Category Archives: Projects

Black Girl Learns to Code: “Computing for the Humanities”

William & Mary offers a week long, no credit course for graduate students called “Computing for the Humanities.” If you remember, I spent time last semester in community with Black digital humanities scholars at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” and then spent a lot of time afterwards trying to understand how my own work fit into this larger conversation about the digital. So naturally, after deciding that my scholarship fit into this conversation about digital humanities, the next step was to then increase my knowledge of the field. I was already enrolled in a Digital Humanities (DH) course, but I wanted more. I wanted to learn how to code.

So I signed up for “Computing for the Humanities” not really knowing what to expect. After the week long course was over, I was surprised at how much I had learned. Professor Deverick was kind and patient with us as we learned the basics of computing, built on those foundations, and then used the skills he equipped us with to solve our own problems. One of the most successful aspects of the course was that we spent a lot of time applying the programs we were learning to run to our own data sets; it was hands on in the best way. There was very little time spent lecturing, though Professor Deverick was very careful to explain what was happening in each line of code, which I found particularly useful as it made it much easier to replicate the example with my own data.

Each day was different, but followed the same pattern: in the mornings, we learned how to execute a program, what each of the components meant, walked through each piece together, and answered questions and attempted to problem solve. We learned how to create HTML web pages, how to scrape web pages for information, how to work with tabular data, how to create and run an Optical Character Recognition program in python, how to create visualizations, how to map things and we even had a tutorial on social media and how to scrape Twitter. Then, in the afternoons, we were set free to try our hand at executing the same program on our own data. So when we learned how to scrape web pages, I spent the afternoon collecting a CSV (comma-separated values) file full of information on my Black Girl Does Grad School posts; I created one spreadsheet collecting the title and dates of all of my posts and then another of all of the my guest posts. On the day we learned to do OCR, I spent the afternoon (unsuccessfully) trying to teach my program to read comic book pages. And on the day we did some work on social media, I was able pull down 3,200 of my own tweets and then see how many of them included references to my friend Micah (LOL).

The feeling of successfully creating a code and seeing it run properly is unparalleled. I was always so pleasantly surprised when anything ran correctly, and was always brimming with pride when visualizations popped up or when I was able to write a code (almost) on my own. Part of why I loved doing this work is the feeling of gratification when you have solved a problem. I think you have to be willing to fail, and be okay with failing, in order to work with computer programming. Yet, I think it’s more than being okay with failing– I think it’s more about a willingness to try and try again. It’s about a willingness to try a different way to the solution. It’s about problem solving and thinking on your feet. It’s such a creative enterprise and deeply artistic in many ways.

I love any type of project where I can show my results to my parents in a way in which they value. So for me to be able to show my dad my visualizations and my code and talk to him about what I had accomplished each day, was such a valuable experience for me.

At this particular moment in time, I’m not sure how much I will delve into programming on my own, but I know I want to try and create something, which is a pretty typical Ravynn move. If there’s anything I love, it’s making things. And the skills that I gained at “Computing for the Humanities” just gave me more tools for my arsenal. I can’t wait to see what I create.

Additionally, I just want to give a shout out to the undergraduate TAs for the course, Meg and Ali, who were wonderful and so helpful the entire week. Both of them sat with me at different junctures and walked me through how to do cool things with my information and I absolutely would not have been able to do so without them.

Week 5: Monuments and Memorialization

As a fully funded Ph.D. student, I have to work an assistantship that the school provides in exchange for my stipend. As some of you may know, this is my second year working on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation for my assistantship. The Lemon Project is a multi-pronged approach to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans by the College of William & Mary through action or inaction. We do research on slavery and Jim Crow segregation at the College and in the surrounding Williamsburg area, as well as work on the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow; community outreach; and student engagement. Our programming for the community and students includes Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks, informal conversations about numerous topics; our biannual Drum Circles, a stress reliever event; an annual Symposium, which is comprised of scholars and community members alike; Donning of the Kente, a graduation celebration; and Branch Out, a three-day intensive “trip” in which students produce some type of project based on research about African Americans at William & Mary.

I love the Lemon Project. I love the work we do, how we do it and the community of scholars and peers I have because of my work with the Lemon Project. I particularly love the relationships I have built with students because of their interest in the project; it has been so gratifying to see some of the students that I had on my first Branch Out trip in 2017 now becoming some of the biggest supporters of the Lemon Project on campus.

It is with great pride that I get to take part in another momentous occasion in our campus’ history because of Lemon. When the Lemon Project was created, part of the resolution called not only for the creation of the Lemon Project which would do some of this corrective labor, but also for a memorial to the enslaved at the College. This August, the dream of the memorial finally came to fruition, at least in the first stages. The College announced a contest that will run until October 12th to solicit ideas for the memorial. Anyone with an idea can enter, no artistic skill required.

In an attempt to drum up conversation about the contest and memorial, the Lemon Project recently held a Porch Talk entitled, “William & Mary’s Monumental Moment,” a conversation led and facilitated by the director of the Project, Dr. Jody Allen, and history professor, Dr. Jerry Watkins, III.

Truth be told, I am not one to think much about monuments and memorialization. If I had to guess, I think it’s because they feel so stagnant. Depending on the size, placement and type, monuments can be dismissed and ignored. A monument often feels like an object that you have a solemn moment before, and then move on about your day, utterly unchanged by having experienced it. You can’t carry it with you.

But this ongoing conversation we are having at my university about monuments and memorialization is making me come to terms with what I do think is valuable memorialization.

Personally, I find value in so-called living memorials, like scholarships. At the University of Virginia, I was the recipient of a Ridley Scholarship, named for the first African American graduate of the University, receiving a doctorate in education from the Curry School. While I was at UVA, I was so aware that I was carrying on this man’s legacy. I made sure to learn everything I could about him, I tried to foster community amongst the scholars to make UVA a welcoming place for future generations of students, and I proudly worked for the Ridley Scholarship organization for two years, attempting to bring honor to the name I was representing. Despite having spent considerable time away from UVA, I still consider it one of the biggest honors of my life to have been a Ridley Scholar.

I want that feeling for William & Mary African American students. I want there to be students proudly carrying on Lemon’s legacy, thinking about him every day and recognizing he, and so many others, made it possible for them to inhabit this space.

Of course, you can’t make students feel pride, or a sense of responsibility to a name or a place, but I do feel that living memorials are an effective way to see the fruits of one’s legacy every day.

There was a student at the Porch Talk who felt that in addition to a memorial, we should strive for a building or space memorialized for Lemon, to which Black students and minorities would have access. Again, coming from UVA, where we did have the Office of African American Affairs (OAAA), I think having a space specifically for African American students is integral to their continued success on this campus. It’s not enough to have scholarships to attract students of color to our campus, but we need to have systems in place to support them once they get here.

The conclusion that I have come to is that it is not enough for me to have a physical memorial. I want a physical memorial and a physical space for African American students and a living memorial in the form of scholarships. I don’t think that retribution can fully be paid with a slab of stone. (Just an example; the parameters of the contest make it clear that the monument could be anything.) I don’t think that it is enough to rename a dormitory in the name of a man our school enslaved. I believe those are steps to take and they’re important, but I want us to go above and beyond.

I know that just having a memorial is a huge step for our school; coming on the heels of the College’s apology for slavery, this is their first move forward. I hope that the judges of the contest and our College’s President pay particular attention to the voices of Black students and community members in what they want for this monument and what they want to use it for. This is what everyone has been waiting for; I hope they don’t disappoint.

#KeioChronicles: What I Learned From Teaching Japanese Students

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I had been tweeting using the hashtag #KeioChronicles. This summer (as I did last summer), I was one of three Course Instructors for the Keio/William & Mary Cross Cultural Collaboration. Japanese students from Keio University come to William & Mary for a two week program, which involved lectures on American culture from W&M faculty, dialogue classes, or discussion sections, led by Course Instructors, and group research projects that focus on some aspect of cross-cultural analysis. In addition to all of this, we also took the students on cultural “experiences,” some of which included going to the beach, experiencing American consumption at the Williamsburg Outlets, and attending a baseball game.

My primary role was to lead my class in discussion of the lectures that we had. I helped them formulate questions and did my best to answer them, or at least help them direct their questions to the lecturer of the day, who visited each dialogue class for about fifteen minutes. I was also responsible for grading my students on their participation in class, on the journal entries that they write throughout the program, and on their final research project presentations. And, as if that were not enough, I also drove the vans for the program to get the students from place to place. (We’re talking huge 12 passenger vans.)

I always learn a lot from participating in Keio, whether it be from watching their final presentations, which included topics ranging from the types of ties worn by politicians in American and Japan to differences in elementary education in the two countries, or in my everyday interactions with the students, like taking them to Chick-fil-A for the first time. Last year was particularly heavy because I had to learn how to teach through a tragedy as it was happening. I had to keep it together while white supremacists marched on my former home of Charlottesville. I had to try not to cry when I heard the news that one of them had driven a car into a crowd of people, killing a young woman. But most importantly, I had to learn how to turn tragedy into a teachable moment when it felt like my world was falling apart.

So upon finishing this round of the program, it felt appropriate to come up with a list of things I’ve learned from Keio, my students, and teaching this year.

  1. I learned how to take a bad review. Bad reviews are a part of life, much like rejection, and at first, I’ll admit, reading it stung. In a way, a bad review is a type of rejection– something about your teaching style did not vibe with the writer of the review. I learned, however, not to take a bad review personally.
  2. I learned to not doubt myself. This is related to #1. After taking some time to assess my own work in the classroom, I wondered if someone had finally seen through me and called a spade, a spade. I wondered if I wasn’t knowledgeable. It took me sometime to realize that this wasn’t the case. One negative comment shouldn’t knock me off course. Especially when I had had such a positive impact on all the rest of my students. In fact, I’ll always cherish the kind words one of my students wrote in her journal entry about me and my teaching:
  3. I learned to take advantage of the fact that this is one of the rare moments I’ll be asked to teach something that is not my expertise. While we did have a class on race relations and digital humanities, which is totally my wheelhouse, we also had lectures on business and religion. I had to do a lot of reaching while leading class on these topics, but I chose to look at it as a learning opportunity for myself as well as for my students. I am on a career path that values life long learning, and teaching Keio is one of the few opportunities I have to take advantage of learning completely new things.
  4. I learned that explaining America is one of the toughest feats there is. The nature of this program calls on the Course Instructors to do a lot of explaining– why things are a certain way in American culture. A lot of the time I had to accept that I wouldn’t immediately know the answer; more often than not, they had to accept that the answer was not black and white. My Japanese students had to learn to accept ambiguity, theories, and speculation. I think they are used to being presented with knowledge as cold hard facts, things that cannot be disputed in anyway; I’ve come to discover that knowledge is nebulous and often what I know, even if it is a lot, is usually not the whole story.
  5. I learned as much from my students as they did from me. The questions they asked always kept me on my toes. If I didn’t know, I always challenged myself to find out the answer. They often helped me think about topics in a different way.

Teaching Keio was an adventure: every day was different, with a new topic and new questions. Even when I thought my students would struggle, they surprised me by being engaged, asking amazing questions, and sharing insightful thoughts. They brought a good energy to my class and we learned together in an environment that held as many laughs as thought provoking conversation. Teaching foreign students is truthfully not that different from teaching students from your own country. The main difference is that while teaching students from a different country, you will be forced to reckon with much more of what you take for granted. The very things you accept as true are the things they will want to know more about. The very fabric of your existence, they may know nothing about: I got blank stares when I asked them about whether they had heard of #BlackLivesMatter but they all nodded when I mentioned #MeToo. Suddenly, I was forced to explain a movement in detail that has become the backdrop of my life since 2014 so they could understand the necessity of such a force. I taught them about my America, and in return they attempted to explain Japan to me: why they had heard of #MeToo and not #BlackLivesMatter, whether or not gentrification or some equivalent existed in Japan, and generally why more people don’t protest in Japan. One of my students brought a wonderful Japanese expression to my attention: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

But it was more than just being in the classroom together that brought me joy: it was the moments of watching my students master ordering food at restaurants and trying the spiciest wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. It was our spur of the moment Target trip after lunch, all of our van rides together, and hearing Japanese mixed with English. It was the big things like watching my students dance and sing with unbridled enthusiasm at the Talent Show; it was the little moments like their smiles as they read the notes I wrote them when it was time to say goodbye and all of the pictures we took together that night.

To the Red Dialogue Class–

Thank you for your time and attention. I wish you the best in all your future endeavours.

Love from your teacher,