Category Archives: Working

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.

Learning Limitations

June was a personal trial for me. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the resulting protests and national uprising alone were enough to resurrect my panic attacks. The feelings were at least twofold– rage at these lives cut short and relentless fear for the lives of protestors, given the unbelievable reality that we are still living through an unprecedented global pandemic.

I spent the first few weeks of June trying to unravel the knot of difficult feelings that had taken up residence in my stomach, trying to breathe through waves of panic, trying to do anything other than spend most of the day crying.

Because while the world burns, Academia and publishing continues to ask of me, asking for my time and labor and thoughts. In June alone, I edited a book chapter, wrote a book review, wrote most of a journal article, edited my graphic novel manuscript and drafted a freelance reported piece. Many of these pieces popped up near the end of May/beginning of June– I only had a reasonable window of time to complete two of them…if we weren’t living through a pandemic and an uprising.

And while I got everything done in a reasonable time frame, as the month comes to a close, I’ve had some time to reflect on my own limitations.

I have to deal with the fact that though I am someone who likes to keep unreasonably busy– a result of both anxious energy and occasionally hypomania– there still has to be a limit to even my madness. I often come across a quote that says, “You can do everything; just not all at once.” Reflecting on that quote has meant really sitting with my ideas and asking questions of them and of myself: Do you need my immediate attention? Should I let you marinate a while longer? What’s the worst that would happen if I didn’t do this thing right now? How can I slow down? What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?

 

The last question, What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?, is very important. If you don’t make a conscious decision, then your work will make it for you. In order to get these side projects done, I had to put aside my dissertation for the month, a decision both my advisor and I thought practical. Practical or not, I was still frustrated that I couldn’t do all the things. I became increasingly agitated when my body wouldn’t cooperate when I asked it to keep pushing and working and going, producing in spite of the all consuming rage I was working against.

 

Finally, I had to stop.

I had to ask myself: Why is it so important that I do everything, right now?

 

And though I frequently talk about this impulse to push and go that is driven by a need for control, I’m always still surprised when that’s the answer that comes to mind.

I need to feel like something is in my control. The thing I’ve always been able to control is my productivity. When circumstances made it so that I was unable to even control my own output, I spiraled out of control.

After some emergency sessions with my psychiatrist, a consultation with a new therapist, an appointment with a somatic practitioner, new medication, more mindfulness apps and a frequently broken social media break, I started to feel more like myself. I was sleeping again. Food didn’t taste like sawdust in my mouth. The pressure that was threatening to burst out of my body had subsided.

I broke down my work into manageable chunks, giving myself plenty of reasonable daily and weekly goals, worked only a few hours a day, and spent a lot of time tending to myself. These days I have found a lot of joy in making art and accompanying my mom outside as she waters her plants in the morning while I enjoy my coffee. I watch Jeopardy! every evening and read for pleasure for about twenty minutes every morning and night.

I’ll be turning in the last of my June projects this afternoon and the marathon writing month will be over. But I have learned a valuable lesson: Know. Your. Limits.

 

The difficult part is that you don’t always know what your own limits are until they’re tested. And I went into June believing that juggling three too many projects was my personal brand. While that may be true, it’s true under very different circumstances.

Moving forward, I think my rule of thumb will be:

  • Only work on a MAX of 3 different writing projects at a time
    • One of them must be the dissertation
  • Stagger deadlines if possible and if you cannot say no to a new project
  • Work according to what your body is telling you it can handle, not what your mind believes your body can handle.

Valuable though the lessons learnt this month may be, I sure am glad it’s over now.