Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 4, Scene 2

Dissertating During Coronavirus

As you all are well aware, we are in the midst of a pandemic. In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has redoubled public health and safety efforts, effectively resulting in the seeming indefinite closure of schools and universities, retailers and other places and events where folks congregate. This means conferences have been cancelled or postponed, travel is limited, and teleworking and online learning is the new standard.

There’s plenty to be concerned about: beyond the risk and concerns of contracting the virus, many are worried about spreading it, as we’re learning some folks are asymptomatic carriers; parents and other caretakers are now concerned about how to balance caring for their children and elderly; finding appropriate sustenance and necessities as panic-induced bulk buying cleans out shelves at grocery stores. There are worries about displaced college students having to shelter in abusive homes; acute financial concerns as some people are laid off entirely and losing work, and others having to continue working overtime to support a panicking population; and whether our president will wield this disaster as an opportunity to postpone the election.

And that’s just some of the discourse I’ve seen on the news and around the internet in the last week.

Then, of course, there’s the firm suggestion that we practice “social distancing,” a conscious effort to prevent the spread of the virus, which involves limiting the amount of contact we have with others. Many others are having a much harder time with this than I am, admittedly. Staying indoors, only venturing out for necessities, and entertaining myself with hobbies I can do in the house is pretty much what I do anyway. Plus, as I’ve written before, it’s just me and my dissertation this semester, which means I can write from anywhere as I have no obligations to be physically present at the university.

Rationally, I know not much changes for me, aside from the fact that my dog and I are weathering the pandemic from my parents’ house an hour away from campus. And yet, the low level of panic I typically feel in general on any given day has been turned up from about a 1.5 to a 4, with spikes of acute anxiety throughout the day.

I know I will be okay for a while. I’m safe. I have many of my comforts: my dog, my art, my books, my journals… but I can’t say I’m not unaffected by the many stories that cross my timeline in a day. Folks I interact with regularly online are having graduations cancelled and losing freelance gigs and are already in precarious financial and health situations. It could easily be months before things get back to normal.

It feels…disingenuous to be worried about my dissertation right now. On the one hand, there are so many other, more important things I could be occupying myself with at the moment. But on the other, work has always been my anchor, it has kept me grounded in the midst of personal upheavals. As long as my already busy mind is kept focused on a task, I can minimize the amount of time I spend spiraling into rabbit holes about the world ending.

I can’t say that there’s a “right” response to an international pandemic, but pressuring myself to work on a project that ultimately will end up on a shelf in College Apartments, untouched for decades once finished, just doesn’t seem useful.

What I think is a better idea is striving for some sense of normalcy in these uncertain times. Given that I am already prone to panic and anxiety without the added stress of a global crisis, for me, striving for normalcy will probably mean being more proactive than usual about my mental health and tending myself first, and working when and if I feel like it. I will need sleep, walks with Genghis, time to read, make art, write, to feel okay. I really need yoga, but it looks like my University is working to put some virtual fitness classes in place for us, so hopefully, I’ll be able to tune in with my favorite yoga teachers soon enough.

Most importantly, I think I’ll be reminding myself as often as I can to take some very deep breaths. More often than not, I realize I’ve been holding my breath. I sit up straight and and do some seated cat and cows to release my spine, roll my head on my shoulders, and breathe.

Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Breathe.

Dissertation Check-In #1

I opened a new scrivener file for my dissertation and started writing on December 28, 2019. In the two months that have elapsed since that day, I have done a lot of reading and a lot of drafting– 50 pages worth actually.

If it seems like I’m writing like a madwoman, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Writing is my primary vehicle for processing the world so I write a lot and often.
  2. I write fast. If I have an idea, I can lay down 1,000 words in under an hour.
  3. I don’t self-edit as I write. I word vomit and edit later.
  4. I am not working this semester. At my school, if you TA or are a teaching fellow, you’re off the semester you are not working.
  5. I have written something that can serve as a basis for each chapter, intro and conclusion, whether it be a conference or seminar paper, or an article draft. (Protip: before I started writing, I gathered all my relevant writing into a document so I would have my ideas all in one place. That document was 150 pages.)

To point number five, I’ve tested out a lot of these ideas, worked them out, but I’m excited to get to spend some time molding them on paper and synthesizing them even further.

Also, in terms of actual writing time, I don’t spend that much time writing. Every week, I give myself a writing goal word count. Typically, the minimum is 1,250 words (or 250 words on average every week day) and the maximum is 2,500 (or 500 words on average every week day). I try to be very flexible with myself, so it doesn’t matter how the words come out. If I write 1,250 words or more one day, I consider my work done for the week unless I have a stroke of inspiration, I rarely write more. Usually, though, I spend about an hour three days out of the week working on my word count goal.

That said, if I’m only writing a few hours a week, what am I doing the rest of the time? Reading. I spend a lot of time reading, rereading, reviewing, and researching. I’m taking notes and sketching and outlining. Admittedly, I do other things, too: I go to meetings for my various jobs around campus and with my advisor, I do conferences, go to lectures. And of course, I spend some time freelance writing, pitching and drafting and editing essays.

But I’ve got a rhythm for the time being: Monday through Friday, I am in Williamsburg, writing in my apartment or at the local coffeehouse. Every day that I write, I also move. So I try to make it to a yoga class (or Body Combat on Wednesdays), every day that I spend sedentary working. On Friday, I stop working, no matter where I am on the spectrum of my word count, and I drive home to Suffolk and spend the weekend with my folks. We do nothing happily and we go to church on Sundays. I sometimes make things, like mini canvases with custom quotes, for people. I take a break. And then on Monday, I drive back to Williamsburg and start my week over again.

All of my pages have gone off to my dissertation advisor and I’ve since gotten edits and comments back. However, sometime last week, I realized I was going really hard on the dissertation, even with all of my scheduling and breaks. So I took last week (which incidentally happened to be my birthday week) off. Tomorrow, Monday March 2, I am going to comb through my advisor’s comments a little more carefully and spend a week or two adjusting and reworking based on her thoughts. I will spend the last two weeks of March hopefully drafting about 20 new pages of work.

My goal, ultimately, is to have a sizeable chunk of this project drafted this year. I expect most of my work will come in the editing process. Writing, simply put, isn’t the hard part for me. Editing to get it where it needs to be is the beast I have to conquer.

In any case, I think I’ve made good progress over the last two months. I have a system that works for me and an advisor who is supportive, present and forthcoming with feedback. I do like being in this space: I love that it’s just me and my writing. It’s what I love, just getting carried away by ideas, and right now I can do that with minimal interruption.

It’s kind of nice.

Will it stay that way? Only time will tell.

Catherine Knight Steele and the New Vanguard of Black Digital Feminists | Chesapeake DH Conference 2020

On February 21, 2020, William & Mary hosted the first annual Chesapeake Digital Humanities Conference. This conference drew together digital humanists from all over the region, and from places further away, like Cornell University. Unfortunately, inclement weather delayed the conference’s start, but nevertheless, the panels and conversations were extremely valuable.

The highlight of the experience for me was the opportunity to listen to, and share space with our keynote speaker, Dr. Catherine Knight Steele. Dr. Steele’s work has included conversations about Black people in the digital, but more specifically, Black women in the blogosphere. As such, it’s not hard to imagine how important her scholarship has been to me, a young Black feminist and digital humanist whose blog–this blog–is part of her scholarly intervention.

I got to introduce Dr. Steele’s keynote, a moment for which I was truly grateful. From the moment she began speaking, I was mesmerized. It became abundantly clear as she spoke who her intended audience was, and she wouldn’t budge on that an inch. She spoke for Black feminists, and those who understood there was something to learn from the combination of Black feminism and digital humanities. She spoke for people like me. Her keynote, a deep dive into Black Digital Feminism prepared and influenced by her upbringing as a preacher’s kid (a sermon with (1) alliteration and (2) three key points), drew from her experiences as a baby digital humanist learning to type from “Mavis Beacon;” and her love of Black feminisms and feminists.

In what seemed to be the same breath, Dr. Steele rapped the beginning of Lauryn Hill’s Lost Ones, and invoked both Zora Neale Hurston and Luvvie Ajayi. Despite their differences, as soon as she brought each one’s thoughts and contributions to the conversation, in conversation with one another, I thought, Of course they go together. How could they not? I watched Steele weave, as Black feminists do, very different theories and praxis to create a new product– what she calls Black Digital Feminism. She defines it as the moment of Black feminist thought shaped by the relationship of Black feminist thinkers to digital technology. Different from Black cyberfeminism, Steele argues that Black feminists relationship to technology predates any conversation about cyberfeminism, therefore Black feminism is the point of origin.

I thought long and hard about what she feels Black feminism can bring to conversations in the digital humanities: Steele cites a shift to praxis over practice, a focus on people and principles as methods we can invoke in digital humanities work. I cheered when she encouraged the audience to ask basic, humanizing questions of their graduate students so they would and could feel more connected to their work– and their lives outside of it. And I almost cried when she offered a moment of transparency: she doesn’t really code.

This was a moment of release for me. In most fields, you are not required to be able to create the work that you are critiquing: film scholars are not required to make film and literary scholars are not required to write novels. Yet, for some reason, there is this impulse that if you critique the digital, you must also be able to create it, and create it from scratch (i.e. coding). But what Steele points out here is an understanding that there are levels and different ways of engaging as a digital humanist. We do need makers, breakers and coders of all kinds, but we also need theorists and critics. It’s a balance, a delicate dance: theorists keep makers honest and ethical (one hopes), and makers inspire theorists to write.

Her keynote, and all that it offered: the theory, the praxis, and the parts of herself that she was willing to share with an audience of strangers, gave me hope. There is a place for me to discuss Eve L. Ewing in the same breath that I invoke Jessica Marie Johnson and Audre Lorde. There is a place for me to bring my blogger, scholar, and writer self into larger conversations about digital humanities. It encouraged me to continue making connections that make sense to me, theorizing in a way that is meaningful to my intended audience. (I honestly went crazy a couple of times at some of the incredible connections Steele was making, as easy as if it were breathing.)

It also made me consider lineage. The work of Black Digital Feminists like Steele, Moya Bailey, Jessica Marie Johnson, the Crunk Feminist Collective and Feminista Jones, just to name a few, were the early adopters of the internet. They felt out the space and then created for themselves. As Steele says, blogs were often specialized enclaves in which Black feminists could have difficult conversations, unlike the environment of the internet today.

That generation of Black feminists made it possible for a new vanguard of Black Digital Feminists to aid in the expansion of their work. The New Vanguard, which I see primarily manifesting in those graduate students and early career scholars who do digital content creation (mostly because of my positionality as a Black graduate student), take cues from our Digital Aunties. We build blogs, vlogs, podcasts and carefully curated instagram feeds to help each other, and the generation after us get to and through the academic spaces we currently inhabit. We create collectives and build community online. We find the digital to be a space of resistance, but also one, as Andre Brock insists, where we should be able to simply be.

This new moment of Black Digital Feminism in action would not exist if not for the work of the earlier adopters of the internet and the digital. It would not exist if not for our Black feminist foremothers who theorized about us, for us.

And we certainly wouldn’t be here without Catherine Knight Steele, who was critical in our ability to merge these two strands of thought.