Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 4

Doubt, Failure and Rejection

If you follow me on Twitter, or even here on Black Girl Does Grad School, it’s evident that I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a little while. Okay, a lot of a funk and for a long while.

The truth is, it happens and it happens frequently. Grad school is just like that: some weeks you are fine, you feel like you are killing the game, you’re writing, you’re reading, your productivity is through the roof. And some weeks (or several of them…in a row) are about opening rejection emails before you’ve even left your bed in the morning, blank word documents, institutional drama, and the increasingly depressing feeling of trying to keep afloat in the middle of the ocean, knowing that any moment it could swallow you whole.

In particular, rejection letters really have the ability to drown me when I’m already barely afloat. On a day when I’m balanced, feeling healthy and whole, surrounded by love and support, rejections barely cross my radar. On a day where I’m already irritated and isolated (often self-imposed) due to circumstances outside of my control, rejections take me out. Negative self talk is already the soundtrack of my day, I’m feeling like my writing is particularly weak, and then bam– the worst sort of confirmation.

I sort of came to an understanding with myself. I stopped trying to fight the labels that academics were using to make me legible. I instead focused on simply doing work that fed my soul and that I felt was a direct expression of me walking in my purpose, worrying less about categorizing it and making it marketable, and more on making my words fly. This mental shift helped me prioritize, focus on and execute my work in a way that was meaningful to me.

And it worked.

Until it didn’t.

I now believed in my capacity to produce substantive, rigorous and complex work; I was focused enough to write it; I was becoming brave enough to submit it but nobody seemed to believe in me as much as I now believed in myself. It was enough to crack even the strongest of foundations and then the doubts seeped in. The worries that I had finally managed to shake reached through those cracks, grabbed ahold of my soul and squeezed. As often as I jokingly recount the tale of how I became Peanut Festival Queen of Suffolk, Virginia, the nagging thought that follows like a bad aftertaste is, Did I peak in high school? It seemed that making your dreams come true was a concoction of ambition, consistent hard work and a dreamer’s heart, but I lacked that dash of magic that seemed to be the key.

When all is said and done, I know I usually like to end my blog posts with a neat bow. I am nothing if not a (somewhat performative) optimist. I like to believe that even if I haven’t yet, I will overcome adversity and the fruits of my labor will be rewarded. And while I do have faith that everything will work out for me, I’m still living in a moment in which I am constantly stewing in a stale pot of doubt, failure and rejection, instead of perfecting my recipe for Black Girl Magic. I’m learning to live in the space between my imperfections and my potential, coming to embrace the harmony that failure and resiliency produces. Practically speaking, it means I honor my feelings, because even if I know that my future is bright, today’s forecast is overcast and rainy. It means that I take a moment to be transparent in my writing about what this moment is for me, instead of hiding from it, as if it doesn’t exist.

And perhaps…the answers that I have been hearing are not a no.

It’s an implied not yet.

Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.

Rediscovering Wellness

In the past year, I’ve gained an astronomical amount of weight. I can attribute the unwanted gain mostly to comps. I sat, virtually immobile, for an entire semester, eating any and everything I could find as a way to manage the stress of having to read hundreds of books before the end of April. I pride myself on having finished comps with my mental health in tact but my overall wellness was severely lacking.

I found myself constantly looking at old photos of myself from my fourth year of UVA and crying over pants that no longer fit. Though I looked at UVA through rose-tinted glasses, the truth was that I was stressed, often depressed, barely eating and walking uphill to classes every day. I naturally lost weight without trying and it came off suddenly.

One day I was unexpectedly able to wear my mother’s clothes.

Then another day, I wasn’t.

My descent to this pit of bad eating practices and barely moving came on over the course of a year. I formerly despised fast food, eating it only when I visited my parents. Now, I don’t want to even think about how many times I ate Popeyes and Cookout in the last month. I found myself too emotionally distressed or mentally fatigued to move, let alone cook. I had somehow replaced my stove top popcorn, lightly salted, for salt and vinegar chips. The decision I made at age ten to stop drinking soda had become void.

I was, in short, a mess.

But I didn’t wake up to my serious lapse in health until a visit to the doctor a few days ago. If the number on the scale didn’t shock me, the realization that I would be unable to safely continue taking one of my medications because of my weight certainly did.

I was letting grad school not only steal my mental health but my physical wellness too.

After a brief check in with myself, I made some decisions to help me prioritize my wellness. These were a series of choices I could make every day that would eventually add up to a lifestyle change:

  • MOVEMENT: One thing that was abundantly clear was how sedentary I had become. So I decided the first thing I could do was make the decision to move more. My school offers a free gym membership that I signed up for, and with the encouragement of a classmate, I joined her for my first ever yoga session. Together, picked three days out out of the week where we would do a yoga class. I decided I would do this for a couple weeks, to start build strength and endurance, and when I felt stronger I might add a cardio class to my line up.
    FOOD: I sincerely believe that the most important thing you can do for yourself is be conscientious about what you put in your body. I decided to change the way I think about food. Food, going forward, will be a manner of fueling my body, after giving careful attention to what it needs. The right food can be medicinal even. Realistically, this means making a concerted effort to plan out my grocery lists and buy a variety of good “fuel” to keep in my apartment so I’m less inclined to eat out.
    DRINK: I’m going to stop drinking my calories. I’ve decided to move away from flavored bottled waters and powders, and making an effort to drink more plain water and tea.
    MENTAL HEALTH: I’m recommitting myself to taking my medicine daily; going to therapy at least every two weeks; and reintroducing journaling into my every day routine. In addition, I want to integrate a regular morning and evening routine to help me steel myself for the day and then unwind from the chaos, which will include: meditation, journaling, coffee/tea, outside time with Genghis, spiritual practice, gratitude logs and prayer.
    SPIRITUAL WELLNESS: I am recommitting myself to Sunday’s as a day of rest and worship, I will do no work on Sundays. (I usually write my BGDGS posts before Sunday, so not to worry, I will be breaking no rules by continuing to post on Sundays.)
    JOY: I will relentlessly prioritize my joy and continually choose to do things that I love. This means, more time with friends, visiting the farmers market, visiting the water for rejuvenation, and rekindling my love of making art.


A few things are clear to me: one, is that I have failed to truly practice what I preach, which is to hold onto your wholeness while in pursuit of the PhD. Another is that I will not finish if I am not taking care of myself with the same vigor with which I approach my work. The last is that I deserve better that what I have given myself recently. I deserve a clean space, nourishing food, regular wellness practices and the space to pursue my ow joy. Nobody can give me those things except for me, and I heartily accept the challenge of putting myself first.