Category Archives: Guest Posts

Guest Post: Black Boi Does Grad School—A Couple of Tips for Navigating the Bullshit

When I started my PhD program last fall, my biggest fear was the academic work. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the other students; imposter syndrome gripped my anxious mind as I rehearsed all of the disastrous moments that were sure to ensue: I would forget a major deadline, fail all of my classes, sound like an idiot whenever I tried to voice my opinions, and ultimately, bring great shame to all of my friends and family who were so confident that I was well on my way to becoming Dr. Smoot. Much to my relief, as I slide into the finish line of my first year of doctoral education, I can confidently say that my initial worries were unfounded. While my work has been by no means easy, it has certainly been manageable. I am brilliant, and slowly beginning to own this as my truth, in spite of copious external forces that try to wrestle this fact from my hands. What has been the most challenging, however, is navigating all of the unspoken politics and quotidian instances of systemic violence that are intrinsic to navigating graduate education as a Black, queer, trans masculine scholar.

From recognizing that my voice has been tokenized in a number of spaces—wherein my actual opinions were completely devalued—to having classmates openly espousing deeply hurtful and problematic rhetoric aimed at multiple of my identities, this past academic year has been fraught with realizations regarding my emotional resilience, as well as the innumerable challenges of graduate education at a PWI. To be clear, I love the work that I am producing—as dorky as it sounds, I can feel myself getting smarter, and sometimes I re-read my papers and think “damn! I wrote this?! I’m lit!” But sometimes I sit in my apartment and cry, wondering if I am right for academia, or if academia is right for me. Thankfully I have managed to make a few, very kind, very supportive friend-peers who regularly reassure me that I am valued, in spite of the moments in which this process makes me feel worthless. That said, below are a couple of things that I’ve learned, all of which I would have liked to know before starting this degree. Hopefully sharing them here will help someone else as they begin their doctoral program journey.

Visit the school/department before you accept admission.

I cannot stress this enough. A PhD program is a marathon, not a sprint. When I did my masters, I was relatively unconcerned about what my long-term future would look like in the city where the school was because I was fairly confident that I would not have a long term future there. However, my PhD was a different story. I figured, having lived in more than a couple of college towns, that I would have a pretty good idea regarding what life would be like here—without taking the time to visit. I was…incorrect. And in transparency, that decision has definitely been one that I’ve thought about often, and wondered if I would make again if given the chance to go back. The answer is, honestly, I don’t know. I am here now, and committed to staying present and enjoying all of the positive things that this experience has to offer me. But, one thing that I know that I would do, if given a do-over, is visit. That way, if I did make the same choice, I would have a very clear understanding of the life that I was signing up for—at least for the next several years.

People are important, but not everyone should be a close friend. Build community, but prioritize good energies; quality is better than quantity. 

This, I believe, is paramount to one’s social success and mental health in grad school. I came into this program assuming that I would quickly make friends, many of whom I would become very close with, based on my assumption that we would have shared interests and/or world views. This was…not the case. My first few months here were lonely as hell. Fortunately for me, I have a large network of good friends and family scattered around the country, so I struggled through that time with copious teary-eyed phone calls to my folx. I did ultimately end up connecting with some people from school, but if I’m being honest, I have yet to develop what I would consider to be a very close friendship. And I’ve come to realize that this is okay. Actually, it’s ideal. The people with whom I get along are great, but I am able to prioritize study/alone time, and see them when I need social time. Plus, having spent almost a full year here, I have come to effectively identify the people that I enjoy, and have identified the people that I enjoy…less. And that might not have happened if we had all latched onto each other from jump, purely motivated by loneliness. Loneliness is okay. It will pass, but surrounding yourself with kind, affirming people takes time. Don’t rush the process!

Advocate for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. 

This one is hard. Well, harder. Being a graduate student renders one extremely vulnerable. To the powers that reign supreme over your academic/financial fate and trajectory, to your peers, to many sorts of illnesses, and to your own insecurities. There are many instances in which you will be forced to make very difficult decisions: study vs sleep, work outand eat healthy vs eat affordably and take leisure time, stay silent and stew in heartache vs speak up and face the consequences, stay because of all the work you’ve put in to get here vs leave because you are being dehumanized. The choices are endless, and unlike my examples, most of them are not binary in nature—they are nuanced and murky and scary and hurtful. Being vulnerable all of the time is exhausting. But ultimately, I am of the belief that no degree is worth literally destroying yourself for. As long as it remains feasible (and conscionable) carry on, but care for yourself. Sometimes, pick the gym over that hour of Netflix; sometimes pick the Netflix. Make that dentist appointment if you get health insurance through your institution. Maybe decide not to curse out that person in your class that said that heinously racist thing, and instead call a friend from back home to vent. Get some rest—that paper is not going to be A1 if you write it at 4am after staying up for the prior 36 hours. Also, realize that faculty and administrators aren’t gods, they are people just like you. And while you owe them respect, they don’t have the right to bulldoze your emotions or abuse you. Draw that line of distinction for yourself, and if it’s crossed…check them. Again, a degree is not worth your total degradation.

You can’t read everything. It’s literally not possible, unless you don’t enjoy human-ing. 

Get the main ideas, and craft some interesting discussion questions for class. Skimming is not only helpful, but it’s a necessary skill. You have to be able to read something, synthesize information, and make new meanings from it, quickly. That’s literally what this is about. Welcome to Skimming Bootcamp, y’all!

You don’t need to put your life on hold for 4-7 years; this is your life. Here. Now. Enjoy it. 

This past week my niece was born…6 hours away from me. Next week I will be driving those 6 hours to meet her—during finals week. Amidst final papers. Why? Because I value my chosen family, and they are just as (if not more) important to me as finishing this semester with relative ease. I know I can do both, so I will. In the short time that I have been in grad school, I have traveled much, gone to parties, hosted parties, photographed my best friend’s engagement (also 6 hours away), attended 2 funerals, and managed to get my hair done once a month like clockwork. Because I am a whole person, not just a student. And life is still happening around me. I refuse to be that person who denies myself fulfillment and close relationships with the people I love the most in the name of prioritizing school. All of my life is important to me, not just the portion of it that is in front of me on a daily basis. Showing up my best self to this process means showing up whole.

Ultimately, though, you will determine what works best for you. No one’s experience needs to be the blueprint for your graduate school experience. Take what you need and leave the rest.


Kelsey Smoot is a queer, non-binary writer. They consider themselves to be bicoastal but culturally southern, a master at crafting hypothetical questions, and really damn cool. They are currently working on their PhD in the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities.

Take 1: NYU Bound

You’d think after two years of pure hype anticipation for FINALLY being qualified to write for this blog I’d know how to introduce myself. But I don’t. My name’s Micah… I like making playlists. I make films and wear space buns. I love Cheerwine and I write plays. I’m about to graduate from UVA and you can’t convince me that Jesus was not Black. But, most recently, I’M A BLACK GIRL [ABOUT TO DO] GRAD SCHOOL!

The past six weeks have felt, in a word, brazy. I’ve gotten recognized three times by the Kennedy Center and accepted to three graduate programs of my dreams, all while making two films and staging a play. I also got baptized again—I’m especially happy about that. Everything has felt so incredibly surreal. I mean, literally. I walk around UVA’s grounds and people want to congratulate and interview me and I always feel like they’re looking for the wrong person. Like my communities have crafted me in their minds as some artistic prodigy. Sure, that sounds great (and tbh this entire paragraph is obnoxious), but it feels really bananas when I’m focusing on making sure I sleep and editing scripts and trying not to fall in love with Jonathan McReynolds. So I don’t really know who it is that everyone is asking for a quote from, but I’ve just been eating my pb&j and grinding. The present is all that’s felt real to me.

But today I feel infinite. And exhausted.

So why now?

One—because I’ve been promising Ravynn I would write something before I even put the words grad and school together.  Two—because I actually verbalized the phrase “I’m going to NYU.” this week. Three—because this is the first time that I’ve been excited about the future. I mean really excited. I’m not saying that I’ve been dreading the future, or that I’ve even had low expectations for myself (I mean, have y’all even met my God yet!?). But until this week everything has been so abstract. It’s been me trying to articulate myself into a statement of purpose. Or wiping spit from my ear after some nice church lady tells me that “God’s got plenty of plans for you.” Or my collaborators telling me that they’re gonna ride my coattails (stop it y’all! We’re in this grind TOGETHER.) But throughout this entire process, the future felt sometimes achievable, but never tangible.

Speaking of this process, let me run that back for y’all real quick:

In a very distant way, grad school has always been a part of the plan. Not as something that I necessarily wanted to do, but as another box on the “Twice As Good Checklist.” I didn’t really want it for myself until my second year of undergrad (l said “undergrad;” Am I a grownup now?) when I watched Ravynn and Kelsey go through their application processes during The Black Monologues. I wanted to love my work so much that I had to pursue it. That’s been reinforced by my hourly conversations with Ravynn about Blackness, literature, art, superheroes, film, afrofuturism, Buzzfeed quizzes. We’ve become so intellectually hungry together. I’ve gotten to a point where I have to satiate that desire. Add on to that my cohort/squad/family of Black artists at UVA that make me want to continue working with collaborators.

So I decided to apply to MFA programs in screenwriting and/or playwriting. The process didn’t go as smoothly as I would have hoped. Against the wishes of my brilliant mother/life advisor/future agent, I procrastinated attacking these applications until eh, say, October? Mind you, my first app was due November 1st. I figured that I’d already written the [copious] play and screenplay samples and could write a personal statement in my sleep, right? Wrong. I didn’t realize that this process would require so much of me. Not only were the apps more involved than anticipated (@Common App, I miss you, babe), but they also required me to bare my soul in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. I had to be able to tell the world in 500 words who I was and who I wanted to be. I don’t even think I’d even worked that out with God at that moment.

But I did it. And waited. And prayed. And fasted.

Then my acceptances came in and my life started to feel like the season finale of Grown-ish. All three programs had incredible things to offer. Honestly, I would have been happy attending any one of them. But there was one place that just felt…right. It’s the place that God had been showing me in prayer, the place in which my community envisioned me, and the place that I just haven’t been able to get out of my head. It’s the place that both scares and excites me the most. So just so we all know what I’m talking about: next fall, I will begin pursuing my MFA in Dramatic Writing at New York University Tisch School of the Arts…and it just got real…

As I write this, I am in the middle of the national Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival with a bunch of uber talented MFA and undergrad students. I think I’ll mark this as my first grad school experience. I’ve been learning from masters, watching and listening to truly incredible and (bonus word) diverse plays, and meeting some the dopest theatre artists I’ve ever encountered. Actually, the meeting folks part is what’s surprising me the most. You’ll learn that networking and being social is really, really difficult for me. It’s not that I don’t like people; it’s not that I’m quiet. It’s that I never quite believe that people will genuinely care about what I have to say. I’ve seen God growing me this week. As I share my ideas and sustain conversations with strangers with whom I want to collaborate and champion, I feel like I’m having an out of body experience. I feel like I’m getting a glimpse of what God’s been seeing all along.

I’m so excited to get my hands dirty and to write like a madwoman, only to have my words get ripped to shreds. Then build them back up again, love them, and repeat. Sure, maybe I’m being idealistic. Lord knows grad school isn’t going to be chocolate and roses everyday. But, even for just a short while, I’m excited for the work. I think I owe myself this moment.

I feel infinite. And exhausted. And confused, and excited, and scared, and limitless, and full, and unprepared, and regal, and infantile, and hungry, and bubbly, and humble, and hype, and reverent.

And hopeful…

P.S.

Actually, making playlists is the first thing I do when I have an idea for a play or film. So let’s think of this post as one of those, yeah?

  1. Diddy Bop x Noname
  2. All The Time x Swoope
  3. Lover of My Soul x Jonathan McReynolds
  4. Weight of the World x John Bellion
  5. All The Stars x Kendrick
  6. Follow You x Christon Gray
  7. DNA x Kendrick
  8. I Got You x Chris Howland

 


Micah Ariel Watson is a filmmaker and playwright. After graduating with a degree in Drama and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia, she will be attending NYU as an MFA student in Dramatic Writing. Her work focuses on the ways in which historical and contemporary events mirror one another, often employing poetry and hip-hop to tell Black stories. The only thing that she loves more than art and Black people is Jesus “Real One” Christ. Twitter: @micah_ariel11

 

 

 

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