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Dissertation Check-In #5: Rejecting “Business as Usual”

As always, when I sit down to write for BGDGS these days, I have to wonder what factors led to all the space between the last post and the one you are reading. General pandemic panic is more than enough reason, but in recent weeks/days, I’ve also been contending with an immediate family hospitalization, my own illness and, of course, the coup. The build-up of difficult feelings stemming from impossible situations has pushed me to a breaking point.

Naturally, when you don’t think you can take anymore, someone or something always comes along and pushes you right over the brink.

One of my committee members had what I’m sure were valid comments on my dissertation first draft that unfortunately were couched in stinging language. In a moment where I couldn’t take much more, that was the thing that convinced me that I couldn’t do this anymore. After spending the whole day prior writing affirmations and goals and timelines for how and when and why I would finish my project, not twenty-four hours later, a single ping of my inbox destroyed all the progress I’d made in building my confidence.

And so I cried.

I cried because in a world where everything is on the verge of shattering for literally everyone at any given moment, it’s still business as usual for academia: enforcing the gatekeeping practices that keep white supremacy happy and well-cared for in this institution. I still have innumerable deadlines, diversity and equity committee meetings to attend, research to conduct, writing to do, all with the expectation that I will continue to give and give and give and give because if I don’t, the threat of an ill-defined “they” will come to reject my access to the Ivory Tower.

On a good day, it is the business of the academy, fueled by the power of white supremacy, to keep us busy and run down so that we can’t fight back (to think through and paraphrase a sentiment by Toni Morrison). It is the business of this institution to keep us preoccupied with trying to make space for our research, our shared knowledge, our work, while tending the needs of our students and often fighting for justice, which we do with love, so that we will not, cannot, take these small moments of rupture in stride. Because the small moment is one of a thousand or more, and this was the weight which caused the collapse of a back not designed to carry this impossible load. I find my day to day in the academy saturated with moments that give me pause, that strike me like a hot iron, that cause me to recoil, and I often bare them quietly. This is business as usual in the academy.

It is not business as usual.

We (Black folks, Indigenous folks, queer folks, women, etc. etc.) deal with aggression and violence and trauma on a near daily basis in this institution, filled with folks who should know better, and theoretically do on paper. We deal with this unkindness (an understatement) on a good day, and it is truly shocking to me that some people find it in their hearts to do this in a pandemic.

Y’all are really choosing violence in a pandemic?

I was recently in a roundtable discussion for the MLA on access in the academy, where we discussed the various ways this institution is designed to prey on precarity, which in turn keeps so many people (who are not rich, cis, white, male) out. We discussed the ways that the pandemic exacerbates many of the issues that already exist in the academy. And it remains grating to me that for many people, the issues that they are now experiencing because of the pandemic that force them to think about and center their students and their well-being, for instance, are questions and concerns that folks who teach in the margins have been speaking and writing about forever.

The idea that this moment has opened the eyes of many to injustice and inequity incenses me, because that tells me with great clarity what we already knew: that the default until now was to operate in the status quo of this institution, which I have outlined as being fueled by white supremacy, among other metrics of oppression.

I snapped over the comments on my dissertation, because in between the lines, there was the sentiment that there is no place for this project I have chosen to undertake. It doesn’t work, not because it lacks rigorous intellectual inquiry, but because the form is not one in which they have been groomed to understand as “scholarship.” It reinscribed harmful notions that there is no place for differing expressions of cultural knowledge.

How many times must we fight this fight before we move on from this battleground?

What is the cost?

I recently tweeted that my personal feed is nothing but arts and crafts updates because I’ve reached a point where if I talk about my work/dissertation or grad school writ large, there is a high likelihood that I will start crying. A friend pointed out that this feeling is a largely accepted part of the process.

I reject the notion that I should be driven to tears by this work on a near daily basis and that this is normal.

This is not business as usual.

This institution does not get to continue to ask of me when its general orientation towards me is one of hostility and violence.

This is not business as usual; nor should it be.

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 Writing (R)evolution of Ravynn KaMia Stringfield

The one year anniversary of a few important days has snuck up on me. On October 23, 2019, I had the opportunity to see author Nic Stone in conversation with fellow children’s author, Lamar Giles, in Richmond. On October 25, 2019, my first published piece dropped on Black Youth Project. And on October 28, 2019, I entered #DVPit with the novel I drafted over the summer, Love in 280 Characters or Less.

One year ago, I had no idea that meeting Nic and getting to talk to her would be exactly the confidence boost I would need to pitch 280 in #DVPit just a few days later. I had no idea that my piece for Black Youth Project would just be the first of many (ten!) pieces to come in the next twelve months. I couldn’t have imagined that in just a few month’s time, I would give a keynote at a young writers conference and sign with my agent, and now be on submission trying to sell a book or two.

It’s wild to me that in a year, I really started to establish myself as a writer. This is ultimately what I always wanted to do. When I think back to the thirteen-year-old carting around a spiral notebook, turning her life into a novel, and the sixteen-year-old religiously participating in NaNoWriMo, and the twenty-year-old trying to make her creative writing class work…all these various versions of myself would have always wanted to end up here. And the version of me who sat in that study room on the second floor of Clemmons at UVA surrounded by members of Black Monologues, spitting poetry and performing off the cuff monologues, feeling inspired and safe for the first time— she was the beginning of this transformation.

It wasn’t a linear journey to this point. At all. Though I started to feel more confident in myself after BM, I definitely haltingly dipped toes into the water of publishing. I finished a novel that I eventually queried— to one agent. Who rejected it. And that was the end of that pursuit. Instead, I shelved that project and focused instead on writing smaller pieces for small magazines and this blog. I even did a short stint as a writer for Literally, Darling, and produced some good writing my first time working with editors.

As I got more comfortable with academic writing over the course of my time in coursework, I realized that that style wasn’t all I wanted. I still wanted to be able to share my thoughts and musings in more public forums. Those first couple years of grad school were tough. I really lost myself trying to prove I could do things the way the rigid system wanted me to without understanding that I was not built to operate in that way. My mind wanted a freedom incompatible with the “intellectual freedom” the Academy performatively offers. And most importantly, I wasn’t happy.

But 2018 was a year that gave some answers. I found my place in Black Digital Humanities and let myself be inspired and guided by the Black women scholars who existed as a constellation of possibilities: public work, digital humanities, history, Black feminist thought, art. I realized it didn’t have to be either or. I could do what I wanted to do and the Academy would just have to deal with it, or I would make another space.

That confidence helped me ease back into writing publicly. After my comprehensive exams, I wanted to read absolutely nothing for months. So I wrote instead. And from about June 2019-June 2020, I wrote three fiction manuscripts: two novels and a graphic novel script. I couldn’t stop because this was what felt right.

So I chased that feeling.

Which was how I found myself pitching shorter stories about love and Black feminism and digital things. I started following the sound of the stories that were on my heart and let them lead.

After a year of following stories, I think I can safely say that my lane is an interesting sort of mix of cultural criticism and memoir. While I love everything I’ve produced over the past year, I’m proudest of the two personal essays I wrote for Catapult, How a Black Girl Learned to Fly” and “How Legend of Korra Gave a Big Black Girl Permission to Be Broken.” I can’t totally explain why…but these pieces feel like the closest I’ll ever get to flying my own self (to paraphrase Toni Morrison).

*

I think I needed to do this reflection because recently I’ve been feeling so stressed and tired and ready to quit writing. Being on submission is truly not for the faint of heart.

And though so much is still hanging in the balance, and with so much still to come, I don’t think I’ve fully taken a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come already.

Even though I’m not where I want to be yet, I think back to who I was at twenty-one and know that girl would look at me with awe in her eyes, full of hope and pride.

Who am I to deny myself a genuine moment of gratitude for the road I am traveling, truly walking by faith and not by sight?