Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3

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.

Week 4: Comprehensive Exam Colloq

Two very important and exciting things happened this week:

First, I had a paper accepted to the Southeastern American Studies Association Conference in March! If you remember the secret project I was working on all spring, this is the fruits of that labor. I’ll explain more as I get closer to the presentation. I am particularly excited because the conference is going to be in Atlanta, a city I’ve never been to and am dying to see.

I also successfully completed my comprehensive exam colloquium. For those of you just joining me, the main purpose of the comprehensive exam colloquium is to meet with my committee members to ensure we are all on the same page about my exams, and to set a date for them. Mine will be April 29-May 3, 2019, with an oral exam on May 9th. As a refresher, you create three fields, one major, two minor, with the major field split into two lists, and you have a professor work with you on a list that represents each field. Altogether, I have four professors working with me; two on African American literature, one on African American History and one on Comics and Media Studies. At the colloquium, you set the final lists and you can’t change them; so at this point, you can officially start reading for your exams.

I have three main pieces of advice for anyone that has a colloquium or some similar meeting before they can embark on the journey that is comps:

  1. READ THE HANDBOOK. I made the rookie mistake of asking my advisor if there was anything I needed to have for the colloquium without reading the handbook for myself. When she said no, I took that as gospel, only to find out that I was actually supposed to have written a 1,000 word intellectual autobiography and a one page description of my dissertation project. Fortunately, there are no consequences to that; I just have to write the two pieces and send them out to the committee via e-mail by Monday. Mostly, I’m just shaken because I don’t think I’ve ever been unprepared for something. I’m working on both pieces now and all will be well but please, please, please, DON’T DO WHAT I DID! READ YOUR HANDBOOK!
  2. ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF. Again, I didn’t do this and now I have 286 items to read before my exams in April. If you think you have too many texts on your lists, tell your chair and see if they will advocate for you. In an effort to please everyone, I said yes to all the additions without actually thinking through what would be feasible for me to accomplish in the next 7-8 months.
  3. ASK QUESTIONS. Don’t know how the exam is structured? Ask. Don’t know what paperwork you have to do? Ask. Want to know best practices for acquiring books? If your committee has any advice for studying? How many meetings are usually required? Ask, ask, ask. Comprehensive Exams, or Qualifying Exams for many people, mark the end of your professors seeing you as a student in their class; you’ll now be an independent scholar. There are no more syllabi with deadlines and no more required papers. If you want to know how something is going down, you need to ask.

All in all, my colloquium was a good experience. It was mostly my committee suggesting books to add, suggesting that I re-organize my lists and setting the date for the exam. It was also peppered with many compliments about the way that I think and write, which definitely helped my self esteem. Having my committee members all in one room together was great because it gave me a sense of how my oral exam is going to go. I have a low key group with very different personalities and skill sets, but the one thing that they have in common is that I truly believe they all have my best interests at heart. Not a single one of them is going to let me in the room if they think I’m at danger of not advancing to the next stage of my doctoral career. I can tell they all believe in me, and that’s going to sustain me through this process.

Week 3: Comprehensive Exams Advice

As I approach the end of coursework for my Ph.D. program, it’s now time to start worrying about what I’m calling “Phase 2”: Comprehensive Exams. I’ve written before about what these exams are and how I prepare for them, but still found myself nervous about this next phase.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I asked for advice. I put out a call for people’s best comprehensive exam advice on Twitter and Instagram; I even e-mailed a few old friends. What follows is the tips and tricks I’ve collected from various friends and followers:

On Preparing for the Exam (Studying, Note Taking, Etc):

Matthew Teutsch: “For one of my areas, Rhetoric and Composition, I entered my PhD program not knowing anything about classical rhetoric. After taking a class that covered Augustine to Nietzsche, I, along with most of the others in the class, were utterly confused. To help us get caught up on classic rhetoricians, we decided to form a study group. We went through the anthology, reading each text, and commenting on each one. Then, we met, like a book club, to discuss. Honestly, that helped me on that comprehensive exam more than anything else.”

Jan Huebenthal: “Take good notes, each with a concrete example, and no more than one page per book!”

Amanda Gibson: “Do something physical between books for the mind and body!”

Maggie DePond (@AcademicAuntie): “For oral exams: meet with professors in your committee early and often. A lot of my committee asked me questions that were the same ones we talked about in their office!”

Amanda Roberts (@phdproductivity): “Get a study buddy if you know someone taking exams at the same time as you! My friend and I made ourselves a syllabus of readings with due dates for discussion. Keep all your notes organized in a shared folder on Dropbox or Google Drive.”

@genuinely_jo: “Obvious but it never hurts to be reminded. Back up your work in a couple different places.”

Sarah Thomas, PhD: “Think of prepping for comps as your full-time job. Start working at 8 or 9 am, take a half hour lunch, then get back to work till 5 or 6 pm, then stop. Your brain needs a break in the evening. I watched a lot of cheerful British television. Try to get to bed by 11 at the latest, then wake up and start the process over again the next day. Getting into a routine and compartmentalizing that process was how I got through it. My dog and I got into a pattern of working, walking, eating, working, walking, etc. Routine helped me deal with the impossibility of the situation—how could I actually get through hundreds of books while still being mentally okay?”

On Taking the Exam:

Matthew Teutsch: “For the orals, I would just suggest looking over the graders’ comments and looking at places where you need to show more knowledge and understanding of a question or concept. If it is a timed exam, you won’t be able to say everything you want to say, so this would be a good time to do that. I would also ask around to see what your committee members might ask. Sometimes they will oblige, sometimes not. If they don’t, ask other colleagues who have had those members in their orals. Finally, talk with your professors and ask them questions. You can gather from these questions what they expect you to know and possibly how they expect you to answer.”

Zanovia Tucker, MA, LPC, NCC: “Don’t stress about what’s going to be on the test. You’ve been preparing for two years during coursework.”

Vineeta Singh, Ph.D.:

1. You don’t have to know everything. I was really scared of being asked a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. Like what if they asked me about something I hadn’t read about? Or what if they asked about that one book that I read first year and never got back to? So it really helped me during prep to be reminded that the point of the exam isn’t to show that you have mastered every bit of research ever produced (that would be impossible!) but to show that you have a broad base of knowledge for your field and the capacity to do research in it.

2. It’s not just a test, it’s an opportunity to get feedback! Okay, I do hear how corny that sounds, but it’s true! How often do you (or any scholar) get to convene 3-6 scholars whose work you respect and have them engage with YOUR thoughts?! That is pretty dope! There are people out here thirsting for feedback, so don’t sleep on what an opportunity this is! If you have had success building a committee that’s truly invested in you as a scholar, they are going to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge you in GENERATIVE ways. The ‘exam’ setup can feel adversarial or confrontational, and many profs take that role very seriously, but (and I might just be spoiled because of my E[nthic] S[tudies] background) at its best, this is a CONVERSATION and a chance for you to shape your future work. So (if you have a supportive committee) don’t get defensive; this is your team.

Some Pep Talks:

Dana Cypress: “You always know more than you think you know by the time your comps date arrives. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves quite enough credit but if you’ve done the work, it’ll show.”

Holly Grunter: “Take it one day at a time! Every day you’ll be motivated differently. Be kind to yourself!”

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D.: “Remember that you’re more prepared than you think! So when you get nervous, believe in yourself and your skills!”

James Padilioni, Jr, Ph.D.: “Make sure you look up from the trees to glimpse the beauty of the forest: try to enjoy reading these books, and the opportunity you have, maybe for the only time in your life, to just sit down and read, expand your mind, and to tarry with some of the thinkers on your list. The aggressive schedule of reading makes it hard to appreciate the privilege afforded by it all. Oh and also, on the back end after everything sifts and settles, you’re going to be (even more) knowledgeable AF and have the receipts to prove it if need be!”


There you have it, folks, some of the best comprehensive exam advice from people who have either been through it or are in the midst of the storm as we speak. I want to take this moment to thank those who offered their advice, and to say that whether comps are impending, or a ways off, I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.