Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3, Scene 2

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.