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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?

Dissertation Check-In #4: The Council of Superfriends

My usually carefully planned out, weekly grad school blog has fallen woefully to the wayside since March. All things considered, it’s to be expected. Aside from the pandemic and uprisings and the impending election, it’s already difficult to write a dissertation and to sustain other writing projects while doing so.

So Black Girl Does Grad School has taken a backseat this year.

Nevertheless, I’m still here—albeit sporadically.

I’m currently in the editing phase of dissertation writing. I got the bare bones of what I’m trying to do and say down on the page, and now it’s about tweaking and adding and reading more and fleshing out the ideas that I already have.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, at least for me, it’s not.

Editing is actually the hardest part of writing for me. I think it’s the most valuable part. Much of the diamonds of your thoughts are excavated during editing. The push and pull of working and reworking your writing feels a lot like kneading dough. It’s hard, intense work that requires you to get your hands dirty, and do what looks more or less like destroying your hard work. But if you don’t knead— and importantly, if you don’t let your work sit, or prove, to extend the metaphor— you won’t have much worth showing at the end. It’ll be an underdeveloped bit of mess.

As much as I respect this part of the process, I find it really difficult to do on my own, and with my own writing. Even with feedback from my chair, I still feel rather alone in this journey. The loneliness also stems from writing this particular project about Black girls and fantasy and the digital without having a Black woman on my committee.

Yes, I am aware of how this looks. The truth of it is, when I entered grad school, I knew nothing of the politics of crafting a committee. This was information I learned on the fly. And at that time, a committee didn’t matter much to me, because four or five years ago, when I was applying and starting out, I didn’t know this was the project I wanted. Perhaps a little foresight might have directed me to a different program, with a different set of support systems in place, specifically the hand of Black women scholars.

But I just wasn’t thinking like that yet.

Now I am thinking about these things as I write this creative and genre defying manuscript, knowing in my heart of hearts, that in all likelihood my committee’s not going to get it.

And having to defend my project, and by extension, myself in the process, was enough to paralyze me going forward into edits. I needed to talk to people who would understand, with little to no explanation the why of what I was trying to do as well as the what and how.

So I called a meeting of the Council of Superfriends.

My Council of Superfriends is a collection of Black women I love and who love me from different parts of my life, who all think about Black girls and girlhood in various ways: there’s Dr. Autumn, Black girl literacy scholar and one of my dearest internet friends; Chardé, an anthropology Ph.D. student at my university; Taylor, a theatre artist I met doing Black Monologues at the University of Virginia; and, of course, my filmmaking soul sister, Micah.

I asked them for an hour of their time, to just listen to me try to articulate my project as it exists so far, and offer feedback, suggestions and questions. And as soon as we started, I knew calling this particular group of thinkers together was just what my project needed. More than I needed to be pushed and prodded in my thinking, I needed community. I needed Black women who could show me where the bounds of my own mind were with love and care. They were able to ask the hard questions, and the ones that matter most: if this is a project about the freest manifestation(s) of Black girls’ selfhood, why are you limiting yourself to what you think a dissertation has to look like? Would you even be writing a dissertation to answer this question? Can a dissertation, the way you imagine it, answer this question to your satisfaction? Why did you choose this form? If you’re not planning to stay in academia, why does it matter so much to do this in such a constricting way?

For a project about the potential of limitlessness, I realized I was trapped on every side by everyone else’s expectations. The reason I was feeling so paralyzed by the project was because I couldn’t even imagine what true intellectual freedom would mean and look like for myself under the system that currently exists. And that was the trap. I was trying to fly in a cage. Just because I made the cage bigger so I couldn’t always see the bars, didn’t mean they weren’t still there.

Over the years, I have gotten so good at doing what I want to do inside the lines, inside the cage, that I haven’t truly dared let myself imagine what exploding the lines completely would look like for me. Sure, it’s impressive to be able to do this sort of alchemy within, but that’s not the truest form of my self-expression.

I can’t lie to myself and also do this project.

What a waste. Of time, of energy.

If I’m doing this for who I say I’m doing this for, and if I’m truly doing what I want to do, there is no more trying to fly in the cage.

And in conversation with the Superfriends, Chardé brought up a good point: this is a Hurstonian project. I am a student of Zora Neale Hurston. I am not, nor have I ever been, the only Black woman to find the constraints of the academy and the way things have “always been done,” completely misaligned with my personal mission. I have people I can return to, whose work I can think through and build on, to craft something to ultimately matters to me.

We began the meeting sort of discussing the long standing irritation I have at having to “justify” my dissertation work. I shouldn’t have to explain why my work about Black girls matters: to question that is to question the essential importance of Black girls. And though I didn’t necessarily come to this conclusion in that hour, I did begin to realize that the first step in freeing myself to do this project justice is to stop answering that question. Stop wasting breath on people who need to be taught that Black girls’ lives matter.

It’s time to focus on the questions that do matter, and the people who are asking them.

The Superfriends reminded me who I’m doing this for, and why I’m doing it.

They reminded me that I still have a lot to learn and unlearn and relearn, and that this process is for me. Perhaps this isn’t why other people pursue Ph.D.s, but my project is a labor of love and care.

And it always will be.