Category Archives: Projects

#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,

Ravynn

5 Tips and Tricks for Planning and Executing a Research Trip

As I type this, I am on my way back home from a four day long research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Really, it was only two days because I spent most of days 1 and 4 sitting on a train.) I’ve had the entire train ride to think about my trip and I decided that I wanted discuss how to plan and execute a successful research trip by reviewing what went really wrong and what went so very right. So here are a few steps (which are not necessarily in order) to a good research trip:

Step 1: Decide on a research topic.

My topic (which I won’t discuss in detail because I am trying my hardest not to scoop myself) sort of fell into my lap– a classmate sent me an article about an African American Black Panther comic book artist whose granddaughter lives in Williamsburg– and everything sort of snowballed from there into a huge project that I’ve been working on ever since.

Step 2: Figure out where your sources are.

I found out that some of the artist’s materials could be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Before I had even really decided to make this trip, I started imagining how I could get my hands on those documents. Once you start fantasizing about materials, you know you’re working on the right project.

Step 3: Make the decision to go.

I know this sounds obvious but I had to actively make up my mind to go on this research trip and decide that I would do whatever I had to do to see those materials, even if it meant doing a solo trip.

Step 4: Apply for funds.

I applied for funding through my program. PROTIP: If you think one source may not be able to cover all the costs of your trip, apply for funding from more than one outlet. Actually, just do it anyway.

Applying for the funding was the easy part: I budgeted how much it would cost for a round-trip train ticket, a metro pass, food and a room. ROOKIE MISTAKE: I did not include in my budget costs for reproductions. PROTIP: Always budget for reproductions. At the Schomburg, it was .25 cents per 8 x 11 page, but considering the nature of the documents I was looking at it, it would have been impossible to get enough money for all the reproductions I wanted anyway.

I anticipated that the whole trip would cost me $800. From the one source I applied to, I got $300. Fortunately, I had money from my fellowship that I had yet to use so I had a cushion. But had that not been the case, I would have very seriously reconsidered making the trip.

PROTIP: Be on the lookout for pockets of funding: apply through your program or department, apply through the university, leadership initiatives, through your graduate student association (just to name a few potential avenues.)

Step 5: Plan your trip!

This part includes the usual business: like booking a hotel room and securing your train ticket. For a research trip, however, you also need to plan your time in the archive, which means reaching out to the library or center where you’re going ahead of time to make an appointment. If you don’t know what materials you want to look out, reach out to a librarian for help looking for documents. If you do know what you want to see, compile a list and figure out what the appropriate avenue is for securing an appointment. At some places (like the VCU comic archive) they may prefer an e-mail, and at others (like the Schomburg) they may have an online form for you to fill out. In either case, make sure to include the location of the materials you would like to see, whether it’s a box number or a call number. If you don’t know, ask.

PROTIP: Librarians are amazing, usually very kind and always very knowledgeable.

PROTIP: Make sure to ask ahead of time if you can take photographs of the collections you want to see. I couldn’t, which sucked, but it also meant I didn’t have to lug my camera around.

Step 5a: Plan your (fun) trip!

Research trips are fantastic ways to explore parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet. Make sure to get your work done but, if you’re going to a place like NYC, always budget some time to do some fun things in the city too! My cousin and I spent afternoons in Central Park, visited the Met and caught up with some of my college friends.

Step 6: Go on your trip!

My trip was such a great experience. A family friend met us at the Amtrak station and took us back to it at the end of the trip, I saw two of my good friends from UVA, my cousin and I explored a little, ate some good food, and most importantly, I did a lot of good research. Even though I wasn’t able to take pictures, I did take about 9 single spaced pages of notes, from which I am planning on writing either a journal article or a conference paper.

Bonus: Find a travel buddy. (Optional)

If you, like me, find traveling alone daunting, see if you can find someone that would be down for the ride. Since I already had to book a hotel room, I offered my cousin the extra bed. All she had to do was pay her way. Having a buddy to pal around New York with was supremely fun.

After the trip…

After you’ve rested up from your adventure, spend some time looking through your notes from your visit. Write up more about your thoughts while on the materials while they’re fresh in your mind. Write a rough draft of something, a blog post, an outline, anything, but just write something so that you can refer to while writing up a more formal document.

Currently, I’m thinking about using the materials that I explored for the last few days to expand on a paper that I wrote last semester for my Histories of Race course and write an abstract for a conference or two. (I’m always happy to write a post about creating a successful conference abstract. Leave me a comment if you’d read that.)

I hope these tips and tricks help you plan your next research trip. Happy researching!

Week 9, or the Lemon Symposium, March 16-17, 2018

I love conferences. In fact, conferences are probably my favorite part of being an academic. However, it’s not just going to conferences that I like– it’s being a part of the university hosting them. I love welcoming people to my university who are here for intellectual conversations. It’s about the ideas that fly in a space other than a classroom setting and new people that give life to them. You have to admit, it can be tiring to throw around the same ideas with the same set of people. Conferences breathe new life into age old dilemmas, and you never know what the outcome of new conversations will be.

The most special thing about the Lemon Project, for me, is it’s commitment to the community. Community partners have always been welcomed to participate in the conversations we’re having at the College. So not only do I get a fresh set of intellectuals to meet and bond with but elders from my community to learn from as well.

Lemon Project Team: Sarah Thomas (Lemon Fellow), Jody Allen (Director), Ravynn Stringfield (Graduate Assistant)

Between the live tweeting, taking pictures, running the mic, directing people, and checking people in, it’s a miracle that I managed to find time to be in the moment and listen. There were two roundtables in particular that really stuck with me from the event. The first was “Desegregating Higher Education: Placing William & Mary in Historical Context,” which featured an array of people with whom I was honored to share a room: Lynn Briley and Janet Brown Strafer (two of the Legacy 3, the first residential African American students at William and Mary); Lillian Ashcroft-Easton (the first African American to receive a PhD in the History department); Michael Engs (an African American graduate of the class of ‘69); Sam Sadler (for whom the Sadler Center is named); and Ron Sims (an early African American professor and administrator in the 1980s). It struck me as they talked so eloquently about their experiences at the College that these were the people who had made it possible for me exist in this space. Thankfully, as Valarie Gray-Holmes would say, they left gate open for students like me. (Gray-Holmes is writer and performer of the one woman show, “The New Gatekeepers,” which was performed during the Lemon Symposium.)

The second roundtable that I have been mulling over was “Building the Legacy: Where Do We Go From Here?” It featured Jessica O’Brien (graduate of the College); Karen Ely (the last of the Legacy 3); Chon Glover (our Chief Diversity Officer); Sharron Gatling (a staff member in the Diversity office); and senior undergraduate student Taylor Jasper. The questions asked were difficult to answer and sometimes, for Glover especially, difficult to answer without personal investment and emotion getting in the way. They were asked questions like “What has W&M done to heal the racial divide?” and “What specifically should our next steps be when we look at issues of race and reconciliation?” The answers were varied. In terms of what William & Mary has done, chief among the responses was the implementation of the Task Force of Race and Race Relations and the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer. When thinking about what the next steps would be it seemed that everyone agreed that we have to move beyond the ceremonial and the low-hanging fruit, which is to say, we need to do the heavy lifting now. What exactly “the heavy lifting” will look like is unclear, but I think it’s safe to say it’s going to require more than renaming buildings and a year long celebration of the 50th anniversary of residential African Americans.

Artist Steve Prince discussing his work “A Bessie Stitch: 1948”

In addition to the fruitful conversations, I was particularly moved by all of the art that we had infused in this little symposium. We kicked off the weekend with an artist talk by Steve Prince, who spoke of African diasporic funeral traditions through art. The dirge, he argued, is the slow, sad, emotionally evocative first line, and what we need to get to is what’s called the “Second Line,” the music which celebrates life and helps us heal and move forward. He peppered his talk with images from his own beautiful work and helped the audience see his message within them. Then he held an artist workshop to create a collaborative work celebrating Mr. Lemon, for whom our project is named. (I unfortunately did not attend.) Finally, we ended the day with Gray-Holmes play, “The New Gatekeepers,” which I found as moving as the piece she performed in August 2017 at the mural unveiling in Swem Library which kicked off the 50th celebration. Gray-Holmes told the story of a woman from the Tidewater area in 1959 who witnessed the integration of William & Mary, whose grandson who had dreams of going to college, and how integration looked across the changing landscape of our country.

Ravynn Stringfield with Professor Nikki Giovanni

Of course, no discussion of this year’s Lemon Symposium would be complete without discussing the incredible keynote by Professor Nikki Giovanni. Nikki Giovanni came to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s as a Black Arts Movement poet, thrilling readers with earthy but vibrant, compassionate yet revolutionary poetry. Yesterday, Giovanni celebrated the Lemon Project with us, spoke of the process by which Africans came to be enslaved and were carried to America, describing it as a process which involved no longer recognizing clouds and thus knowing this land would be different. This was the first time I had ever heard enslavement described in this way– only Nikki Giovanni could get me to consider clouds as a system of meaning. She performed her legendary poem “Ego Tripping” at the request of Professor Jacquelyn McLendon, explained her theories about outer space and finding new life out there, and also thrilled us all by explaining that she believed “everything used to be somebody someone loved.” She is a tiny human full of these incredible ideas that she believes in so fully that I find myself convinced that there is life on other planets and that my precious laurel wreath ring used to be someone’s beloved aunt.

This year’s Symposium was amazing. The conversations were impactful, there was amazing audience participation, the art was inspired, and I got to meet some truly incredible people. To think, this isn’t even a complete summary of every single thing that happened, because I’d have to write a short book to do that. But I wanted to take some time to reflect on the dialogue that I had the fortune to be a part of these last two days because the questions we asked were important and the answers to those questions? Critical. I’m not sure what my role is going to be moving forward, but at least I’m beginning to think about my own answers to the questions that were raised.