Category Archives: Teaching

Taxing Labor, Energizing Work

My relationship with academia is fraught. The years I have spent in graduate school have been filled with intellectual epiphanies, community building in digital spaces, and a lot of time to search for answers to my long list of questions. Instead of answers, I have often found more questions. Some have been intellectually generative, and push my scholarship further; others underscore the limitations on freedom in academia for a Black girl. 

As a result of time in the academy and currently participating in more service work than I ever have, the questions I have become more urgent and constitute a fairly constant refrain in my mind: Why is my institution, and many across the board, unable to retain faculty of color? Why are we unable to fund diversity efforts and support our contingent faculty? Why are non-tenure track faculty, staff and graduate students’ voices and opinions shunted to the side, as if only tenured professors and students make up a campus? If we know that something (like hiring practices or tenure and promotion, for examples) can reinscribe hierarchies and oppressive systems, why do we continue to prioritize meeting those expectations? Why do we (as an institutional body) still think talking in circles around issues is moving us forward? 

The longer I am here and the more I do, the angrier I get and the more I want to do— and then don’t. Being in academia is a never-ending process of seeing an issue… and then going to seventeen meetings about it, and at the end of which, everything remains the same. It’s made me jaded, it makes me resentful and it will likely make me pursue a career outside of the academy. 

I think often about Toni Morrison’s statement about the function of racism is to distract you. At Portland State University in 1975, she said, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Well the fact is, racism is keeping me from doing my work, making me tired and all I want to do is rest. In short, it’s doing its job, it’s doing it well, and I am, unfortunately, failing to continue to muster the energy to do anything about it.

I’m torn between wanting to keep working and doing and hoping that maybe I can do something, anything, to change the culture of the institution, but at the end of every meeting, I am exhausted. Not just exhausted, I am often near tears. My therapist, bless her, is likely at her wits end with me signing onto our sessions already crying. Many Black folks and people of color in the academy build up a tolerance for institutional bullshit, but I am still green. Every time someone raises their voice, I bristle; when I am talked over, I feel defeated; when (white) folks express shock that I could have a useful idea, I scowl; when they compliment me on my well formulated responses, I hear “articulate” and cringe because, of course, I couldn’t be. And I am TIRED. 

And I just started.

This is taxing labor, labor that I pay for with my time and energy and tears.

It keeps me from what I find to be energizing work: teaching, workshopping, and collaborating. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Stanford’s Black Studies Collective. This hour long conversation with the students was electric: we built off of each other’s energy, traded tips, offered advice, and enjoyed this moment of congregation together, filled with smiles and laughter. This work can be joyous. It can look like discussing the myriad of ways to translate your research into publicly consumable knowledge, it can look like helping folks think through the ways they organize themselves to get the most out of their day, it can look like explaining how I learned to fly.

I find that this work is most joyous in community.

This is why having collaborative aspects of my first course is important to me. For their introductory/get to know you assignment, I had my students contribute at least one song to a collective and thematic class playlist. I wanted to get a sense how they are thinking about the intersections of Black girlhood, fantasy and digital culture, what sorts of considerations and questions they will bring to the table and offer an opportunity to begin working together towards a shareable product. Building together helps me feel like I am contributing something. I am no longer just interested in making the space, but I want to play in the space I’ve created to see how we can construct the impossible. 

That feels like energizing work, soul fulfilling work. 

And the Academy makes it as hard as possible to revel in the joy of communal building with my students, peers and other faculty and staff. 

I want better for us, and I will be completely honest, I don’t know if I’m the person to be a part of the move towards tearing down what no longer serves us and in its place, crafting a better university. Just from my special combination of mental health issues, if I can avoid stressors as a way of keeping mood episodes under control, I will. I sacrifice my health to fight as hard as I do. And I want so much better for us, but I only get one life, one body, one me. 

And while I want better for us, I also want better for me. 

I don’t have an answer. I may never.

What I do know is that I got to look at a screen with a lot of Black faces on Friday, all eager and ready to learn from me and each other. It was joyous. And it keeps me going. 

They keep me going.

Teaching Tales: Creating A Class During Coronavirus

I have been wildly inconsistent with my posts this year, which I attribute in part to the COVID outbreak and in part due to the fact that because I wasn’t in courses or teaching, so I didn’t really have weekly updates this year. The way things work in my program enables you to have “off” the semester that you do not TA or teach your own course: I TA’d Fall 2019, was off Spring 2020, am off Fall 2020, and will teach my own course in Spring 2021. I spent this time putting together a first draft of my dissertation, and have moved onto editing, adding, clarifying, contextualizing in the hopes of creating a more cohesive second draft soon.

The push to have a workable second draft soon comes from the fact that I know teaching is going to take up a lot of my time in the spring, but I’m looking forward to it— despite knowing that preparing a course during a pandemic comes with its own set of challenges.

So, I thought I would write a post about what I’ve been doing for course prep and how I’m thinking about structuring/delivering the course.

The course I’m teaching is a topical American Studies 200-level course which will prioritize shorter pieces of writing throughout the course of the semester as opposed to a 400-level which would stress a long form research paper. It’s based on my dissertation work and will focus on Black women and girls in new media fantasy narratives.

We were allowed to choose the way we would do course delivery: in person, a mix of in person and online, online synchronous or online asynchronous. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing in-person as I am immunocompromised, so it came down to the decision between synchronous and asynchronous. I got a lot of advice from more experienced professors to help me make my decision, and in the end I chose asynchronous. My thought is that it will alleviate some of the concerns about screen time, issues with internet bandwidth at particular times, and general student fatigue. I already got a message from a student who seemed somewhat put out that we wouldn’t be having full class discussions.

Which is why I decided I would supplement my recorded weekly lectures. In addition to those, I will have optional, weekly, one hour sessions that will be multipurpose. Half of those sessions will be reserved for discussions about the text. I’ve arranged the schedule so that students get two weeks on texts, so when we finish one, there will be a “fireside chat” available. The other sessions will be a mix of (3) guest speakers and workshops, which I will be flexible about based on the needs of the students, but that I imagine will include getting the most out of your academic texts and introduction to software and tools available for creating final projects.

Assignments stayed more or less the same: three (3) 750 to 1,000 word writings which will be posted on our class blog, which should be responses to readings, lectures or questions they may have. They will also be responsible for giving thoughtful responses to at least five (5) other blog posts over the course of the semester, to facilitate some measure of communication. And there will be a final paper/project/presentation of their choice, but as long as they are demonstrating an understanding of the knowledge objectives, showcasing the skill objectives, and engaging the overarching themes of the course, I am very open to what that project may look like. (Though, of course, small research papers are perfectly fine with me.)

I also had the idea to consider using a private, communal class Instagram account for introductions, and posting interesting content that others in the course may find. I don’t know how students will feel about that, though. I don’t want to blur the boundaries between school work and social space too much.

This is the major framework for course delivery that I’m working with. I think there are some things that will need to be adjusted based on student responses, so perhaps I’ll send out a survey at the beginning to get a sense of which elements need to be reworked, added or cut.

At the end of the day, I’m recognizing that I’m asking them to put in work like there isn’t an entire global pandemic going on, like we haven’t been social distancing and adjusting our way of life for almost a year now, and that ultimately seems unfair to me. What I want is for us to learn together and build community the best way we can, with what we have, in a way that won’t be too overwhelming for them (and for me, honestly). Perhaps this isn’t the best, it’s certainly not perfect, but I decided my priorities for the semester are, in this order: 1. My students’ well being 2. Learning.

That’s it.

It’s my hope that prioritizing their well-being will create an environment that is more conducive to learning.

I’ve TA’d at my school before, and it’s my sense that if you show up for your students, they’ll show up for you. So, this is how I’m approaching coming to this course, in the hopes that it all works out, and knowing my students are going to do the best they can.

After all, the interest in my course has been pretty phenomenal. Course registration began at 9 AM, I think, on Monday, and by 9:30 AM I already had three emails from students asking for overrides. I’ve been fielding those emails all week. I’m honored, also humbled, and a little sad. The eagerness, in part, comes from having had a lack of Black women professors and a lack of exposure to this type of scholarship and inquiry. I want more and better for these students.

But in the meantime, I’m coming to this class armed with words by Tracy Deonn and Ntozake Shange, music by Janelle Monae, webseries by Micah Watson, comics by Eve Ewing, and scholarship by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Deborah Whaley and Jessica Marie Johnson and Kara Keeling and Toni Morrison and Ytasha Womack and and and

We’re going to figure out how to do this thing.

Together.

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.