Category Archives: Teaching

Sirens and Superwomen: Finding My Way Back to the Power in My Words

I finished reading A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow last night. I put off reading it for a little while because I knew whatever was inside, was going to change my life– or at least the layout of my syllabus.

In the midst of a pandemic and a national uprising sparked by the recent murders of Black folks (in particular, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Nina Pop), I learned I was finally going to be teaching my own self-designed course. It was hard to be joyful; how, I wondered, was I supposed to teach a class on Black girls, new media and magic, when it feels like our worlds are nothing but fear and rage right now. How can I ask them to suspend disbelief– to meet me in imagined worlds– when our world exists the way it does?

Perhaps A Song Below Water didn’t give me answers, but it certainly cleared my head.

Morrow’s debut YA novel takes place in Portland, Oregon. Contemporary Portland, Oregon– not some faraway land you have to dream up the details of. The only difference is that the myths and folktales are true: Sirens walk among us (Seriously. They walk. They aren’t mermaids here.) Except one itty, bitty detail: only Black women are Sirens.

A Song Below Water follows the intertwined stories of two sister-friends, Effie and Tavia, as Tavia learns to embrace the power of her voice as a Siren and Effie comes into herself. (Vague, I know, but any more than that would be major spoilers.)

What readers think is a delightful tale of mermaids and underwater adventures and escapades is actually an insightful social commentary and poignant look at what it’s like to be a Black girl in America. Morrow’s book argues that the threat folks ascertain in Black girls and women can be found in our voices; it argues that our magic is real and it is matrilineal; and it argues that your Black girlfriends? They can always see you, and love you, for who you are. Readers are dropped into the lives of Black girls– microaggressions, love, protests, joy, and all. Morrow smartly weaves this narrative of our realities: being stopped by cops, snide remarks about our hair, the discomfort of being the Only Black Girl in Class with the joy of falling in love for the first time, falling asleep next to your best friend, reveling in the fact that you love yourself. Family love and difficulties hold space with fear of the unknown and connections with the ancestors.

Effie and Tavia’s world is absolutely lush and you want to dive headlong into it.

I picked it up to read a few days after it arrived. I had just woken up from a dream about my late grandmother. Not two pages in, and Tavia’s talking about the connection she has with her late grandmother. Weird, I thought, but not totally bizarre. A few more pages in and Tavia is describing the murder of a Black woman by the police that is sparking a lot of conversation around the nation. It was definitely bordering on prescient. But what truly sealed the deal for me was Tavia’s continued internal battle against her own nature based on external pressures– which is to say, the desire and need to use her voice.

For the first time since starting Black Girl Does Grad School in August 2016, I went an entire month without posting. It wasn’t intentional. Things just went from bad to worse with every passing day, and I felt paralyzed. There was not a thing I could say that would make it any better. So I took comfort in making art– where words failed me, I had images. I read the words of those who have come before me, thinking about the racist institutions they have named and rejected and which we still continue to use despite knowing they are built to work against us.

I thought about how I felt I had nothing to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.

I thought about how this was not the right time to write.

I thought about how my body physically resisted any attempt to write.

Even if I wanted to, my body was saying “No.”

And probably for the first time in my 26 year old life (the same age, I remember, Breonna Taylor was when she was murdered in her sleep), I listened to my body and I took time to grieve. Mourn. Reflect.

The expectation is that you come out of these moments of deep introspection with answers. I have none. I only know I am indebted to those who have given me the strength to go on. Those folks range from my parents to Bethany C. Morrow.

A Song Below Water gave me hope not only for a future of freedom; but a present informed by our ability to embrace our own power. Morrow showed me the way back to my voice– my words. My power. My freedom.

It was a lesson I was glad to learn; and one I can’t wait to share.

A Semester in Review: My Favorite Films From Cinema and Modernization of U.S. Culture

Friday afternoon at 11:50 AM marked the end of my first semester of TA’ing. It had its ups and downs, but ultimately I learned a lot, I bonded with my students, and most importantly, I survived. (I do have to help proctor and grade the exams, but that’s just one day, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m done.)

In the aftermath of the semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about the films we watched and the conversations we had because of them. Thus, here is a list of a few films that stuck with me over the course of the semester:

imitation-of-life-still-03_758_427_81_s

Imitation of Life (1959).

This was my favorite film of the semester, hands down. Early in my graduate training, I took a class called “Interracialism,” which dealt in large part with passing literature. Though the film is filtered through Lora’s eyes, I found myself most aligned with Sarah Jane and her struggle to make sense of her “mix-matched” outward appearance and racial identity. I found the mother-daughter relationships deep and rich; the friendships complex and nuanced; and the social commentary important. Though most critics of the time referred to it dismissively as a “woman’s film,” I chose to reclaim the term. The female and interracial narratives are beautifully done, in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from a 1950s films. It was particularly thought-provoking and I believe it will stay with me for a long time to come.

this_is_thewithinourgates_original

Within Our Gates (1920).  

Oscar Micheaux was one of the only Black filmmakers we studied over the course of the semester, so naturally his 1920 silent film, Within Our Gates, gets a place on my list. We watched it in comparison to the (notorious) D. W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, and while that is an important way to conceptualize the film, I was also particularly interested in the way Micheaux depicts Black mobility. There’s the literal conception of mobility as Sylvia, the protagonists, makes moves from the North to the South and back again over the cover of the film; but also within lies an interesting depiction of upward mobility for the Black characters. Yes, Micheaux does include some stereotypical images of Black rural and uneducated characters, which are supposed to be a juxtaposition of the doctors and teachers shown in the film. I found it disconcerting that Micheaux’s interest in and depiction of Black upward mobility relied on classist stereotypes of Black folks unable to access education.

WOG is not excluded from critique. But it’s also a struggle when you are only presented with one film by a Black filmmaker, because then that film, by virtue of being the only example, becomes the representative of an entire body of works. It’s unfortunate to say the least. Nevertheless, I did enjoy WOG and thinking critically about it’s position in early American cinema.

she-done-him-wrong

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

I hated the ending of this film, and much of the plot, if we’re being honest, but I really enjoyed learning about Mae West. The film was based on an earlier play that she wrote herself. She’s an older, more mature film star, despite the emphasis on young ingenues. She’s witty (yes, it’s scripted), but she delivers with confidence that is mesmerizing to me. I love an independent woman in media (though, again, the ending ruins that for me), but Mae West is an intriguing figure in cinema and I would love to continue learning more about her.

filmsociety

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier. Do I need to say more? No, but I will. As an active reader about Black history, I knew a fair amount about Sidney Poitier’s body of work, but had never seen more than a few clips of him acting. I was excited to see him in action. Again, this is a film where the context and learning about Poitier was more exciting than watching the actual film (it’s a gritty mystery– though a poorly plotted one…I figured out who the murderer was half way through). I thought this film was nicely supplemented by writing by James Baldwin, who was a friend of Poitier, and I enjoyed leading discussion section on this one, because most of my students had never encountered Baldwin before.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Blood of Jesus (1941)
  2. I am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang! (1932)
  3. It (1927)

I’m now much more knowledgeable about early American cinema up until about 1970, which is an interesting thing, but something I’ve been sitting with recently. Many of the films were troubling and uncomfortable, something that one of my students picked up on and wrote about during our last class together. Having to sit through some films, like Birth of A Nation (1915) and Easy Rider (1969), and try to cobble something coherent and intellectual to say about them was actually very difficult. But as a different student pointed out, film is a representation of American history, and American history is uncomfortable and troubling, so it only makes sense that this is the sense we get from watching “representative” films. (They troubled that term and I didn’t even have to lead them to do so.)

Nevertheless, I’m always willing to engage with new modes of thinking, and this experience expanded my ability to grapple with some of my dissertation texts. I’m grateful for my students, who challenged me on a weekly basis, and the intellectual community that we built together over the course of the semester (even when it frequently involved minor rabbit holes into the plot of Paddington 2 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Things don’t always happen when you want them to, but they happen when they need to, and this semester’s work has taught me that– if nothing else.

TA’ing: Revisited

Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about how TA’ing this semester burst a little bubble of hope I’d had for having the freedom to run a classroom how I wanted. Then, I started to find that I loved helping students with their writing— an arena that I did have some say in. And as we neared the end of the semester, I began to rave about how great my students are.

Given my evolving view of TA’ing, it’s time to revisit the matter. I think the issues I pointed to early on, like feeling relatively powerless and made to be the extension of the professor of record, are still valid. But in the weeks that have passed, no matter how tired I am when I walk into the room just before my Friday 9 AM discussion section, I always leave around noon feeling rejuvenated.

My students do that for me.

And there are specific things that make TA’ing/teaching super valuable for me. First, I love office hours. I love getting to spend time with students outside of the confines of the classroom. Office hours is my chance to really laser focus in on their strengths and passions, and guide them in that direction. I get to bond with them over things that we can’t/don’t talk about in class– like “The Ham Cam” or afrofuturism or the MCU.

Second, I genuinely love teaching writing. The ability to effective communicate to a struggling student what makes a tight paper is not innate; it is a learned skill, a muscle I have actively flexed over the course of the semester. I have even developed a little formula for a strong paper:

Ideas + Structure/Flow + Mechanics = “A” Strong Paper

I have learned to be able to identify which piece a student is stumbling over and give them pieces of actionable advice that will make their writing stronger. For strong ideas, I like to ask students what did they care most about during the semester. What are they passionate about that’s a theme across their other classes? Can you make them work in harmony? For writers that are already strong, I try to encourage them to stop writing papers that they think I or the instructor of record will like. If you have a good idea and it’s convincingly supported, that’s all I’m interested in. I would rather students write something they care about, that might lead to more inquiry down the road, than churn something out with the sole purpose of impressing me. That said, I do understand that in a lot of ways, that is the nature of the beast. Writing in undergrad tends to exist for the student and the professor and I’m not sure I like that. I’m not sure belaboring this audience of one is the best way to ensure strong pieces. (But I’m always up for new pedagogies!)

For strong structure and flow, I like to encourage them to think of each individual paragraph as its own mini essay. Have a topic sentence, support your claim, and make in clear how we’re jumping from point A into point B of the next paragraph. I also suggest reading the essay backwards, paragraph by paragraph. This ensure that each piece says what you want it to and then you might realize it belongs in a different space in the essay. Strong outlines are also critical to good essay writing, or at least some preparatory work. Finally, revise, revise, revise. If you have the time, try to get someone else to take a look at your work. This is where the Writing Center can be a crucial tool!

For mechanics, similar to structure, the best advice anyone ever gave me was from my French major advisor. I consistently earned A-‘s on my otherwise very good papers– because I honestly sucked at grammar. He suggested reading my essays backwards, sentence by sentence. It prevents you from worrying about the flow, and you have to slow down enough to make sure each individual sentence makes sense by itself, without the context of the sentence before. This method will also help you catch redundancies in your prose, which you can then replace with stronger, more effective words.

Finally, I love that I have created a classroom environment, despite all the constraints, that leave my students wanting more. I mentioned on Friday to my second class that we had one more session together after break and one person said, “Aw, that’s so sad.” I was sad, too, to be perfectly honest, but I masked it in jokes. As another person was leaving, they asked about future courses I would be teaching. In that moment, I realized that I had done what I set out to do. My students were encouraged; I had helped to foster their already present love of learning; and they now trusted me to take them further.

I almost cried.

This was far from easy. TA’ing actually took up a lot of of my time. Between office hours, prepping for class and discussion section, reading drafts, appointments, and grading, I easily filled 15-20 hours with work a week. I had very little time to work on my own writing, including a fairly urgent article draft, my prospectus and now my dissertation. I was/am always tired

But I wouldn’t take it back. Honestly, it was fun.

And I can’t wait to do it again– on my own this time.