on my writing process– from organizing my writing, to scheduling time to write/setting goals and my favorite tools of the trade. So here’s what I’ve been doing and using to get to Ph.Done:

Organizing

Because I do a lot of different types of writing and because my brain needs to separate each style, I have a different journal for each type that I do. I have a dotted neapolitan bullet journal for my calendars and personal journaling; a lined leather journal with a quote from Toni Morrison on the cover for my long form fiction notes; a lined cahier for short pieces including my freelance and blog posts; and a classic large black hardback dotted journal with my initials on it for my dissertation thoughts. (I have linked to all below.)

The dissertation journal

I can not recommend having a dissertation journal enough. I use mine to take notes on readings, free write and do idea work before going into my Scrivener project to add pages, keep track of suggested edits from my advisor and draft periodic writing timelines as well as weekly and monthly writing goals. (I also sometimes use mine as a sketchbook….) Sometimes having a place to work through your thoughts before committing them to your dissertation file is super helpful.

The actual writing

My writing process is aided in large part by the software that I use for my dissertation. You don’t need fancy software at all– a word document or google doc will do– but I got Scrivener last year because I often write large projects, nonfiction, research, and fiction, and felt I could benefit from some specialized software. What Scrivener is most useful for in my opinion is the ability to jump from section to section with ease and move those sections around. You can write in chunks, which are then moveable on the left hand side of the screen. You can also outline as index cards on a cork board, which then expand out into a page that you can write in. You can set yourself daily word count goals and whole project goals, which the software keeps track of for you.

Scrivener is a one time cost of $38 and I have written three fiction manuscripts, a journal article and half a dissertation in it since I got it so I can say with confidence that it transformed my writing experience. I use it for almost anything longer than about 10 pages. If you’re a visual person, all of the functions of the software may help you to your writing goal(s). (I have linked to Scrivener below.)

 

Scheduling

I constantly and consistently adjust my writing goals, which then impacts my writing schedule for the week and/or month. The most important tidbit I can pass on for dissertation writing is to be firm about your goals but flexible about how you get there. Adjust, and do it often.

When I first sat down to break apart my dissertation into manageable chunks, I gave myself an ambitious deadline for a first draft and a realistic deadline for a first draft. From there, I calculated how many words/pages I would need to produce per month to reach that goal. Then each month I broke down how many words/pages I would need to produce per week to get to the monthly goal. I then broke it down to a daily average, which for me worked out to about 250 words per week day, or about an hour of writing per week day. I wrote down all of those goals and numbers in my dissertation journal to keep myself accountable.

Now, do I consistently write 250 words in my dissertation Scrivener project a day? Absolutely not. Some days, often several in a row, I write nothing at all, preferring to read and take notes over synthesizing into dissertation pages. But I might write 1,000 one day during the week, and 250 another day, getting me to my weekly goal. Some weeks I do write 250 words every day, but those weeks are few and far between. I try to schedule and goal set so that I can be flexible about how I’m getting my work done without being rigid. It helps me strike a nice balance between allowing myself to write when the mood strikes and holding myself accountable to write a set amount per day or week.

On a day to day, given the fact that we are living through unprecedented times in which every morning seems to bring a new disaster, I can’t count on being focused or disciplined enough to write every morning of the work week from 9 AM to 10 AM. Under other circumstances, I might block out an hour every morning to write, but in the spirit of waking up every morning and paying attention to myself so that I may tend to what I need to be okay in this moment, I prefer to take stock of myself and see what I feel is reasonable, every single day.

Bonus: Extend Yourself Grace

And because I do this stock taking exercise every day, there are some weeks where I can’t work at all, which necessitates review and adjusting my schedule so that I can stay on track but give myself grace for the next week. Extending myself lots of grace is the only thing that I can do to pull myself through.

 

Tools of the Trade

Here are links to some of the tools that I have mentioned above and some others that I have found particularly useful in my dissertation writing adventure.

 

Journals

Archer & Olive A5 Neapolitan Dotted Journal

lined Moleskine cahier

Large hard cover dotted Moleskine journal

Jenni Bick Toni Morrison Black Voices Journal

Pens

Yellow Lamy Fountain Pen

Pilot V5 Retractable Deco Collection

Cloth + Paper Penspiration Subscription Box Pens

Writing Software

Scrivener

Citation Manager

Zotero