Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3

Branch Out: Round Three

If you’ve been following along with my journey, you’ll know that I have managed to be involved with the Lemon Project Branch Out Alternative Break every year since I got to William & Mary. My first year I was just a tagalong, helping my colleague run the trip. Last year, I co-ran the trip. And this year? This year was the first time I’ve ever taught it mostly on my own.

First things first–what is Branch Out? They’re service trips held during school breaks. Typically, students travel somewhere, but the Lemon Project trip is held on campus for three days the weekend before classes start. Our trip is less of a service trip, and more of a public history and social justice oriented project. As part of the Lemon Project’s goal is to have people think critically about the College’s and the greater Tidewater area’s relationship to slavery, Jim Crow and their legacies, it is always important to have the Branch Out trip reflect those goals.

What do we do? There’s usually one big project that the students work on over the course of three days. We break the project down into smaller, more manageable sections for the students to tackle in groups. In 2017, we did a critical analysis of race in the College’s newspaper, The Flat Hat, over the course of a hundred years, hosted on an Omeka site. In 2018, we created another Omeka exhibit analyzing space and place at William & Mary as told by the Legacy 3, the first three residential African American students at the College. This year, we created an exhibit using your average wordpress site, which brought a critical lens to all the commemorations that have been floating around the College and the greater Williamsburg area in the last few years. The students wrote essays on the 1619 commemoration, the 100th year anniversary of co-education at William & Mary, the 50th year anniversary of residential African American students, the Rowe presidency and the memorial to the enslaved the College is currently working on. In addition, they also created accompanying syllabi for how they would teach these topics.

Yes, they did this in three days.

When I sat in the History Grad Lounge on Saturday morning and walked the students through what I wanted them to do by Monday afternoon, their eyes grew wide and round as teacup saucers. I could feel their desire to ask me if I was crazy. They had every right to: it was a tall order.

And yet, they did it.

With the help of Dr. Vineeta Singh, I set up the weekend to give them as much guidance as I could. We brought in speakers to talk about each of the five topics; everyone from a First African Fellow at Jamestown, to President Rowe herself. Vineeta led what I consider to be one of the most useful workshops on building a radical syllabus. We even had some fun participating in a local peaceful protest called Moral Mondays led by Dr. John Whitley, a local activist.

In the afternoons, they worked. They conducted research, wrote their essays, created syllabi, peer reviewed each other’s work, and finally loaded everything into the WordPress site on Monday afternoon. They worked down to the wire and I hope they’re proud of everything they accomplished in just three short days.

Most importantly, for me, is that they all seemed to bond over their work; spending time having side conversations unrelated to the project, over dinners and lunches and goofing around in the evenings. I hope they look back on this project not only with a sense of pride, but fondness as well.

To Brendan, Angela, Emily, Sharon, Meg, Matthew, Kam, Jioni, Isa, Kelsey, Lex and Abby–

You know, my first semester of grad school, I thought frequently about leaving. Then, the day before Branch Out 2017, I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was asked to help out, and I fell in love. I think my love of this particular project stems from the students. You all come to Branch Out because you want to– not because of an area requirement, or needing those last three credits. You genuinely want to know more about the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow at the college you call home. You want to have a full understanding of this place, complicated and gut-wrenching though it may be. I admire your collective work ethic, curiosity, and enthusiasm for your work. In all honesty, the energy that the Lemon Project Branch Out students have brought to the table each year keeps me going. The work that you do inspires me. Students like you all make my passion for teaching shine so much brighter. Each one of you is so precious to me, and I look forward to seeing what you do to make this world a better place.

Thank you so much for making what was probably my last Branch Out trip so wonderful.

With all my love,

Ravynn

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 14: My Scholarly Philosophy

I often ask myself what type of scholar I want to be, and not in a hypothetical way. I ask myself this question so that I can think through how I write, for whom I write, and why I write. I ask myself this so that my scholarship matches the way in which I live my life, so I’m not just words, but so that I live my beliefs as well. I also ask myself this so that I know how I will orient myself in my classrooms and how I will approach teaching my future students.

In order to figure out what type of scholar I want to be, I often look to senior scholars for examples. This process was admittedly very stressful at the start of my graduate school career because I was not sure how I wanted to market myself as a scholar. As time has gone by, the more experience I get, the more I read, and the more people I interact with, the more I can add to my “scholarly philosophy,” or my personal approach to scholarship and how I will maneuver the Academy.

This time when I asked myself what type of scholar I want to be, it was a direct response to reading Dr. Roopika Risam’s new book, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. The arguments themselves were compelling, but I found myself captivated by her methodology. As advertised, the book was indeed equal parts theory to praxis to pedagogy, and I found this endeavor to be postcolonial in and of itself. I admired the way she took care with her terms, sacrificing no nuance in her quest for clarity and readability, something I am to do myself. In the book’s orientation towards both postcolonial scholars and digital humanities scholars, arguments had to be clear to both audiences, resulting in using many rich examples of digital humanities projects which do postcolonial work to illustrate her point. For me, the high point of the text was the chapter on pedagogy, which offered very tangible ways to bring the postcolonial and the digital into classrooms to spoke to my heart, such as using comics, editing Wikipedia pages, creating podcasts and social media pages for characters from books. Risam ends with a “Call to Action:” a cautiously hopeful rallying cry, which I heard and took to heart. In her work, Dr. Risam gave me a model for the type of scholarship I ultimately would like to do.

I want to write scholarship that is rigorous, but still accessible.

I want to cultivate a dynamic classroom environment in which my students feel safe to question, learn, grow and create.

I never want to be trapped by my own words; that is to say, I want to build infrastructure to change the way we think about higher education and knowledge production and its dissemination, not just write about change.

I want to engage in critical making as it pertains to world building in the real world. I want to create communities, scholarly and otherwise, where people are cared for and nurtured.

I want to be an advocate for my students.

Fortunately, I have had a whole host of good examples of scholars who have shown me how to do the work I desire. Dr. Roopika Risam gave me a model of how to write book that does that work. Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson has shown me how to think critically about citational politics; how to express gratitude for everyone and everything that has impacted your thinking. Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Dr. Lynn Weiss have shown me how to truly care for students. Dr. Liz Losh has shown me good mentorship, how to organize a careful syllabus, and how to think ahead.

Thanks to them, I look forward to creating classes which incorporate theory, guest speakers, project analysis and critical making; classes that experiment; and which take input from the students. I am already looking forward to teaching an Afrofuturism class that draws from literature, film, comics and music, while employing digital humanities final project ideas. I aim to be firm but reasonable, rigorous but kind in the classroom. My goal with teaching will not only be to teach my students the content, but to also have them consider new ways of showcasing that knowledge. There will always be something to be said for a well-written paper, but why does knowledge production and dissemination have to know bounds when the content defies imagination?

I will write the traditional dissertation so that one day I can advocate for the grad student that wants to write a novel, create a digital humanities project, or start a nonprofit for their degree. But this is not to say that my dissertation will not have a signature Ravynn flair.

I will find a way to not only write peer reviewed articles but fiction as well, and I will start that magazine. Making art, not just analyzing it, is going to be a critical part of my praxis.

I am going to get through this doctoral program and I am going to demystify this process for those that come after me. Assuming I work with graduate students, I am going to be the mentor that asks my students to co-author with me, that helps them network with my peers, that sits down with them and helps them chart a trajectory through grad school. And assuming I work with undergrads, I am going to hope that they leave my classroom better than they did before walking in.

It comes down to this: while I was preparing my comps lists, I showed my dad what I was working on. After the shock of seeing that I had to read nearly 300 books in less than a year wore off, he asked me, “Is reading these books going to make you a better person?” I hesitated because the truth was, I knew this process was going to make me smarter, but ultimately he wanted to know if this would help me become a good person. So, I told him the truth: “I hope so.”

The truth is I just want to be a good person that does some good in this world. I hope having a philosophy for how I will approach my chosen career path will help me do just that.