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Week 13, or Finals (Prep) Season

Normally during breaks, I write reflection pieces for BGDGS. This time around, I essentially worked straight through Thanksgiving Break, and while that’s not the healthiest thing I’ve ever done, it did give me some time to reflect on how I prep for final projects and seminar papers.

STEP ONE: Work up some ideas

My first step involves a lot of brain dumping. During November classes, I spend a lot of time turning ideas over in my head, trying to catch on to the ends of ideas brought up in class that peak my interest. As the semester progresses, you can find me jotting ideas for papers down in the margins of my journals or on post it notes.

STEP TWO: Follow an idea down the rabbit hole.

After I’ve collected enough of these half thoughts, I choose the idea that has the most substance to it. This process generally is dictated by how many questions I can ask related to the topic. Once a topic is selected, I do bigger brain dumps.

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Mind map and outline
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Up close mind map
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Outline

Above, you can see examples of two of my brain dumps. In the left most picture, the pink paper on top is a mind map– something I honestly haven’t done since I was in middle school but considering I’m working on a Scalar project for my Media class instead of a linear paper, I decided I needed to work through my ideas in a more associative way. The paper on the right in that picture is a traditional outline for my Reflections of the African Diaspora class. Linear papers get linear planning.

 

Then, you can see a closer view of my mind map and finally on the bottom all I’ve done is consolidate my ideas into a outline, broken into workable chunks.

STEP THREE: Secure, Read, and Annotate Some Books

My heavily annotated World of Wakanda Volume 1

 

Now is also about the time when I start gathering books for my final projects. I spend a lot of time in the Library database, requesting ILLs, pulling books from the library and my own personal stock of monographs and comics. Once the haul is over, I grab a pile of sticky notes, highlighters and pencils, and go to town with annotating those bad boys.

I typically color code everything– in my World of Wakanda volume, green indicates spatial references, orange identity formation, and blue technology. In books that will be used for more than one paper, I assign each class a color.

 

 

 

 

STEP FOUR: Start writing!

A blank scalar page

This blank Scalar page is about as far as I’ve gotten on actually writing anything. I have a blank word document for my Reflections paper, and just a few meager ideas for my Feminism essay. But fortunately, this is a light semester in terms of finals. Both my Reflections and Feminism papers are 15 pages, and my Scalar project should be about 2,500 words, which is about 10-12 pages. Compared to my first semester when I was writing between 60-70 pages total, this is going to be so manageable.

The Scalar project is just going to take time. I need to work on it a little every day to get used to working in the form so I’m not panicking and trying to do everything at last minute. My current plan is to write out all of my sections in a document first, then copy and paste the sections into Scalar, then work from there. I also want to try annotating videos and images in the site itself, so that’s going to take time as well. I’m going to work hard on this one because my friend and I are considering submitting these to a comics conference happening in August, if all goes well.

STEP 5: Think ahead!

As I’ve gotten further along in grad school, I’ve learned to think of final papers, not really as final papers, but as drafts, as playgrounds for ideas you can come back to, expand on, or turn into something different, like a conference paper or a dissertation chapter. Thinking about papers as intellectual exercises rather than scary, huge monstrosities helps take the edge off of finals season and puts you back in control.

I don’t have much written yet, but I do have a lot of prep work done. The more prep you do, the easier finals season becomes. Hopefully next time, I’ll have more to reflect on, but in the meantime, good luck to everyone out there who, like me, is struggling through Finals Season.

Happy Writing!

Week 12, or The Mental Health Project, Part 2

Last semester, I wrote about my mental health struggles and how I would be working through them, convinced that, after a few months of dedication, I would be on top of my mental health and the picture of emotional stability.

The truth is that I have a mood disorder, and no matter how much I want to con myself into believing it can be conquered, the best I can do is regulate myself as best as I can to minimize the damage of a mood episode. It’s the mental equivalent of batten down the hatches, because my mood, like the sea, is really going to do whatever it wants to do, whenever it wants (usually when I’m least prepared for it) and all I can do is be ready and vigilant.

Now, stress is the enemy of so very many people with mood disorders. Unusually large amounts of stress are likely to trigger a mood episode. (Mood episodes are honestly like weathering the worst sea storms imaginable for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. You’re being controlled and beaten by your own emotions, and all you can do to save yourself is hang on for dear life.)

As you can imagine, the added stress that comes at the end of the semester is no good for me but I do my best to take care of myself. Here are just a few of my self-care techniques:

  • Bulletjournaling. I love the ability to track everything– food, medicine, sleep, gratitude, dreams, goals, to do lists, etc. I especially love the freedom of getting to create and organize my own planner/diary exactly how I want.
  • Therapy. Sometimes, you just need to talk it out and your usual chat with your girlfriends won’t cut it.
  • Hydration. Kelsey pointed this one out to me, but sometimes if you’re more tired than usual, you might just need to drink some more water. Try to hydrate a little more before jumping to any illness related conclusions.
  • Healthy Eating (or just eating, generally). I am a terrible eater. I blame my mom– she’s a bad eater, too. Anyone that knows me, knows that during finals season I pretty much exist on granny smith apples, popcorn and hazelnut lattes. Cooking in bulk on Sundays ensures that I have food at the ready the whole week and no reason at all to avoid eating a real meal.
  • Playing with my dog. Playing with Genghis or taking him for a walk for thirty minutes, with my phone off, is a great way to reset if I don’t want to take a nap and just need a little boost of happy energy.
  • Pleasure reading. This seems impossible, particularly in graduate school, but I find that I actually can make the time to read a little of what makes me happy every day. During hard times, I read a chapter of a Harry Potter book every night before bed, but now I’ve been slowly making my way through We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Knitting. I’m a serial binge watcher and I always tell myself I’m going to do something productive while I catch up on my CW superhero shows, so knitting is the perfect way to do something with my hands while enjoying a relaxing few hours of entertainment.
  • Essential Oils/Aromatherapy. Lavender Stress Relief essential oils are the plug. They’re also amazing for helping me fall asleep, too. I put a few drops on my temples and on my wrists before bed, and on my soap for my morning shower. (You can get oils in packs of 3 or more at TJ Maxx for about 10 dollars, and if you have a little more money to spend, you can always try Bath and Body Works’ Aromatherapy line!)
  • Reaching out to friends. I have about five friends who I can always count on to make me laugh during the most trying of times and a couple grad school buddies who have always got my back.
  • Meditating. It’s a hard habit to get into, but once you start meditating consistently, it’s so worth it. Start your day with a five minute meditation, and you’ll feel calmer and ready to take on the day.

As often as you can, I think it’s worthwhile to list out things you can do to pick yourself up when you’re sad, things that you love doing because it feeds your soul, and just things you need to do to feel like a functional human. When it feels like nothing will make you feel better, just looking at list of things that make you smile reminds you that, at some point, all of this made you happy. During finals season, I’m going to make sure I come back to this list, so I can do things that center me and bring me a little peace. I deserve to have a quality life, and I am the only one who can ensure that for myself.

Week 11, or A Classroom Should Be…

The high from last week spilled over into this one: I started out enthusiastic from putting on another successful Lemon Porch Talk, getting my article from the Junto republished on HASTAC.org, and finding out that I would be a HASTAC scholar for the next two years. Despite the feelings of excitement from gaining new Twitter followers and relief from actually finishing all my readings for once, I ended the week on a contemplative note.

I’ve been thinking about classrooms– how they are both sacred and contested, places of refuge but not life rafts. And while it was at first difficult to think of what exactly the magic of a classroom is, I could very quickly discern what it was not. It is not a place where participants interrupt each other, disagree aggressively or otherwise check out all together. It is not a place where hesitant attempts to contribute in discussion are met with snickers or side bar comments. It is not a place where you may take a pejorative or patronizing tone when explaining something that everyone else might not know. While these dynamics are understandable to a degree– excitement causes interruptions and the need to whisper your thought so as not to interrupt the person speaking can be understood– explaining away the problem does not negate the facts.

These dynamics are not conducive to a fruitful classroom environment.

If this is what I do not want my classroom to be, then what do I want it to be?

A Classroom Should Be…

  • A Safe Space; but that does not mean it is always comfortable. As an undergraduate at UVA, one of the first things I learned was that I loved my classrooms. I felt free to learn, make mistakes, and grow. As I took more classes, I realized that even though I loved growing intellectually, it was often uncomfortable. Professor Harold challenged me constantly, Professor Woolfork told me I wasn’t always right, Professor McGrady encouraged me to do the hardest thing I could imagine– because even if I failed, I could say I’d been courageous enough to try. I used to think those professors hated me, but they loved me. They loved me enough to force me out of my comfortable patterns of thought and actions so I would grow. It was tough love, but love nonetheless.
  • Conducive to learning. In order to learn, there is a certain amount of vulnerability one must have, and I believe we must respect and protect students in their moments of vulnerability. We need to make our students feel empowered and encouraged to share, because fear of being wrong is hard enough as it is.
  • A Workspace. In a classroom, learning is a communal process. A good class is one where I not only develop a rapport with the professor but my classmates as well. They become your teammates. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was Interracialism my first semester in grad school, and the five of us fed off of each other, built off of each other, learned from each other, encouraged each other. It was beautiful, and I wouldn’t have learned as much without my team.
  • A Space for Mistakes. I have made my fair share of mistakes and misinterpretations in the years and years in which I have been a student. I have indeed failed a quiz or two in my lifetime. There have been moments in which I have read every page of an assigned book and got absolutely nothing out of it. (Seriously, it happened just last week.) You won’t understand everything, you won’t ace everything, and you will occasionally follow a train of thought so far in the wrong direction that there’s no coming back. But part of the process is feeling free to go in the wrong direction and fall down a few times.

For a classroom to feel like this, it requires certain degrees of trust and respect that sometimes, admittedly just aren’t there.

Classrooms are hard spaces to “get right” and there’s no formula for it. Particularly since every classroom has a different purpose, a different professor, a different space, and most importantly, a different combination of students. Just one minute difference will change the tone of an entire class. As a scholar whose duty lies in the classroom just as much as it does in my research, I’m making a point now to think through power dynamics of the classroom and decide what I can do to create the kind of environment I would want to learn in.