Category Archives: The Journey

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.

The Hunger Games: Publishing in Academia

On Thursday night (2/6), I made a knee-jerk decision to tweet about the rejection I’d just gotten. I was feeling a lot of things, including, as the tweet left mentions, sadness, embarrassment and disappointment– yet, I forgot the most important reaction of all: confusion.

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I’ve written more times than I can actively recall about rejection. It happens, with abounding frequency. When writing and publishing is involved, it is inevitable that you are denied, and it’s no surprise that rejections can be brutal.

And yet, when my latest rejection landed in my inbox, I was taken aback. I had submitted an abstract to a special issue, which was accepted. The wording in the initial abstract acceptance led me to believe that, yes, there were a lot of accepted papers, however, logistically, they, the editors, would find space for everyone.

So one could imagine my surprise when I received a brief rejection with no feedback, instead of revisions.

The initial tweet sparked conversation. Over 50 people replied with their own reactions to the situation. Some academics, including a journal editor, expressed shock that this was a possibility:

Others mentioned that this is an unusual, though not unheard of, possibility, that relies on very clear communication:

Still others offered suggestions, from reaching out to the editors and asking for feedback to shopping the piece around to other journals. Many offered words of encouragement, but several showed their solidarity by sharing equally jarring rejection stories:

The division amongst those commenting were striking. There were actually several divides and sides to what folks recognized as the issue. Many newer scholars, that tended to be from marginalized communities, had never heard of this practice. However, senior scholars tended to begrudgingly admit that rejecting a manuscript after the abstract has been accepted is not an unheard of practice. There were divisions between whether this was an issue of lack of clarity and transparency, that no feedback was offered, or that it had happened at all.

And while there was at least one comment that suggested that the fault of this was my own for not asking adequate questions and also a reflection of lack of mentorship, most people, regardless of what they saw to be the issue, were in solidarity.

Clearly, there are some things we need to discuss about academic publishing.

While I am a new scholar, I am not completely new to the academic publishing process. I spent my first year in grad school as an apprentice with a scholarly press that published had both a quarterly journal and a books division. I spent two solid weeks in apprentice training learning the ins and outs of academic publishing. Of course, much of what I absorbed during my training and the subsequent year of work did not sink in until I started to hear peers speak about the process and I began to undergo it myself. I began to have a clearer idea in my mind about what terms like peer review and revise and resubmit meant.

This experience has also clarified ideas about transparency in the processes we must undergo in the Academy. This is the number one reason why I started, and maintain, this blog. I recognize that much of this journey is opaque. Another twitter user, Jameelah Jones, reminded me on Instagram that the structure of many academic journals is not meant to ensure the success of new scholars. There are invisible, gatekeeping rules and constraints that, like spiderwebs, of which you are unaware until you run headlong into them. And unlike those who learn their lessons and fall into complacency, I will continue to fall and record my errors (and triumphs) so those who come after me won’t have to make my mistake. The success of future generations of scholars matter as much to me as my own success.

To ensure the success of future generations of scholars in publishing, it is advisable that we drop the unspoken rules of the Academy that uphold a status quo and begin to operate with transparency. This means: we must be clear about expectations and processes, rather than depend on assumed knowledge. We must actively encourage the growth of emerging scholars, which in this case can mean ensuring constructive critique on pieces of writing. We must lift as we climb.

Publishing does not have to be a gatekeeping practice. It should be an institution that stands for new ideas and the dissemination of new knowledge, rather than a shield that protects the old guard. Given that academic publishing can tend toward being more harmful than helpful, it’s no wonder why newer scholars have invested their time and energy in projects that seek to cultivate their voices, often of their own making.

In some ways, I should be grateful. If not for the state of academic publishing and the tendency of academic structures to both reject and overuse contingent faculty, I wouldn’t have Contingent Magazine. The feeling of shouting into a void with publishing that often reaches a very small audience propelled me to begin writing for online magazines. Lack of transparency has birthed a network of graduate students creating their own infrastructures for each other and those who will come after, just look at #CiteASista, #FirstGenDocs, Blk + In Grad School, and Blackademia. Just look at this site.

I now believe that a large part of my scholarly intervention has been through the creation and curation of this blog, the conversations I can start and cultivate, the people I connect with that have become integral parts of my journey.

And I firmly believe in the possibility and potential the conversations changemakers have, in person and in the digital, to foster new forms of knowledge production and dissemination.

So maybe, the question isn’t even: how do we fix what’s broken?

Perhaps it is: what’s next?

BGDMedS: Learning More Than Medicine

by Kayla Holston

“Kayla, you choose the music. You’re the most urban.” As a medical student at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), I’ve become comfortable with being the only Black person in the room. From the engineering undergrad at the University of Virginia to the Master of Public Health at Emory University to now medical school at Thomas Jefferson University, PWIs have become quite familiar. But, whenever I forget just where I am and what assumptions I’m surrounded with, comments like this remind me.

My journey as a graduate student has been about finding out who I am when the security of undergrad has been torn away—who I am outside of school. Am I a yoga enthusiast, a family girl, or a travel fanatic? As it turns out, I am all of those. What I have discovered, though, is that I am also a pensive Black woman who can be disloyal to herself when it comes to confronting racism. And here’s how realized that:

At Thomas Jefferson University, our curriculum is divided into blocks, and each block focuses on a system (e.g., cardiology, pulmonology, neurology). During each block, we spend a few weeks dissecting Sally, our group’s human gift. One afternoon, two lab mates and I decided to go to the dissection lab while it was empty to re-dissect Sally as a form of studying. Since we were alone in the room, we decided it would be nice to play some music. That’s when it happened: “Kayla, you choose the music. You’re the most urban.”

All I could do was laugh. More of a crying laugh, but you know. I thought to myself, if Sally wasn’t here, I’d let you have it. Out of respect for her, I’ll shut up. That’s what I told myself but, honestly, I laughed because I wanted to make him feel more comfortable in a moment he had made uncomfortable. He laughed with me, and I became the “cool Black girl” who didn’t get upset over “silly jokes.’” Now he “jokes” whenever he sees me.

Being a Black medical student puts me in a weird place—I don’t want to be the difficult Black girl. Team learning is even more important here than in my past curricula, and I don’t want to ruin relationships with my assigned team members and then find myself struggling to group study with them. The comment my lab mate made illuminated a quality in myself that I am now grappling with. In academic situations, I tend to be conflict-averse at the expense of my mental health. I believe the reason is a combination of not wanting to hinder my learning (obviously) and not wanting to make situations awkward for myself and others.

I wish I could say, after this realization, I cut off every prejudiced person and clapped back to every racist remark. Still a work in progress. What I can say, though, is that I have become intentional about my mental health and the company I keep. I have embraced therapy for all facets of my life, began regularly engaging in mindfulness through yoga, and, most importantly, allowed God to be my center of peace. (Quick pause: Different approaches work for different people but, if you have not tried it yet, I highly recommend hot yoga as a healthy way to relieve stress and stay fit. But first, try God. Nothing will give you peace until that part is handled.)

Anyway, I have also become okay with the idea of a close, small circle. It is kind of crazy how we feel obligated to spend time with people just because we have in the past. I finally asked myself, why do you let this white girl (excuse me, white passing) keep talking to you like you’re stupid? Why do you voluntarily do Friday dinners with her? So, guess what? I. Just. Stopped. Not groundbreaking, but for me it was. I thought I needed to keep every friend I had because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have anymore friends and medical school is tough without camaraderie. Well, medical school is challenging either way, so may as well do it with woke people, even if there are only three.

So, what advice would I give to a future BGDMedS?

  1. Spend some time figuring out who you are because your identity will be illuminated and tested during this trying but exciting time of your life.
  2. Make a plan for caring for yourself before you get here. If you don’t, it probably won’t happen.
  3. Surround yourself with love and truth, nothing more and nothing less.

There are plenty of people who decide who I am before I open my mouth. But, even when I don’t know who I am, God is certain of my identity. So, I abide in him, embrace what He says of me, and care for myself. I hope you will too.


micahkaylagrad-23copuKayla Holston is pursuing an MD at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. Kayla earned a Master of Public Health in Health Care Management at Emory University and a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering & Cognitive Science at the University of Virginia. She is particularly interested in utilizing her educational background to improve patient flow and healthcare staff workflow in order to improve efficiency in understaffed health systems. Kayla’s current research focuses on improving quality and staff workflow in a Malawian health center in collaboration with Malawian medical providers and architecture professionals. Her second research focus is in orthopedic surgery, particularly with regard to how psychosocial factors affect hip pathology and postoperative outcomes. Professionally, Kayla hopes to blend the roles of a physician and healthcare administrator to continue projects like this, serving patients on both an individual and organizational policy level.