Category Archives: Readings

The Teachability of Legendborn

I’d already rearranged the syllabus for my spring 2021 Magical Black Girls class once– back in June when Bethany C. Morrow released A Song Below Water. It was too good not to teach, especially when it specifically spoke to themes of the violence and silencing Black girls too often endure, the matrilineal nature of our power, and the strength of sisterfriends.

I told myself that I would not be readjusting again, no matter what new thing I discovered.

And then I was able to get my hands on an ARC of Legendborn.

Tracy Deonn pens a modern take on Arthurian legend reimagined as a secret society at a Southern Predominately White Institution (PWI). The protagonist, Bree Matthews, falls head first into this world, and it’s made abundantly clear to her by the others in the reimagined “Order” that Bree does not fit.

Any Black person at a PWI, particularly a Southern one, knows the experiences Bree endures intimately. We know the malevolent administrator who sneers at our presence. We have met the parents who are quick to label us as “Affirmative Action” and believe that us occupying a space on those campuses has somehow stolen something from their children. We have befriended the seemingly innocuous white person, who says something racist and when you call them on it they’re quick to dismiss your retort, saying, “You know what I mean.”

All of that would be enough to make anyone’s blood boil just below the surface, but add to it the depths of Bree’s grief and being thrown into an unknown magical world, where the same essence may have a different name to different people. Where the intersections of experience and history collide in unexpected ways. Deonn seamlessly weaves a tale based in uncomfortable truths about the relationship between Black and white people in the South that span centuries. Though born from those uncomfortable truths, it takes up the strength and power generated by Black individuals and families and shows how we have risen and continue to rise.

For all of that, Legendborn is the rare kind of book that satisfies the appetite of all the various portions of my personality and interests. Most times, it’s a pick and choose type of situation: perhaps you get high fantasy but lack depictions of Black girlhood, or you get Black girlhood but not as the heroine of the story.

With Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn, I didn’t have to choose. I got to bring all the sides of my magic-loving, history-seeking, smart-mouthed Black girl self to the table when I settled down to read a chapter or two. As a Black girl who has spent a significant amount of time at two Southern Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) with big reputations for both my bachelors and masters/Ph.D. programs, the difficult, conflictual feelings Bree has about Carolina didn’t need to be explained. I understood the instinctual pull Bree felt to a campus that was not built with her in mind, and yet needing to know it intimately because it would bring her closer to a parent.

Reading Legendborn pulled to the surface all the things I didn’t know about my undergraduate institution, but that I learned in great detail at my graduate institution. I spent two years as a graduate assistant for The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, my campus’ attempt at making the history of Black people readily available, to bring forth that which the institution would rather hide. In that time, I learned not only about the enslaved people who built my university, but met the Black folks who would much later integrate our Southern PWI, and build with the Black students who still work to make it a better place.

I know the high fantasy is the draw of Legendborn, but it is the richness with which Deonn weaves so much of what is important to me as the backdrop of this narrative. It’s the vibrancy with which Deonn allows Bree to be a Black girl and revel in all the complexity of what that means. Yes, I love the way she has reimagined Arthuriana, I love the strong characters, the elements of the magic that underlies this whole world, but it is the way Bree is simply in this world, whether she fits or not, that makes it near and dear to my heart and what makes it perfectly teachable.

Bree is the result of centuries of racial conflict and the deep love Black women have for each other. She is both softness and hard edges; strength and fragility. She is deliciously human and wondrously exceptional.

That she is all of these things and stunningly magical is a revolution.

It’s legendary.

Four Years, Four Lessons

Today, August 8, 2020, marks the four year anniversary of Black Girl Does Grad School!

 

On this day in 2016, I published my first post, hopefully entitled, “Ravynn Stringfield, (Someday) Ph.D.” I wrote it the morning before I was due to start my first day of training to become an Omohundro editorial apprentice, my first graduate assistantship. From there, I would go on to become the assistant for the Lemon Project, a position I held, and loved, for two years. I left Lemon to serve as a teaching assistant for a film and modernization class and this coming year I will finally get to teach my own 290 course on Black girls and fantasy.

Two weeks after I wrote that initial post and a couple about Omohundro training, I would attend my first grad class. Over the course of two and a half years, I would take fourteen classes: six courses which counted towards my master’s degree (which I graduated with in 2018) and eight that went towards my Ph.D. There were some really fun ones: I loved my Digital Humanities class and Critical Race Theory; I lived for Interracialism and the comics class that I, and a couple of my classmates, begged my advisor to teach. And some were…let’s say, challenging– and not because of the academic rigor.

I’ve come a long way since the first time I used the term “digital humanities” to describe my work in a blog post: from denying what I did counted as DH to taking my first DH class to being wrapped up in a cocoon of love by Black digital humanists at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” Then from my first DHSI to consistently proclaiming my identity as a digital human(ist) by showcasing it in my bio and wearing a hashtag on a chain around my neck (Left).

I’ve also come a long way since coursework. Since I finished my last semester in December 2018, I spent a semester reading for comps, I took the exams, defended my prospectus and began writing my dissertation in earnest.

I’m now in my last stretch of grad school, a stretch that could admittedly take a while to get through, but I have faith that everything will work out okay. Four years ago, writing a dissertation was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to figure out how to read at the graduate level, manage my time, and find ways to infuse my work with my own signature flair. But, as I said so long ago:

“But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here.”

So in honor of my four years in graduate school and my four years of this blog, I decided I wanted to share with you four lessons I’ve learned since August 2016:

 

  1. You can chase clout if you want to, but I’d much rather work with someone who cares about me and has my best interests at heart. Picking an advisor is one of the most difficult parts about graduate school. In my early days, I switched about three times, only to land with exactly who they suggested for me to start with. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready to work with her in the early days; but as I matured and figured out who I wanted to be as a scholar, writer and person, I realized I wanted someone who would respect my work as both scholarship and art. Someone who would help me protect my work and find the right homes for it. I found an advocate, and I’m extraordinarily lucky, because some people don’t.
  2. Find your people. And accept that sometimes your people may not be in your program or even at your institution. I have a few folks that I can turn to from my university, but for the most part, when I have graduate school related concerns or need support, I trot to my digital network of peers I have developed over time on Twitter. (Shout out to the Digital Dreamgirls, Allante, Joy and Autumn + so many more.)
  3. Know your audience. Ultimately this advice has saved me so much heartache and grief. The moment I disavowed myself from the notion that my writing had to be all things to all people, I became free. Knowing who you’re writing for, the folks you’d like to serve, can help you focus your work and questions, and also helps you tune out voices who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.
  4. Grad school may be a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life. You have a whole identity, full of parts who aren’t served or fulfilled by what you do in the classroom or in your research. Make sure you’re tending to those parts of yourself by doing whatever you need to do to feel full. For me, it was yoga, making art, spending time with my family and dog and continuing to write across genres.

*

To all those who have been on this journey with me thus far, thank you.

To all those about to begin their journey, good luck.

And to all: be well.

Dissertation Check-In #3: Organizing, Scheduling and Tools of the Trade

It’s been a while since I did a post on my writing process– from organizing my writing, to scheduling time to write/setting goals and my favorite tools of the trade. So here’s what I’ve been doing and using to get to Ph.Done:

Organizing

Because I do a lot of different types of writing and because my brain needs to separate each style, I have a different journal for each type that I do. I have a dotted neapolitan bullet journal for my calendars and personal journaling; a lined leather journal with a quote from Toni Morrison on the cover for my long form fiction notes; a lined cahier for short pieces including my freelance and blog posts; and a classic large black hardback dotted journal with my initials on it for my dissertation thoughts. (I have linked to all below.)

The dissertation journal

I can not recommend having a dissertation journal enough. I use mine to take notes on readings, free write and do idea work before going into my Scrivener project to add pages, keep track of suggested edits from my advisor and draft periodic writing timelines as well as weekly and monthly writing goals. (I also sometimes use mine as a sketchbook….) Sometimes having a place to work through your thoughts before committing them to your dissertation file is super helpful.

The actual writing

My writing process is aided in large part by the software that I use for my dissertation. You don’t need fancy software at all– a word document or google doc will do– but I got Scrivener last year because I often write large projects, nonfiction, research, and fiction, and felt I could benefit from some specialized software. What Scrivener is most useful for in my opinion is the ability to jump from section to section with ease and move those sections around. You can write in chunks, which are then moveable on the left hand side of the screen. You can also outline as index cards on a cork board, which then expand out into a page that you can write in. You can set yourself daily word count goals and whole project goals, which the software keeps track of for you.

Scrivener is a one time cost of $38 and I have written three fiction manuscripts, a journal article and half a dissertation in it since I got it so I can say with confidence that it transformed my writing experience. I use it for almost anything longer than about 10 pages. If you’re a visual person, all of the functions of the software may help you to your writing goal(s). (I have linked to Scrivener below.)

 

Scheduling

I constantly and consistently adjust my writing goals, which then impacts my writing schedule for the week and/or month. The most important tidbit I can pass on for dissertation writing is to be firm about your goals but flexible about how you get there. Adjust, and do it often.

When I first sat down to break apart my dissertation into manageable chunks, I gave myself an ambitious deadline for a first draft and a realistic deadline for a first draft. From there, I calculated how many words/pages I would need to produce per month to reach that goal. Then each month I broke down how many words/pages I would need to produce per week to get to the monthly goal. I then broke it down to a daily average, which for me worked out to about 250 words per week day, or about an hour of writing per week day. I wrote down all of those goals and numbers in my dissertation journal to keep myself accountable.

Now, do I consistently write 250 words in my dissertation Scrivener project a day? Absolutely not. Some days, often several in a row, I write nothing at all, preferring to read and take notes over synthesizing into dissertation pages. But I might write 1,000 one day during the week, and 250 another day, getting me to my weekly goal. Some weeks I do write 250 words every day, but those weeks are few and far between. I try to schedule and goal set so that I can be flexible about how I’m getting my work done without being rigid. It helps me strike a nice balance between allowing myself to write when the mood strikes and holding myself accountable to write a set amount per day or week.

On a day to day, given the fact that we are living through unprecedented times in which every morning seems to bring a new disaster, I can’t count on being focused or disciplined enough to write every morning of the work week from 9 AM to 10 AM. Under other circumstances, I might block out an hour every morning to write, but in the spirit of waking up every morning and paying attention to myself so that I may tend to what I need to be okay in this moment, I prefer to take stock of myself and see what I feel is reasonable, every single day.

Bonus: Extend Yourself Grace

And because I do this stock taking exercise every day, there are some weeks where I can’t work at all, which necessitates review and adjusting my schedule so that I can stay on track but give myself grace for the next week. Extending myself lots of grace is the only thing that I can do to pull myself through.

 

Tools of the Trade

Here are links to some of the tools that I have mentioned above and some others that I have found particularly useful in my dissertation writing adventure.

 

Journals

Archer & Olive A5 Neapolitan Dotted Journal

lined Moleskine cahier

Large hard cover dotted Moleskine journal

Jenni Bick Toni Morrison Black Voices Journal

Pens

Yellow Lamy Fountain Pen

Pilot V5 Retractable Deco Collection

Cloth + Paper Penspiration Subscription Box Pens

Writing Software

Scrivener

Citation Manager

Zotero