Category Archives: Research

Dissertation Check-In #2: Motivation

I’m unsure if it was the pandemic or just how I was feeling, but the other day, I was daydreaming about what would happen if I just didn’t finish my dissertation. It had been days, weeks, since I’d touched it meaningfully. Ultimately, I knew it would be fine if I didn’t finish. The world wouldn’t stop and I would eventually find some sort of job. To no one’s surprise, images of myself with a stack of novels–ones that I had written–danced through my mind. I could just step out on faith and pursue writing novels full time. The thought of infinite time, uninterrupted by dissertation work, to write the stories on my heart was tantalizing.

But as quickly as the moment came, it was gone, and I was back working on the conclusion for a chapter as if the events of the previous couple of weeks had been a bad fever dream. (Which admittedly, they kind of were.)

Earlier in the week, I watched two panels featuring Black women authors speaking on their forthcoming, and, in some cases, recently published YA fantasy novels on Black Girls Create. They made me think about the future of Black girls in fantasy, and how bright it was. The feeling sustained me for days, though I didn’t immediately write about it. It gave me a reason to reaffirm why I was even doing this dissertation project.

So I pulled out my dissertation journal, flipping to a blank page, and wrote at the top:

“Motivation Prompt:

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Why are you writing this dissertation?

Why does it matter?”

In theory and in practice, you should know the answers to these questions. It’s what your chair and committee will ask of you before you even embark on your project. This means, you probably have a rehearsed answer. You probably have what we may think of as “the right” answer.

I needed to give myself permission to answer these questions openly and honestly, without judgment or expectation, because if I didn’t have a good answer, it would have been time for me to make some major reevaluations.

To my surprise, as I sat with the questions I had posed myself, answers–and not the ones I’d been rehearsing for months– sprung forth.

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Me. 

Yes, I was also writing this for all the Black girls who fly and the Black women who write them, but at the core, I was writing for me. For present me, who couldn’t imagine writing anything else; for future me, who would be extremely disappointed if I don’t give the world this piece of myself; and for past me, who would have been awe-struck to see how many Black girls fly these days.

Especially for little me, whose grandfather always greeted me with, “What you got? That Harry Potter?” when he saw me approach his and my grandma’s house, toting a book and pushing my glasses back up my nose.

She would have been so overjoyed to see that I still believe in magic.

Why are you writing this dissertation? 

How could I not?

What else would I write about?

What else moves me like this?

And also why not?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about our now ancestor, Cheryl Wall, and the photographs that other Black women scholars and writers have been sharing on social media of themselves with her. I love looking at those pictures, because they often are groups of Black women scholars and writers, lots of love connections in one image. When you look closely, you see that they are of all disciplines– literary theorists, anthropologists and poets… and they all know each other, love on each other, read each others’ words, are inspired by them, and work with them. It’s more than citational politics, this community of creation that Black women have fostered gives them infinite opportunities to be seen and known.

I want to be a part of that practice and lineage.

It also made me realize that I’m already doing some of that work. It’s what Micah and I have found in each other as we build off of each other’s work, getting inspired by each other’s words, finding peace and solace in the other’s worlds.

Some might think it’s self-indulgent to write about a good friend’s work; but this is how Black women writers and scholars have begun to build scholarly and personal community.

This is a love practice.

How could you see that in what is possible in your work and not want to be a part?

Why does it matter? 

Because Black women and girls matter. 

There was a moment where I realized the justification didn’t necessarily need to be much deeper than that. If we love and care about Black women and girls, we need to love the work that’s on their souls.

This is how I’m loving on Black women and girls. This is the work that’s on my soul.

This is the story I want to tell right now. 


If you get stuck writing your dissertation, I recommend giving yourself permission and time to sit with these questions, or your own, and see what’s on your heart. Let it motivate you. And write it down, so that when you lose sight of what’s important, you can return to the core of your inquiry whenever you need it.

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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.