Category Archives: Projects

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.

Week 1: Ravynn “Branches Out”

This Black girl doing grad school is back in action after a blissful month of zero obligation and yet, I find that I’m still not ready to face the harsh reality of another semester at school.

School was supposed to start this past week for me, but life didn’t want to cooperate. My friend and I showed up on the wrong day for our class we have together; the next day, I woke up to a message from one of my professors informing me that her entire course was cancelled; and to further mess with my schedule, the class which I had wrongly assumed was the day before, had been cancelled because the professor was battling a nasty bout of the flu.

Now, I’ve never had something like that happen to me– have an entire course get cancelled on me last minute. It was scary and stressful and quite frankly ruined my bullet journal. I spent most of Thursday sending e-mails and texts, and arranging meetings with professors to see if there was something I could take last minute. Finally, I managed to scrounge something together and my courses for this semester will be:

  1. Texts in African-American life since Reconstruction- a history course which promises to be interesting. At the very least, a solid quarter of the books have been on my reading list for a while and it never hurts to dig deeper into my Africana Studies side.
  2. Independent Study, Harlem in Vogue- reading some Harlem Renaissance lit, some criticism and hopefully putting together a bomb project for this class.
  3. Independent Study, New Women- reading some New Women lit. It’s not exactly me but fortunately it’s close enough to what I am interested in, plus writing a literary criticism paper will be useful practice for me considering I’d like my degree specialty to be in English.

You might have noted a bit of sarcasm and a hint of bitterness– it’s because being disciplinarily English and Africana Studies in an interdisciplinary program which emphasizes History is a struggle.

It’s no fault of the program’s or the school’s. We have a world renowned history department. Anyone who’s serious about American History for higher ed probably looked at William and Mary, particularly colonial history. Who wouldn’t want to take courses in a world renowned history department?

Well, me, I guess.

Honestly, history is far too white, far too male and far too rigid for the kind of work I want to do. Practically, taking more history courses does nothing for me when I hope to eventually be hired as an English professor (or at least in a position that lets me teach literature). Realistically, history matters most to me when it’s used to exact justice or when we learn our history to inform the path we take forward.

History matters to me when it’s active. For example, the Lemon Project Branch Out Trip.

Last Friday, I was minding my own business while my friend took a call as we walked through campus together. She was getting ready for this three day intensive retreat that was supposed to kick off Saturday morning, and she’d been fielding e-mails, texts, and calls most of that afternoon. All of a sudden, I hear, “Oh…no, it’s okay…I can ask Ravynn or Adam if they’d like to fill in.”

After she got off the phone, she explained that her boss had gotten sick and she needed someone to help her lead the workshop. We did a little back and forth, but eventually, I agreed to do it, since I’d been planning to lead a mini workshop on Black Protest Art as a part of the retreat anyway.

The first day passed in a relative haze, as I did my best to remember names and act like I knew what was going on, but the second day brought almost all of the students out of their comfort zones. In the morning, after I gave my lecture on Black Protest Art, I gave them the opportunity to create something. Considering most education is a merit system which rewards regurgitation over an investment in the knowledge itself, it was no surprise the students were stunned that I had asked them to make something. It took a little pushing, a few quiet one on one conversations, and a little encouragement, but they slowly warmed to the idea. In the end, they spent more time than we’d anticipated sharing and explaining what they’d made, one student in particular was amazingly brave and vulnerable as she shared how her piece reflected her multi-faceted identity.

The afternoon continued to get tougher. The students watched 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the 13th Amendment, and it was…difficult. I noticed one of my girls disappeared well before the end of the film and wasn’t back when it ended, so I went on a mini quest to find her. When I did, the moment that we shared reaffirmed the reason I wanted to get my Ph.D. I wanted my degree for her. I want my degree so that I can be the professor that understands how hard it is to talk to a room full of white people about slavery and mass incarceration. In that moment, she needed me, a Black woman who had been in her shoes and who could cry with her because I, too, understand how heavy the burden is.

I honestly believe in lifting as we climb with all of my heart.

That moment was so powerful that I immediately cancelled my plans for the following day (I originally only signed up to help run 2 of the 3 day and had been planning to spend day 3 doing community service with the Black Law Students). I instinctively knew I needed to be there all three days.

Over the course of that three day retreat Ari walked them through history and taught them how to make it their own, I explained the legacy of Black expression and helped them create their own, and they learned that the best weapon they have in the fight to be better citizens is each other.

In just three days, they not only made strong bonds, but they completed bystander intervention training, they protested together at a weekly local event called Moral Mondays and created a digital exhibit which explores the College newspaper’s stances on race throughout the last hundred years.

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Lemon Project Branch Out students and facilitators at Moral Mondays; Photo credit: Zack Meredith
This kind of teaching also matters. The kind that engenders a kind, compassionate, empathetic, and creative type of student, whose thirst for knowledge comes from a desire other than an A on the next assignment. This is the kind of history lesson I’d be glad to teach for the rest of my life.