Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 2, Scene 2

Week 4, or Meeting Henry Jenkins

One of my favorite things about being in grad school is getting to meet people. Through conferences, public seminars and video calls, I’ve gotten to meet amazing people, including quite a few authors whose work I’ve come across in course work. Within just the last two weeks, I’ve been able to talk with Dr. Johnnetta Cole (a post about that experience can be found here) and, this past week, Dr. Henry Jenkins.

I first encountered Henry Jenkins’s work as an undergrad in a required critical theory course for my Comparative Literature major at the University of Virginia. After stuffing my head full of Althusser, Freud, and Barthes all semester, I distinctly remember finally being able to breathe– I could finally read an article once and get the gist of it. Not only did I understand, I was enthralled by his discussion of fan culture. As an avid Tumblr user at the time, I didn’t know that there were people who studied and talked about communities in which I belonged. Jenkins was my key to understanding that not everything academic had to be dense and difficult to engage.

My second encounter with Jenkins’s work was just last semester in my New Media, Old Media class, in which we read Convergence Culture. As we read through case studies of collective participation through Survivor spoilers and political activism through Harry Potter, I found myself again utterly inspired by the clarity of Jenkins’s prose and the innovativeness of his ideas. My ideas were no longer an island. Through Jenkins I found a way to ground my work and a model for moving forward.

Getting to meet Dr. Jenkins in person, therefore, was quite an experience. Liz Losh, my professor and mentor through the Equality Lab, arranged for a group of us to have a private lunch with Dr. Jenkins, during which we had an informal conversation. The conversation produced questions such as how do you stay true to yourself as you pursue work as a scholar? How do you withstand disappointment and critique? Do you have any writing tips? All questions to which Jenkins had generous and “therapeutic” answers. He told us all writing is rewriting, encouraged us to write with colleagues and develop an online presence. He told us about his personal experiences with being openly and somewhat hostilely critiqued and encouraged us to take a high road– engage, cautiously, and look for points of commonality and misunderstanding rather than investing yourself in a counter attack. And most importantly, I think, he encouraged us to think of doing interdisciplinary work as “undisciplined,” in the best way. This means that we should not limit ourselves based on discipline but follow our interests as far as they take us, borrowing from whatever toolkits we have available, using whomever we find inspiring, to come up with exciting new ideas. Strictly following the rules of any one discipline will only get us so far. We are the intellectual entrepreneurs. We are the undisciplined.

That night, after the excellent lunch, I attended Jenkins’s public lecture in which he discussed the civic imagination, its functions and results. It was a multifaceted presentation which drew from a broad range of sources: from Foucault to Stuart Hall, Superman to J. K. Rowling, Black Panther to Ms. Marvel. In essence, the talk encouraged us, the audience, to think of the civic imagination as something that can help better the world: it can help us imagine a process of change, imagine the self as a civic agent, and imagine the experiences and perspectives of others. This is what helps us go out into the world and create better futures based on what we have imagined.

Dr. Henry Jenkins is a self-proclaimed optimist. It was refreshing to encounter someone so celebratory after learning to do nothing but critique for a year and a half. He’s inspired me not to give up on my ambition to become a public intellectual, because public-facing academics are what we need. He reminded me to think of the real root of the word that will become my career: professor, or one who professes. Knowledge is not mine to hoard but something which I profess. Now that is something I can believe in.

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 2, or Meeting Johnnetta Cole

Meeting Dr. Johnnetta Cole was the highlight of what might have otherwise been a very sad week. I ended up walking twenty minutes to class on Tuesday morning in torrential rainfall, and the feeling of being wet and angry did not dissipate until Thursday, when I remembered that class had been cancelled for that afternoon.

Just the day before, at a meeting I attended with primarily anthropology graduate students, the group’s advisor mentioned that Johnetta Cole would be hanging out with him in the afternoon before her Martin Luther King, Jr. keynote address later Thursday night and that we were welcome to drop in and say hello. As the group and I had read Dr. Cole’s work the previous semester, watched a documentary on Herskovits which featured her, and talked about her work as an activist scholar, I knew immediately how I wanted to spend my Thursday afternoon off from class.

Meeting her in an intimate setting was a lovely experience. She simply had to know everything about you and made it her mission to listen to our stories. However, she also had a way of getting to your core; the first thing she asked me, after my name and what sort of work I did, was where I saw myself in ten years.

Of the four of us, she turned to me first, and “Tenure-track in English or American Studies” sprung from my lips before I even realized I had said it. I qualified it, saying that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing and the Academy offered an unprecedented amount of creative freedom (comparative to many other jobs), but I also mentioned that it was my ambition to start a magazine someday. She smiled at me gently, approvingly and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Indeed, I had. I have host of things I want to get done in this lifetime, so I’ve got to plan accordingly.

Before long, our audience with Dr. Cole was over, and my colleagues and I left the room, feeling inspired, and in my case, heard. For all her many achievements, being a professor, a president of college, a director of a museum, she was grounded and it was so easy to talk to her. Despite only knowing her for a few moments, she felt like a favorite teacher who had known me my whole life.

Dr. Cole’s evening talk was riveting; she has such a striking stage presence. Before she even got into her address, she made a point to thank everyone who had been a part of helping her to come to William & Mary, and talked about the wonderful day she’d had. The highlight of said day, she told the crowd, was getting to spend time with her “star student,” our advisor, and his four students. I swelled with pride from my corner of the auditorium: I was one of those four students. She called us her “grand-students,” and the same warmth I had felt from her in the classroom spread into the massive auditorium. Then, she began her address, thinking about how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would feel about today’s issues. She drew not only from Dr. King but from his wife Coretta as well because Coretta had her own vision of peace and justice. She called on the crowd to affect change using a three word approach: educate, legislate and agitate. Dr. Cole reminded us that our responsibility was to speak the truth as we see it, for it matters not where we stand in moments of comfort, but rather where we “stand in moments of challenge and controversy” (Dr. King). Honoring the legacy of the freedom fighters before us means that we need to refuse to be satisfied, Dr. Cole told us. We need to fight the way of the current syllabus which is too often only “Western, white, and womanless.” Most importantly, she called on us to do the work necessary.

Meeting Dr. Cole and hearing her words made me think about my place in all of this: Am I doing the work? Am I refusing the be satisfied? Am I speaking truth as I see it? I think, perhaps, I’m trying to; I’m making a solid attempt, but I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done so far. It’s not enough. In terms of affecting change, I’ve chosen my approach, to educate, but I do little with legislating and agitating. Is it enough to chose one path, or do you need to do all three? I think a good change-maker does a little of everything. Meeting Dr. Cole has made me ask myself: what can I do to affect change?

I may not know yet, but I do thank Dr. Cole for sparking the thought.