Category Archives: Teaching

Branch Out: Round Three

If you’ve been following along with my journey, you’ll know that I have managed to be involved with the Lemon Project Branch Out Alternative Break every year since I got to William & Mary. My first year I was just a tagalong, helping my colleague run the trip. Last year, I co-ran the trip. And this year? This year was the first time I’ve ever taught it mostly on my own.

First things first–what is Branch Out? They’re service trips held during school breaks. Typically, students travel somewhere, but the Lemon Project trip is held on campus for three days the weekend before classes start. Our trip is less of a service trip, and more of a public history and social justice oriented project. As part of the Lemon Project’s goal is to have people think critically about the College’s and the greater Tidewater area’s relationship to slavery, Jim Crow and their legacies, it is always important to have the Branch Out trip reflect those goals.

What do we do? There’s usually one big project that the students work on over the course of three days. We break the project down into smaller, more manageable sections for the students to tackle in groups. In 2017, we did a critical analysis of race in the College’s newspaper, The Flat Hat, over the course of a hundred years, hosted on an Omeka site. In 2018, we created another Omeka exhibit analyzing space and place at William & Mary as told by the Legacy 3, the first three residential African American students at the College. This year, we created an exhibit using your average wordpress site, which brought a critical lens to all the commemorations that have been floating around the College and the greater Williamsburg area in the last few years. The students wrote essays on the 1619 commemoration, the 100th year anniversary of co-education at William & Mary, the 50th year anniversary of residential African American students, the Rowe presidency and the memorial to the enslaved the College is currently working on. In addition, they also created accompanying syllabi for how they would teach these topics.

Yes, they did this in three days.

When I sat in the History Grad Lounge on Saturday morning and walked the students through what I wanted them to do by Monday afternoon, their eyes grew wide and round as teacup saucers. I could feel their desire to ask me if I was crazy. They had every right to: it was a tall order.

And yet, they did it.

With the help of Dr. Vineeta Singh, I set up the weekend to give them as much guidance as I could. We brought in speakers to talk about each of the five topics; everyone from a First African Fellow at Jamestown, to President Rowe herself. Vineeta led what I consider to be one of the most useful workshops on building a radical syllabus. We even had some fun participating in a local peaceful protest called Moral Mondays led by Dr. John Whitley, a local activist.

In the afternoons, they worked. They conducted research, wrote their essays, created syllabi, peer reviewed each other’s work, and finally loaded everything into the WordPress site on Monday afternoon. They worked down to the wire and I hope they’re proud of everything they accomplished in just three short days.

Most importantly, for me, is that they all seemed to bond over their work; spending time having side conversations unrelated to the project, over dinners and lunches and goofing around in the evenings. I hope they look back on this project not only with a sense of pride, but fondness as well.

To Brendan, Angela, Emily, Sharon, Meg, Matthew, Kam, Jioni, Isa, Kelsey, Lex and Abby–

You know, my first semester of grad school, I thought frequently about leaving. Then, the day before Branch Out 2017, I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was asked to help out, and I fell in love. I think my love of this particular project stems from the students. You all come to Branch Out because you want to– not because of an area requirement, or needing those last three credits. You genuinely want to know more about the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow at the college you call home. You want to have a full understanding of this place, complicated and gut-wrenching though it may be. I admire your collective work ethic, curiosity, and enthusiasm for your work. In all honesty, the energy that the Lemon Project Branch Out students have brought to the table each year keeps me going. The work that you do inspires me. Students like you all make my passion for teaching shine so much brighter. Each one of you is so precious to me, and I look forward to seeing what you do to make this world a better place.

Thank you so much for making what was probably my last Branch Out trip so wonderful.

With all my love,

Ravynn

Week 14: My Scholarly Philosophy

I often ask myself what type of scholar I want to be, and not in a hypothetical way. I ask myself this question so that I can think through how I write, for whom I write, and why I write. I ask myself this so that my scholarship matches the way in which I live my life, so I’m not just words, but so that I live my beliefs as well. I also ask myself this so that I know how I will orient myself in my classrooms and how I will approach teaching my future students.

In order to figure out what type of scholar I want to be, I often look to senior scholars for examples. This process was admittedly very stressful at the start of my graduate school career because I was not sure how I wanted to market myself as a scholar. As time has gone by, the more experience I get, the more I read, and the more people I interact with, the more I can add to my “scholarly philosophy,” or my personal approach to scholarship and how I will maneuver the Academy.

This time when I asked myself what type of scholar I want to be, it was a direct response to reading Dr. Roopika Risam’s new book, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. The arguments themselves were compelling, but I found myself captivated by her methodology. As advertised, the book was indeed equal parts theory to praxis to pedagogy, and I found this endeavor to be postcolonial in and of itself. I admired the way she took care with her terms, sacrificing no nuance in her quest for clarity and readability, something I am to do myself. In the book’s orientation towards both postcolonial scholars and digital humanities scholars, arguments had to be clear to both audiences, resulting in using many rich examples of digital humanities projects which do postcolonial work to illustrate her point. For me, the high point of the text was the chapter on pedagogy, which offered very tangible ways to bring the postcolonial and the digital into classrooms to spoke to my heart, such as using comics, editing Wikipedia pages, creating podcasts and social media pages for characters from books. Risam ends with a “Call to Action:” a cautiously hopeful rallying cry, which I heard and took to heart. In her work, Dr. Risam gave me a model for the type of scholarship I ultimately would like to do.

I want to write scholarship that is rigorous, but still accessible.

I want to cultivate a dynamic classroom environment in which my students feel safe to question, learn, grow and create.

I never want to be trapped by my own words; that is to say, I want to build infrastructure to change the way we think about higher education and knowledge production and its dissemination, not just write about change.

I want to engage in critical making as it pertains to world building in the real world. I want to create communities, scholarly and otherwise, where people are cared for and nurtured.

I want to be an advocate for my students.

Fortunately, I have had a whole host of good examples of scholars who have shown me how to do the work I desire. Dr. Roopika Risam gave me a model of how to write book that does that work. Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson has shown me how to think critically about citational politics; how to express gratitude for everyone and everything that has impacted your thinking. Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Dr. Lynn Weiss have shown me how to truly care for students. Dr. Liz Losh has shown me good mentorship, how to organize a careful syllabus, and how to think ahead.

Thanks to them, I look forward to creating classes which incorporate theory, guest speakers, project analysis and critical making; classes that experiment; and which take input from the students. I am already looking forward to teaching an Afrofuturism class that draws from literature, film, comics and music, while employing digital humanities final project ideas. I aim to be firm but reasonable, rigorous but kind in the classroom. My goal with teaching will not only be to teach my students the content, but to also have them consider new ways of showcasing that knowledge. There will always be something to be said for a well-written paper, but why does knowledge production and dissemination have to know bounds when the content defies imagination?

I will write the traditional dissertation so that one day I can advocate for the grad student that wants to write a novel, create a digital humanities project, or start a nonprofit for their degree. But this is not to say that my dissertation will not have a signature Ravynn flair.

I will find a way to not only write peer reviewed articles but fiction as well, and I will start that magazine. Making art, not just analyzing it, is going to be a critical part of my praxis.

I am going to get through this doctoral program and I am going to demystify this process for those that come after me. Assuming I work with graduate students, I am going to be the mentor that asks my students to co-author with me, that helps them network with my peers, that sits down with them and helps them chart a trajectory through grad school. And assuming I work with undergrads, I am going to hope that they leave my classroom better than they did before walking in.

It comes down to this: while I was preparing my comps lists, I showed my dad what I was working on. After the shock of seeing that I had to read nearly 300 books in less than a year wore off, he asked me, “Is reading these books going to make you a better person?” I hesitated because the truth was, I knew this process was going to make me smarter, but ultimately he wanted to know if this would help me become a good person. So, I told him the truth: “I hope so.”

The truth is I just want to be a good person that does some good in this world. I hope having a philosophy for how I will approach my chosen career path will help me do just that.

#KeioChronicles: What I Learned From Teaching Japanese Students

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I had been tweeting using the hashtag #KeioChronicles. This summer (as I did last summer), I was one of three Course Instructors for the Keio/William & Mary Cross Cultural Collaboration. Japanese students from Keio University come to William & Mary for a two week program, which involved lectures on American culture from W&M faculty, dialogue classes, or discussion sections, led by Course Instructors, and group research projects that focus on some aspect of cross-cultural analysis. In addition to all of this, we also took the students on cultural “experiences,” some of which included going to the beach, experiencing American consumption at the Williamsburg Outlets, and attending a baseball game.

My primary role was to lead my class in discussion of the lectures that we had. I helped them formulate questions and did my best to answer them, or at least help them direct their questions to the lecturer of the day, who visited each dialogue class for about fifteen minutes. I was also responsible for grading my students on their participation in class, on the journal entries that they write throughout the program, and on their final research project presentations. And, as if that were not enough, I also drove the vans for the program to get the students from place to place. (We’re talking huge 12 passenger vans.)

I always learn a lot from participating in Keio, whether it be from watching their final presentations, which included topics ranging from the types of ties worn by politicians in American and Japan to differences in elementary education in the two countries, or in my everyday interactions with the students, like taking them to Chick-fil-A for the first time. Last year was particularly heavy because I had to learn how to teach through a tragedy as it was happening. I had to keep it together while white supremacists marched on my former home of Charlottesville. I had to try not to cry when I heard the news that one of them had driven a car into a crowd of people, killing a young woman. But most importantly, I had to learn how to turn tragedy into a teachable moment when it felt like my world was falling apart.

So upon finishing this round of the program, it felt appropriate to come up with a list of things I’ve learned from Keio, my students, and teaching this year.

  1. I learned how to take a bad review. Bad reviews are a part of life, much like rejection, and at first, I’ll admit, reading it stung. In a way, a bad review is a type of rejection– something about your teaching style did not vibe with the writer of the review. I learned, however, not to take a bad review personally.
  2. I learned to not doubt myself. This is related to #1. After taking some time to assess my own work in the classroom, I wondered if someone had finally seen through me and called a spade, a spade. I wondered if I wasn’t knowledgeable. It took me sometime to realize that this wasn’t the case. One negative comment shouldn’t knock me off course. Especially when I had had such a positive impact on all the rest of my students. In fact, I’ll always cherish the kind words one of my students wrote in her journal entry about me and my teaching:
  3. I learned to take advantage of the fact that this is one of the rare moments I’ll be asked to teach something that is not my expertise. While we did have a class on race relations and digital humanities, which is totally my wheelhouse, we also had lectures on business and religion. I had to do a lot of reaching while leading class on these topics, but I chose to look at it as a learning opportunity for myself as well as for my students. I am on a career path that values life long learning, and teaching Keio is one of the few opportunities I have to take advantage of learning completely new things.
  4. I learned that explaining America is one of the toughest feats there is. The nature of this program calls on the Course Instructors to do a lot of explaining– why things are a certain way in American culture. A lot of the time I had to accept that I wouldn’t immediately know the answer; more often than not, they had to accept that the answer was not black and white. My Japanese students had to learn to accept ambiguity, theories, and speculation. I think they are used to being presented with knowledge as cold hard facts, things that cannot be disputed in anyway; I’ve come to discover that knowledge is nebulous and often what I know, even if it is a lot, is usually not the whole story.
  5. I learned as much from my students as they did from me. The questions they asked always kept me on my toes. If I didn’t know, I always challenged myself to find out the answer. They often helped me think about topics in a different way.

Teaching Keio was an adventure: every day was different, with a new topic and new questions. Even when I thought my students would struggle, they surprised me by being engaged, asking amazing questions, and sharing insightful thoughts. They brought a good energy to my class and we learned together in an environment that held as many laughs as thought provoking conversation. Teaching foreign students is truthfully not that different from teaching students from your own country. The main difference is that while teaching students from a different country, you will be forced to reckon with much more of what you take for granted. The very things you accept as true are the things they will want to know more about. The very fabric of your existence, they may know nothing about: I got blank stares when I asked them about whether they had heard of #BlackLivesMatter but they all nodded when I mentioned #MeToo. Suddenly, I was forced to explain a movement in detail that has become the backdrop of my life since 2014 so they could understand the necessity of such a force. I taught them about my America, and in return they attempted to explain Japan to me: why they had heard of #MeToo and not #BlackLivesMatter, whether or not gentrification or some equivalent existed in Japan, and generally why more people don’t protest in Japan. One of my students brought a wonderful Japanese expression to my attention: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

But it was more than just being in the classroom together that brought me joy: it was the moments of watching my students master ordering food at restaurants and trying the spiciest wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. It was our spur of the moment Target trip after lunch, all of our van rides together, and hearing Japanese mixed with English. It was the big things like watching my students dance and sing with unbridled enthusiasm at the Talent Show; it was the little moments like their smiles as they read the notes I wrote them when it was time to say goodbye and all of the pictures we took together that night.


To the Red Dialogue Class–

Thank you for your time and attention. I wish you the best in all your future endeavours.

Love from your teacher,

Ravynn