Category Archives: Projects

Week 3, or Student Activism

One of the best things about my life as an American Studies graduate student this year is my role as an assistant to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. I’ve written about the Branch Out Alternative Break that I’ve done with the Lemon Project, yet never about the other responsibilities that I have. As a project committed to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College of William & Mary, we bridge the gap between the College, community members and the greater Tidewater area through research, community outreach and student engagement. We are responsible for putting together an annual report on the Lemon Project’s findings and other engagements, putting on an annual Symposium, organizing a Alternative Break trip that is public history oriented, and orchestrating a couple of smaller gatherings (Porch Talks) every semester.

The idea behind the Porch Talks is that they would be informal gatherings where you learn from your elders. The topics would be pertinent to the Lemon Project’s mission or things that are relevant to the College or community. I was deeply excited for the first Porch Talk of this semester on Student Activism because it was my brain child. The Lemon Project team went to a symposium on slavery last fall at the University of Virginia, where my coworker, Sarah and I, attended a panel on the removal of Confederate monuments at Clemson University. One of the panelists, an undergraduate student named Khayla Williams, stood out to us. Passionate, quick-witted, and oh so smart, Khayla was the portrait of successful student activism. As we listened to her story about how a group of students at Clemson had staged a ten day sit-in (now referred to as the Sikes Sit-In) and how the administration had begun to listen afterwards, we knew her experiences and her story might be a valuable one for student activists at William & Mary to hear.

After the panel, I gave her my card and she e-mailed me, which began a steady stream of correspondence in which we arranged for her to visit the College to give a talk similar to the one she had given at UVA.

Before I knew it, February 1st was here and I was eagerly awaiting her arrival for her talk that evening. 5 o’clock came and I was astounded at the turn out. We had amassed a substantial crowd of around twenty or so people primarily composed of undergraduate students, an atypical make up for Lemon Project Porch Talks. After I introduced Khayla, I sat with my camera out, ready to take the occasional photograph, when suddenly, I found myself enthralled by her words, eagerly taking in every bit. She spoke about herself, how she came to activism, how the term activist was strange to use to describe herself, yet one that she accepted. She spoke about Clemson, about the culture, about the Sikes Sit-In. And she spoke about what they did after the Sit-In to keep the momentum going. Her suggestions were encouraging and manageable. Khayla suggested that first, we continue to talk about the event after it happens. Educate younger students about how and why protests have occurred so they can pick up where you left off. She suggested, second, to work in teams. You need a variety of people to make a movement happen. And finally, she reminded us to make it bigger than a one organization problem. An incident of racism shouldn’t just be a BSO problem– it should be a school wide problem. Make it so.

I was impressed with how she commanded space so easily and how conversational her talk was. It flowed neatly into a workshop, where she came prepared by looking into incidents which had happened at William & Mary and helped students work through how they could then organize to address these problems. Her suggestions were primarily based on things which had worked at Clemson: a sexual assault alert system, making demands of the administration, keeping a record– but that was the key, these things had worked. I hoped the students in attendance understood her point that her suggestions were “not a blueprint” but also understood that these were actionable things.

I’m glad William & Mary students got a chance to meet Khayla. Sometimes it’s nice to have a fresh pair of eyes on your situation to give you some perspective. I don’t think Khayla gave them any answers (though she never claimed to, and at any rate who could?) but I do think she gave them something to consider as they move forward onto whatever their next activist project may be and, hopefully, some perspective.

I dropped her off at the airport after passing an amicable hour alternatively chatting and humming to the radio. As she walked through the doors, I found myself thinking about how much I learn outside of the classroom and from people who aren’t my professors. I’m so grateful for my assistantship with the Lemon Project, which forces me think critically in a different way and has brought me so many teachable moments.

Week 1, or “Branching Out” and Growing Up

This post marks the beginning of my fourth– yes, fourth— semester at the College of William & Mary. Before I know it, this semester will have flown by and then I will be standing at the precipice of my last semester of coursework in the fall.

This semester will be great. I’m speaking it into existence. I am currently enrolled in a Comics course, Histories of Race, and an independent study on Black Arts Movement literature. I’m bringing in a student activist from Clemson to speak at a Porch Talk for the Lemon Project. The Lemon Project 8th Annual Symposium will be in March. Johnetta Cole, Henry Jenkins, and Nikki Giovanni will all be coming to speak at the College this semester. And I had a paper accepted to a conference in April just a few days ago.

I already had an amazing start to the semester with Branch Out Lemon Project Alternative Break. If you don’t remember me raving about Branch Out, feel free to check out my post from last year’s trip. Students at William & Mary can sign up for Alternative Breaks, which are typically off-campus service trips– the Lemon Project Alternative Break is the only one held on campus. During the course of the weekend, the students learn about the Lemon Project, conduct their own original research and participate in a variety of other workshops. This year, as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of residential African American students at William & Mary, our project was timely: the students conducted interviews with the first residential African American students and created an Omeka exhibit based on their findings. (For a more detailed description of what went down, check out my article about the weekend on HASTAC.org.)

As amazing as the final product was, as happy as the students were with themselves, as much as they praised the trip afterwards, it was still extremely nerve wracking for me. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself– I love the Branch Out Trip. It’s been a highlight of both of my years at William & Mary. The problem was that the bar had been set exceedingly high for the trip because the Lemon assistant before me put her heart and soul into organizing a project that would be meaningful, productive and effective. I had a large pair of shoes to fill.

Through a few well timed pep talks with Adrienne, who helpfully tagged along for the entire weekend (you the best, Adrienne!), I came to realize that I was gripping onto the project too tight. I was taking any minor setback too personally. And I was doing it because I cared so much. I wanted the same effect, the same magic, that I had come to love from last year’s project. But in trying to recreate the magic, I neglected what unique skills I could bring to the table. I was trying too hard to teach in someone else’s comfort zone instead of my own.

I did some growing up last weekend. I realized that I don’t teach like anybody else– and that’s a good thing. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but there’s so much to be said for making your own path. I think the next time I try this, if there will be a next time, I’m going to not be so afraid to be myself. It was also encouraging to realize that despite all of the difficulties I was going through, the students didn’t see it. They thanked me for the trip and said all kinds of nice things about me as a person and as someone to look up to. One of the students spoke about me as if I were a role model for her but, little does she know, I feel it is the highest honor to know her at all. I’m proud of one of the site leaders for going from the quiet girl in the corner last year to the leader of the pack this year. And she still has two more years to go! Who knows where she’ll be by the time she’s a senior.

What these students don’t know is how much they are an inspiration to me. It brings me so much joy to be around people outside of my program, in particular undergrads who are so bright, intellectually curious and genuine. They make me laugh, they challenge me and make me want to work to be a better teacher for them.

If this was only week one, I can’t wait to see where I go from here.

Intermission, ft. KEIO!

After hustling through my first year of graduate school, trying my best to stay on top of deadlines and final papers, I had devoted very little time to thinking about potential summer endeavors. While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you’re pushed to find the best internships possible during the summer– and I, being completely and utterly myself, never had a summer internship. I was always just doing something else– studying abroad, working with Orientation for new students or sometimes just relaxing. I’ve never been particularly pressed about finding unpaid employment during my summer breaks, even to this day.

Nevertheless, I heard through the grapevine that American Studies graduate students often had the opportunity to work as Course Instructors for the Keio program. Simply put, the program is a “Cross-Cultural Collaboration,” in which the College of William and Mary hosts Japanese students from Keio University for two weeks, organizing a set of lectures on American culture for them, while also facilitating research projects on American/Japanese culture that they began back in Tokyo and taking them on trips to explore Williamsburg, the greater Tidewater Area, Richmond and for the last four days, we will be in Washington, D.C.

Fun fact about me: I’ve actually done a program very similar to this when I was in high school. I went to Princeton for ten days, was matched with a Japanese roommate/buddy, and while our roommates attended English classes, we spent our mornings learning about Japanese language and culture. Seven years later, it’s still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and I’m actually still good friends with one of the Japanese girls that lived in a suite with me. The experience seemed to have stuck, because I applied to work as an instructor for Keio and was excited about the opportunity to work with Japanese students again.

The end of my leisurely summer days of working at Michaels and writing my Masters thesis snuck up on me so quickly. I spent the end of July trying to piece together a Masters thesis draft to send to my advisor so she could take a look at it while I was doing Keio. After that got submitted (65 pages and 18,000 words later…), the start of Keio was staring me in the face. Our days are structured fairly simply. The Japanese students have breakfast, the course instructors (me) pick them up in 12 passenger vans and take them to class, they have a lecture by an American Studies professor or an ABD grad student, they break into Dialogue Class where CIs (me again) help clarify the lecture and facilitate discussion on the day’s themes. They go to lunch, then we drive them to the library, where they spend most of the afternoon working on their Focus Group Presentations. There are six groups (that are not the same as their Dialogue class) that have a different research topic and each group has a W&M undergrad to assist them with their work. They will present their findings (!!!) tomorrow actually, and I am presently killing time until my focus group is ready for me to listen to their presentation in preparation for tomorrow’s big day. Then, depending on the day, they might have free time for dinner, or dinner might be catered, and there are occasionally that go with the day’s lecture. One example was the two hours we spent dancing to a live jazz band on Wednesday night after the morning’s lecture on American music. Depending on the day’s events, we (the CIs) drop the students off at their hotels anywhere from 7 to 11 pm (sometimes later) and I go home and pass out before I have to get up and do it all over again.

It’s a lot of running around and doing logistics on the fly and driving around in vans that are closer to small buses than cars, but teaching my Dialogue class has been one of the most reward experiences I’ve had thus far with the program. I have eight students, one boy and seven girls, and they’re all fairly shy, with the exception of one of my girls, who’s always willing to share her opinions with me. Despite their initial shyness, my students are some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. They think very deeply about all the lectures we attend and even if they aren’t comfortable sharing verbally, they write journal/blog entries every few days on the lectures they attend, the experiences they’re having and any thoughts they might be having about American culture, so I get to hear from them all at the very least through those.

So far, they’ve been exposed to some really great topics, some of which are complicated even for professors and grad students, let alone Americans in general: we’ve had a lecture on an introduction to cultural studies, one on the social geography of Williamsburg and on gender and sexuality. We’ve heard about race relations in America, music, consumption and citizenship, and today, American food. One line that we can draw through all of the lectures is the presence of race and economic impact. My students were shocked to learn that everything in America is, or can be, racialized, even down to the food we eat. (Thinking, for example, about how Black Americans attempted to integrate food counters.) One of our lecturers and my fellow graduate student, Khanh, aptly said, “You can’t study anything in America’s history without talking about race.” I try my best not to shower them in my own opinions, but tell them enough about the history, the straight up facts, so that they can come up with their own opinions. When I’m not running from activity to activity, I’m usually posted up somewhere grading their journals and thinking about how, logistically, we’re going to get to the next point on our itinerary.

As it’s Friday, we’ve almost come to the end of the portion of the program that is in Williamsburg. On Monday, we’ll take a bus up to Washington D.C. and have the remainder of the program there, and they will depart either back to Japan or to other travel destinations on Friday morning from Dulles. I’m looking forward to D.C. mostly because I love having excuses to go into the city– I’d live in D.C. if I could. There will be a lot more freedom for everyone involved, because the students can go wherever they want on the metro or by bus. (Public transportation is so much more reliable in bigger cities; even in Charlottesville, traveling by bus wasn’t the worst thing in the world…most of the time, but in the sleepy suburbs of Virginia? Not so much.)

When everything’s said and done, almost any new experience is made unforgettable by the people you get to interact with, my relationships with my Japanese students and the William and Mary undergrads have really pulled me through. I mentally do an excited dance when one of my shiest students approaches me about a question she had that she didn’t want to ask in class. I spend a lot of time laughing and swapping stories with my most outgoing student, but also smiling at my one male student, who likes to just be a dork 9 times out of 10. Even though logistics for lunch and dinner are bananas most of the time, once I’m sitting with a group of students, I can’t help but enjoy myself. They’re so lively and everything is new and exciting for them– the energy is infectious. Not to mention, I’ve gotten close with a few of the American grads too. One boy is my “shade” partner in crime and I’ll never forget how I almost died laughing while dancing the cha-cha over-dramatically with my girl, Kate. These students are at the core of why I’ll have fond memories of this program. I’m so glad to have met them and after reflecting a little bit, I’m excited all over again to see what memorable gems this last week will hold.