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Week 1, or Ravynn Begins Again

Sometimes it’s still hard to believe that I have an entire year of graduate school experience under my belt. I was an editorial apprentice for a year, I presented a paper at a conference, I took six classes and wrote substantial papers for all of them. I did archival research, wrote a Masters thesis, and even took a summer job as a Course Instructor for the Keio program.

One entire year later, I stand once again at the precipice of another academic year, filled with surprises, challenges and joys, knowing that if it gets harder, at the very least, I can say I got through one year already– what’s another?

This year, this semester, looks a lot different for me already. Instead of the highly structured work of being an Omohundro apprentice, I’m now working with the nebulous Lemon Project, where my physical presence is only required for one hour a week, which I am to spend in my office in Blair Hall. Thus far, this year’s assistantship has been a lot of e-mails and meetings, going to events and planning for them. It’s a good year to be doing the work I’m doing, as it’s the 50th anniversary of residential African-American students at the College. I’m sure a lot of interesting opportunities will arise because of this over the next year.

My current task is simply to organize the first Porch Talk of the semester. I suggested making it self-care themed, as this is a particularly difficult time for a lot of people, given the political climate of America, and also recent events in Charlottesville. Now’s as good a time as any to work on keeping ourselves sane while preparing to fight the good fight.

In addition to this, I’m also going to help my boss move forward with her idea for a Lemon Project journal, hopefully to come out during the Lemon Symposium in the spring. I’m certain that this is going to be my pet project for the duration of my time with Lemon.

In terms of classes, I’ve got a dope line up: New Media, Old Media (it is what is sounds like, a media studies class); Anthropological Reflections of the African Diaspora (taught by a former Black Panther); and Feminist Theory (a class that I have astonishingly managed to miss despite my interest in feminism). It’s going to be tough: it’s the first class line up I’ve had in grad school that doesn’t have at least one literature course, which usually helps me break up the monotony of the academic-ese and theory I have to read. Plus, I’ve never taken a media class (I just sort of got drawn to it on my own and was self-taught until now), I did anthropology once my first semester at UVA, and theory isn’t my favorite. But, given that I do comics and often talk about their television and film counterparts, New Media, Old Media will be useful; I love doing Black Studies in basically any form; and who doesn’t need a good feminist theory class? (Rhetorical; I can think of a few people who think they wouldn’t need it.)

Not only will these courses take me out of my academic comfort zone, they will also challenge my critical thinking skills and how I express my knowledge. New Media, Old Media is going to require me to write blog posts and do a scalar project (I don’t know what this means yet, my first class is tomorrow), so my final paper will be shorter because I’m doing so much other work. Feminist Thought is going to have me thinking outside of the box as well: my professor wants us to write a book review and an oped during the semester, and a research proposal or a lit review for our final papers. She thinks it’s worth being able to express yourself in a variety of ways; I couldn’t agree more. Reflections of the African Diaspora will be more traditional, but even that final won’t require me to do a research paper: my professor wants a lit review.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to have different creative projects this semester, but I will admit, I was already starting to think about the research paper I could write for Feminist Theory about the Dora Milaje in Black Panther. It would be a cool paper that could potentially turn into a dissertation chapter, or at the very least, something to submit for a conference. At least I can write the proposal for that paper and tuck it away for a later date.

And amid all the chaos of starting classes and a new assistantship, I have my biggest project yet looming over me: my Masters thesis. The Dean kindly reminded my advisor that I need to be defended in September. It’s not as though I won’t be ready, but the message definitely jolted me awake and reminded me that I can’t let edits drag on forever. The fact is, I had my first draft in to my advisor on August 1. She gave me my edits back. Now, I’m working on them and the goal is to have draft 2 in by September 15. That gives me time to organize my committee and prepare my notes for my defense for the last week in September.

I can absolutely do it. The edits my advisor gave me are substantial, but doable in the amount of time I have, if I focus. Fortunately, time management and self-discipline are some of the strongest tools in my arsenal.

My plan for this week is to keep editing as I’ve done the last few days, letting my reading for class sort of take the backseat for a few weeks until I’ve gotten through my Master’s Defense. (Though I have every intention of keeping up.) I want to see my advisor about a few finer points she brought up in her comments, suggestions for citing a few things, and maybe a pep talk, but after that, I want to kick into high gear.

If all goes to plan, I’ll be 23 with a Master’s Degree, and the newly freed up mental space to take on new projects in 2018. Then, I can think about the next set of obstacles: Comps.

Fortunately, I have a low key assistantship with flexible hours, so I can afford to spend more time on my thesis this first month of the semester. Most of the work comes in the spring, I hear, with the arrival of the Symposium and Branch Out. I’ve also got a dog that I love, who helps remind me that the most important things in my life are not on my computer, a mom and dad nearby to catch me if I fall, and a community of mentors, scholars, and friends who encourage me. Talking to a friend from UVA who is now ABD at Penn gave me the jolt I needed to jump start my year; Kels is my perpetual hypeman– she keeps me going when I want to give up, so I do my best to return the favor when law school plays too much; and seeing all that Professor Harold has accomplished reminds me that, if she can do it, so can I.

My academic community may not necessarily be here with me in Williamsburg, but I know there are some people out there who’ve got my back. They give me the strength to begin again.

Intermission, ft. #DefendCville and Other Distressing Incidents

I last wrote right before the world imploded– my world, anyway.

While I was writing my last blog post, white supremacists were likely holed away somewhere in Charlottesville, preparing for the “surprise” pre-rally march that they held through my alma mater later that very night.

I went to bed early that night, thinking only of the journals that I had yet to grade and the presentations I would have to watch the next day…whether or not the focus group I was advising would be as fabulous I knew they could be.

I had no idea.

When I woke up the next morning, it was a morning like any other. I smiled at my dog and pulled my phone toward me and did my pre-morning-walk glance through my phone to check my notifications.

It only took a few scrolls down twitter before I was sitting up straight in my bed, frantically scrolling to see if I could find an explanation for the pictures and videos of white supremacists carrying torches through the campus where I had once lived–where I had called home. 

I spent the morning numb with rage. I was angry. I was afraid for my friends, and as I was getting ready for Keio, I texted everyone I knew who was in Charlottesville and made sure everyone was okay. I texted my friends who weren’t there but who attend/attended UVA to make sure they were okay. Everyone was fine– the kind of ‘fine’ that meant nothing had sunk in yet. The kind of ‘fine’ that meant you were turning the situation over and over in your mind but nothing was computing.

It felt impossible.

And to anyone out there who wants to immediately chime in to say, “But of course it was possible! This ain’t new!” I agree, but I also feel compelled to say that it was the feeling that was impossible. I study race. Well, I study literature and African-American history and culture. I know this was not only extraordinarily possible, but somewhat probable, I would even say, given Charlottesville’s long history of slavery and more recent history of growing tension in the community and amongst Black students.

But it felt impossible.

It felt impossible that people I knew from school, my friends, people I considered my family were close enough to people who, given the opportunity, would gladly hurt them, to take clear photos and videos. It felt impossible that they had invaded the residential space of where one of my best friends was going to be calling home– the Lawn. She moved into her room the next day. It felt like living in a dystopian novel that suddenly my Twitter feed was filled with articles on major news cites and magazines by people I knew, was friends with, or knew of through other friends– giving their first hand accounts of what we need to call a terrorist attack.

The war I had been theoretically battling in suddenly attacked close to home– literally.

I saw my friends who had been like me, theoretical and protest driven, advocates and teachers, suddenly become foot soldiers in a war that a large part of America refuses to acknowledge.

Despite the turmoil, I had to go to work Saturday morning. I couldn’t hide in bed or jump in my car and drive to Charlottesville. All I could do was put on an all black outfit and prepare myself to either verbally attack or educate– as the only Black person in the program, if I’m being honest with myself, I was mostly preparing to attack.

There is much I regret from that Saturday. I regret not asking to be the one to explain what had happened in Charlottesville to the Keio students– I wanted them to see the impact something like that had on a personal level, as a Black person, as a Black woman, as a UVA alumna with friends still in school and strong ties there. I regret holding a hand while tears were shed over the Holocaust, while my Black friends were in the kind of urgent, immediate danger that I had never understood before that moment. I regret letting the conversation be dictated by the white response, by white feminism, by people who wanted to talk about the anti-semitic components. My regret was not that we talked through that lens, but that I didn’t insist that this was a conversation that needed to have Black people, Black experiences and Black responses in it. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to express my pain. I let people talk over me, because their experiences were clearly more important than my own; I let several people cry and rage to me; but I didn’t do the intellectual work in the moment that I had always insisted I would do– in theory.

I’m the type of person that claims to be the protector of the underdog, the verbal attacker, the one who “takes-no-shit,” and yet in that moment I didn’t do what I told myself I had been doing all along. I didn’t speak up. I didn’t make anyone hear me.

Even when I took a small group of the Japanese students with me to the Charlottesville vigil in Williamsburg, I continued to allow myself to be talked over, my silence sealing my complicity with ideas I did not quite agree with.

I was angry at myself for not getting angry with the people who deserved it.

The only thing that got me through that day were small moments: a text from a friend saying he was okay; the assistant director of Keio taking a break to stand outside with me, just standing together, watching a video of the counter protests, but also just standing in silence; one of my students coming up to me to ask if she could “go to Charlottesville,” after taking group pictures, as a way to ask if she and some other students could accompany me to the vigil.

The small moments were what got me through the rest of the trip. I stayed so wound up about Charlottesville that I couldn’t bear to talk to anyone who wasn’t talking about it. I couldn’t sit still during conversations about make-up or music or Donald Trump. I spent whatever free time I had reading articles about Charlottesville and looking at pictures of the rallies on my phone. The first thing I did when the trip went to D.C. was find a friend from UVa who I could talk to and the floodgates finally opened. No one around me seemed to get that something inside of me had ripped and I was bleeding, and I was carrying around that pain while still trying to function as a leader.

The end of Keio passed in haze for me. There were certainly moments that broke through the haze and pulled me back to Earth: taking the students to the Japanese embassy, visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture for the first time, meeting up with my long-time friend Jared, touring the Air and Space Museum with two of my students and being dorks together, and the end of the program talent show, which turned into quite the spectacle at the end. (I think there’s a video somewhere on the internet of me dancing and singing to Taylor Swift songs.) Sad as I was for the students to go, I was relieved to be able to crawl back to my parents’ to vent to them, cry, and pet my dog.

Keio ended almost 10 days ago, but I still haven’t got my feet back under me yet. I’ve not really been doing much, even though I should be editing the Masters thesis draft that my advisor sent back to me and getting ready for classes, which start Wednesday. I still don’t feel right, to be honest. It’s partially exhaustion, partially mental and emotional distress, partially other mental illness related issues. I’m not quite ready to deal with people. I’m not ready to move on to other topics. I’m still dealing with the one at hand.

At the very least, the start of the semester means I’ll be back to regularly scheduled Black Girl Does Grad School posts, every Sunday. I’m really glad I thought to create a space over a year ago where I could decompress about things happening in grad school and in life, particularly, when no one else is listening. It’s been a useful exercise and also a huge contributing factor to my sanity. (I mean, let’s not be too strict in defining sanity…but anyway…)

 

So, until next week, when we embark on my next adventure– year 2.


BONUS MATERIAL!

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I just wanted to also quickly mention that after my fun little archive visit, it turns out that someone at VCU wrote a blog post about me, my work and my blog! It was super flattering so I just thought I’d share the link in case you felt so inclined as to check it out.

Intermission, ft. KEIO!

After hustling through my first year of graduate school, trying my best to stay on top of deadlines and final papers, I had devoted very little time to thinking about potential summer endeavors. While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you’re pushed to find the best internships possible during the summer– and I, being completely and utterly myself, never had a summer internship. I was always just doing something else– studying abroad, working with Orientation for new students or sometimes just relaxing. I’ve never been particularly pressed about finding unpaid employment during my summer breaks, even to this day.

Nevertheless, I heard through the grapevine that American Studies graduate students often had the opportunity to work as Course Instructors for the Keio program. Simply put, the program is a “Cross-Cultural Collaboration,” in which the College of William and Mary hosts Japanese students from Keio University for two weeks, organizing a set of lectures on American culture for them, while also facilitating research projects on American/Japanese culture that they began back in Tokyo and taking them on trips to explore Williamsburg, the greater Tidewater Area, Richmond and for the last four days, we will be in Washington, D.C.

Fun fact about me: I’ve actually done a program very similar to this when I was in high school. I went to Princeton for ten days, was matched with a Japanese roommate/buddy, and while our roommates attended English classes, we spent our mornings learning about Japanese language and culture. Seven years later, it’s still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and I’m actually still good friends with one of the Japanese girls that lived in a suite with me. The experience seemed to have stuck, because I applied to work as an instructor for Keio and was excited about the opportunity to work with Japanese students again.

The end of my leisurely summer days of working at Michaels and writing my Masters thesis snuck up on me so quickly. I spent the end of July trying to piece together a Masters thesis draft to send to my advisor so she could take a look at it while I was doing Keio. After that got submitted (65 pages and 18,000 words later…), the start of Keio was staring me in the face. Our days are structured fairly simply. The Japanese students have breakfast, the course instructors (me) pick them up in 12 passenger vans and take them to class, they have a lecture by an American Studies professor or an ABD grad student, they break into Dialogue Class where CIs (me again) help clarify the lecture and facilitate discussion on the day’s themes. They go to lunch, then we drive them to the library, where they spend most of the afternoon working on their Focus Group Presentations. There are six groups (that are not the same as their Dialogue class) that have a different research topic and each group has a W&M undergrad to assist them with their work. They will present their findings (!!!) tomorrow actually, and I am presently killing time until my focus group is ready for me to listen to their presentation in preparation for tomorrow’s big day. Then, depending on the day, they might have free time for dinner, or dinner might be catered, and there are occasionally that go with the day’s lecture. One example was the two hours we spent dancing to a live jazz band on Wednesday night after the morning’s lecture on American music. Depending on the day’s events, we (the CIs) drop the students off at their hotels anywhere from 7 to 11 pm (sometimes later) and I go home and pass out before I have to get up and do it all over again.

It’s a lot of running around and doing logistics on the fly and driving around in vans that are closer to small buses than cars, but teaching my Dialogue class has been one of the most reward experiences I’ve had thus far with the program. I have eight students, one boy and seven girls, and they’re all fairly shy, with the exception of one of my girls, who’s always willing to share her opinions with me. Despite their initial shyness, my students are some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. They think very deeply about all the lectures we attend and even if they aren’t comfortable sharing verbally, they write journal/blog entries every few days on the lectures they attend, the experiences they’re having and any thoughts they might be having about American culture, so I get to hear from them all at the very least through those.

So far, they’ve been exposed to some really great topics, some of which are complicated even for professors and grad students, let alone Americans in general: we’ve had a lecture on an introduction to cultural studies, one on the social geography of Williamsburg and on gender and sexuality. We’ve heard about race relations in America, music, consumption and citizenship, and today, American food. One line that we can draw through all of the lectures is the presence of race and economic impact. My students were shocked to learn that everything in America is, or can be, racialized, even down to the food we eat. (Thinking, for example, about how Black Americans attempted to integrate food counters.) One of our lecturers and my fellow graduate student, Khanh, aptly said, “You can’t study anything in America’s history without talking about race.” I try my best not to shower them in my own opinions, but tell them enough about the history, the straight up facts, so that they can come up with their own opinions. When I’m not running from activity to activity, I’m usually posted up somewhere grading their journals and thinking about how, logistically, we’re going to get to the next point on our itinerary.

As it’s Friday, we’ve almost come to the end of the portion of the program that is in Williamsburg. On Monday, we’ll take a bus up to Washington D.C. and have the remainder of the program there, and they will depart either back to Japan or to other travel destinations on Friday morning from Dulles. I’m looking forward to D.C. mostly because I love having excuses to go into the city– I’d live in D.C. if I could. There will be a lot more freedom for everyone involved, because the students can go wherever they want on the metro or by bus. (Public transportation is so much more reliable in bigger cities; even in Charlottesville, traveling by bus wasn’t the worst thing in the world…most of the time, but in the sleepy suburbs of Virginia? Not so much.)

When everything’s said and done, almost any new experience is made unforgettable by the people you get to interact with, my relationships with my Japanese students and the William and Mary undergrads have really pulled me through. I mentally do an excited dance when one of my shiest students approaches me about a question she had that she didn’t want to ask in class. I spend a lot of time laughing and swapping stories with my most outgoing student, but also smiling at my one male student, who likes to just be a dork 9 times out of 10. Even though logistics for lunch and dinner are bananas most of the time, once I’m sitting with a group of students, I can’t help but enjoy myself. They’re so lively and everything is new and exciting for them– the energy is infectious. Not to mention, I’ve gotten close with a few of the American grads too. One boy is my “shade” partner in crime and I’ll never forget how I almost died laughing while dancing the cha-cha over-dramatically with my girl, Kate. These students are at the core of why I’ll have fond memories of this program. I’m so glad to have met them and after reflecting a little bit, I’m excited all over again to see what memorable gems this last week will hold.