Category Archives: Personal Essays

Dissertation Check-In #5: Rejecting “Business as Usual”

As always, when I sit down to write for BGDGS these days, I have to wonder what factors led to all the space between the last post and the one you are reading. General pandemic panic is more than enough reason, but in recent weeks/days, I’ve also been contending with an immediate family hospitalization, my own illness and, of course, the coup. The build-up of difficult feelings stemming from impossible situations has pushed me to a breaking point.

Naturally, when you don’t think you can take anymore, someone or something always comes along and pushes you right over the brink.

One of my committee members had what I’m sure were valid comments on my dissertation first draft that unfortunately were couched in stinging language. In a moment where I couldn’t take much more, that was the thing that convinced me that I couldn’t do this anymore. After spending the whole day prior writing affirmations and goals and timelines for how and when and why I would finish my project, not twenty-four hours later, a single ping of my inbox destroyed all the progress I’d made in building my confidence.

And so I cried.

I cried because in a world where everything is on the verge of shattering for literally everyone at any given moment, it’s still business as usual for academia: enforcing the gatekeeping practices that keep white supremacy happy and well-cared for in this institution. I still have innumerable deadlines, diversity and equity committee meetings to attend, research to conduct, writing to do, all with the expectation that I will continue to give and give and give and give because if I don’t, the threat of an ill-defined “they” will come to reject my access to the Ivory Tower.

On a good day, it is the business of the academy, fueled by the power of white supremacy, to keep us busy and run down so that we can’t fight back (to think through and paraphrase a sentiment by Toni Morrison). It is the business of this institution to keep us preoccupied with trying to make space for our research, our shared knowledge, our work, while tending the needs of our students and often fighting for justice, which we do with love, so that we will not, cannot, take these small moments of rupture in stride. Because the small moment is one of a thousand or more, and this was the weight which caused the collapse of a back not designed to carry this impossible load. I find my day to day in the academy saturated with moments that give me pause, that strike me like a hot iron, that cause me to recoil, and I often bare them quietly. This is business as usual in the academy.

It is not business as usual.

We (Black folks, Indigenous folks, queer folks, women, etc. etc.) deal with aggression and violence and trauma on a near daily basis in this institution, filled with folks who should know better, and theoretically do on paper. We deal with this unkindness (an understatement) on a good day, and it is truly shocking to me that some people find it in their hearts to do this in a pandemic.

Y’all are really choosing violence in a pandemic?

I was recently in a roundtable discussion for the MLA on access in the academy, where we discussed the various ways this institution is designed to prey on precarity, which in turn keeps so many people (who are not rich, cis, white, male) out. We discussed the ways that the pandemic exacerbates many of the issues that already exist in the academy. And it remains grating to me that for many people, the issues that they are now experiencing because of the pandemic that force them to think about and center their students and their well-being, for instance, are questions and concerns that folks who teach in the margins have been speaking and writing about forever.

The idea that this moment has opened the eyes of many to injustice and inequity incenses me, because that tells me with great clarity what we already knew: that the default until now was to operate in the status quo of this institution, which I have outlined as being fueled by white supremacy, among other metrics of oppression.

I snapped over the comments on my dissertation, because in between the lines, there was the sentiment that there is no place for this project I have chosen to undertake. It doesn’t work, not because it lacks rigorous intellectual inquiry, but because the form is not one in which they have been groomed to understand as “scholarship.” It reinscribed harmful notions that there is no place for differing expressions of cultural knowledge.

How many times must we fight this fight before we move on from this battleground?

What is the cost?

I recently tweeted that my personal feed is nothing but arts and crafts updates because I’ve reached a point where if I talk about my work/dissertation or grad school writ large, there is a high likelihood that I will start crying. A friend pointed out that this feeling is a largely accepted part of the process.

I reject the notion that I should be driven to tears by this work on a near daily basis and that this is normal.

This is not business as usual.

This institution does not get to continue to ask of me when its general orientation towards me is one of hostility and violence.

This is not business as usual; nor should it be.

The Writing (R)evolution of Ravynn KaMia Stringfield

The one year anniversary of a few important days has snuck up on me. On October 23, 2019, I had the opportunity to see author Nic Stone in conversation with fellow children’s author, Lamar Giles, in Richmond. On October 25, 2019, my first published piece dropped on Black Youth Project. And on October 28, 2019, I entered #DVPit with the novel I drafted over the summer, Love in 280 Characters or Less.

One year ago, I had no idea that meeting Nic and getting to talk to her would be exactly the confidence boost I would need to pitch 280 in #DVPit just a few days later. I had no idea that my piece for Black Youth Project would just be the first of many (ten!) pieces to come in the next twelve months. I couldn’t have imagined that in just a few month’s time, I would give a keynote at a young writers conference and sign with my agent, and now be on submission trying to sell a book or two.

It’s wild to me that in a year, I really started to establish myself as a writer. This is ultimately what I always wanted to do. When I think back to the thirteen-year-old carting around a spiral notebook, turning her life into a novel, and the sixteen-year-old religiously participating in NaNoWriMo, and the twenty-year-old trying to make her creative writing class work…all these various versions of myself would have always wanted to end up here. And the version of me who sat in that study room on the second floor of Clemmons at UVA surrounded by members of Black Monologues, spitting poetry and performing off the cuff monologues, feeling inspired and safe for the first time— she was the beginning of this transformation.

It wasn’t a linear journey to this point. At all. Though I started to feel more confident in myself after BM, I definitely haltingly dipped toes into the water of publishing. I finished a novel that I eventually queried— to one agent. Who rejected it. And that was the end of that pursuit. Instead, I shelved that project and focused instead on writing smaller pieces for small magazines and this blog. I even did a short stint as a writer for Literally, Darling, and produced some good writing my first time working with editors.

As I got more comfortable with academic writing over the course of my time in coursework, I realized that that style wasn’t all I wanted. I still wanted to be able to share my thoughts and musings in more public forums. Those first couple years of grad school were tough. I really lost myself trying to prove I could do things the way the rigid system wanted me to without understanding that I was not built to operate in that way. My mind wanted a freedom incompatible with the “intellectual freedom” the Academy performatively offers. And most importantly, I wasn’t happy.

But 2018 was a year that gave some answers. I found my place in Black Digital Humanities and let myself be inspired and guided by the Black women scholars who existed as a constellation of possibilities: public work, digital humanities, history, Black feminist thought, art. I realized it didn’t have to be either or. I could do what I wanted to do and the Academy would just have to deal with it, or I would make another space.

That confidence helped me ease back into writing publicly. After my comprehensive exams, I wanted to read absolutely nothing for months. So I wrote instead. And from about June 2019-June 2020, I wrote three fiction manuscripts: two novels and a graphic novel script. I couldn’t stop because this was what felt right.

So I chased that feeling.

Which was how I found myself pitching shorter stories about love and Black feminism and digital things. I started following the sound of the stories that were on my heart and let them lead.

After a year of following stories, I think I can safely say that my lane is an interesting sort of mix of cultural criticism and memoir. While I love everything I’ve produced over the past year, I’m proudest of the two personal essays I wrote for Catapult, How a Black Girl Learned to Fly” and “How Legend of Korra Gave a Big Black Girl Permission to Be Broken.” I can’t totally explain why…but these pieces feel like the closest I’ll ever get to flying my own self (to paraphrase Toni Morrison).

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I think I needed to do this reflection because recently I’ve been feeling so stressed and tired and ready to quit writing. Being on submission is truly not for the faint of heart.

And though so much is still hanging in the balance, and with so much still to come, I don’t think I’ve fully taken a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come already.

Even though I’m not where I want to be yet, I think back to who I was at twenty-one and know that girl would look at me with awe in her eyes, full of hope and pride.

Who am I to deny myself a genuine moment of gratitude for the road I am traveling, truly walking by faith and not by sight?

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.

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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.