Week 3, or Burn Out and (Intellectual) Soul Food

It was bound to happen: the burnout. I went straight from undergrad to a masters/Ph.D. Program with nothing but a (relatively) short summer in between, and was only just beginning to recover from four years of near tortuously rigorous education at UVa when I rolled up to William and Mary.

Considering how challenging mentally and emotionally UVa had been for me specifically, I really ought to have given myself more than a three month respite from academic heavy lifting. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have an unquenchable burning desire to know, to learn, and to be in an environment of constant stimulation. Academia is the perfect place for a person like me, except for one thing: academia tends to push you too hard, and more often than not, you’re not really in a position to push back.

It started with discovering an entire class had been cancelled on me. My tinge of annoyance turned into frustration and then to panic as I tried to find a solution. Panic turned into a constant and heightened state of anxiety as I’ve struggled to make up missed reading for the class I’ve since substituted for my original, keep up with the weekly assignments, write my lengthy (w e e k l y) précis as I can’t attend Tuesday classes, and find my footing generally in the class. This course was an imperfect solution to a decidedly perfect and well planned semester. 

Let me be clear: Academia is my stability. I can control very little, but there is something calming and steadying about sitting down each week, copying down all my assignments and readings, organizing it into manageable chunks that stabilizes my ever changing life and my incessantly active mind.

It was nothing but a misstep. It was like missing a step walking down the stairs and your heart flies into your throat. 

I still haven’t quite recovered.

Add all this to the fact that I’ve switched from working on the William and Mary Quarterly to OI books this semester, where the chapters are long and the turn around are short; that I’ve had 800 page texts for the last two weeks; and I’m attempting to orchestrate an art exhibit for the end of the month? And of course, now is when family issues intensify and time is slipping between my fingers, like my days are two hours shorter than everyone else’s. 

In the midst of all of the insanity, I managed to fall ill (which I’m starting to think is just as much a reaction to stress as it is actual sickness), Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America and I’ve been to a protest almost every week since. 

The emotional energy it takes to simply exist these days in a political moment that is less political than it is a circus of baffoonery takes away from my ability to do even the most basic things, like properly feed myself. I get caught in a maelstrom of cynical tweets and lengthy facebook posts and articles and photos and videos, a never ending stream of panicked negativity, and when I finally get my head above water, it seems impossible that I have to work and study when the world seems to be ending.

I am absolutely not the only person feeling like this. But it’s particularly isolating these days. 

I console myself by playing the Harry Potter movies on repeat, eating a small mountain of dark chocolate chips every day and ignoring responsibility by teaching myself to hand letter via instragram videos and Pinterest. I spend more time decorating my (bullet)journal, which I use for class notes, than I do actually taking notes. I can get through about a half hour of work at a time before everything gets overwhelming and I have to watch the first three minutes of Finding Dory to cheer myself up.

And a surprising amount of my comfort has come from reading (parts) of my 800 pages monstrosities of African-American history. In two of my classes, we’re wading through texts from the Nadir, the period of after Reconstruction and into the early 20th century that has been classified as one of the worst periods of racism in U.S. History. I’ve read The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction for one class, and have been encountering more and more Ida B. Wells in my supplementary reading. My teachers often talk about the W.E.B. DuBois’ hardness of personality and I think to myself, was there any other way to be? Was there any other way to endure the hardness of life during the Nadir? Was it not the grit of surviving the Nadir that gave Ida B. Wells the steel to not run when her printing press was burned down? Not only did she stay, but she got twice as loud and twice as fierce. 

I like to think that it was their belief in the ability of humanity to improve and in their own personal ability to do what they felt was just that sustained them. I like to believe that it was a combination of faith and passion and a strong sense of morality that kept them going. Trying times reveal the worst and the best of us, and I’m just hoping that my current weakness will give way to strength. All I can do is move one day at a time, having faith each day, feeding my passion, and doing at least a little good each day, for myself and for others. I have to have faith that each small, positive thing will add up to a happy life in a larger picture. 

So I read a little Black history every day. I thank God for their strength and pray for my own. I admire the intelligence and tenacity of those who came before me, and pray that I can do my forebearers justice. I praise the good they did this world and it inspires me to do good in my own way.

Thus far, that’s been the best medicine for Burn Out– taking it day by day, and letting my work inspire me to do just a little good each day.

Week 1: Ravynn “Branches Out”

This Black girl doing grad school is back in action after a blissful month of zero obligation and yet, I find that I’m still not ready to face the harsh reality of another semester at school.

School was supposed to start this past week for me, but life didn’t want to cooperate. My friend and I showed up on the wrong day for our class we have together; the next day, I woke up to a message from one of my professors informing me that her entire course was cancelled; and to further mess with my schedule, the class which I had wrongly assumed was the day before, had been cancelled because the professor was battling a nasty bout of the flu.

Now, I’ve never had something like that happen to me– have an entire course get cancelled on me last minute. It was scary and stressful and quite frankly ruined my bullet journal. I spent most of Thursday sending e-mails and texts, and arranging meetings with professors to see if there was something I could take last minute. Finally, I managed to scrounge something together and my courses for this semester will be:

  1. Texts in African-American life since Reconstruction- a history course which promises to be interesting. At the very least, a solid quarter of the books have been on my reading list for a while and it never hurts to dig deeper into my Africana Studies side.
  2. Independent Study, Harlem in Vogue- reading some Harlem Renaissance lit, some criticism and hopefully putting together a bomb project for this class.
  3. Independent Study, New Women- reading some New Women lit. It’s not exactly me but fortunately it’s close enough to what I am interested in, plus writing a literary criticism paper will be useful practice for me considering I’d like my degree specialty to be in English.

You might have noted a bit of sarcasm and a hint of bitterness– it’s because being disciplinarily English and Africana Studies in an interdisciplinary program which emphasizes History is a struggle.

It’s no fault of the program’s or the school’s. We have a world renowned history department. Anyone who’s serious about American History for higher ed probably looked at William and Mary, particularly colonial history. Who wouldn’t want to take courses in a world renowned history department?

Well, me, I guess.

Honestly, history is far too white, far too male and far too rigid for the kind of work I want to do. Practically, taking more history courses does nothing for me when I hope to eventually be hired as an English professor (or at least in a position that lets me teach literature). Realistically, history matters most to me when it’s used to exact justice or when we learn our history to inform the path we take forward.

History matters to me when it’s active. For example, the Lemon Project Branch Out Trip.

Last Friday, I was minding my own business while my friend took a call as we walked through campus together. She was getting ready for this three day intensive retreat that was supposed to kick off Saturday morning, and she’d been fielding e-mails, texts, and calls most of that afternoon. All of a sudden, I hear, “Oh…no, it’s okay…I can ask Ravynn or Adam if they’d like to fill in.”

After she got off the phone, she explained that her boss had gotten sick and she needed someone to help her lead the workshop. We did a little back and forth, but eventually, I agreed to do it, since I’d been planning to lead a mini workshop on Black Protest Art as a part of the retreat anyway.

The first day passed in a relative haze, as I did my best to remember names and act like I knew what was going on, but the second day brought almost all of the students out of their comfort zones. In the morning, after I gave my lecture on Black Protest Art, I gave them the opportunity to create something. Considering most education is a merit system which rewards regurgitation over an investment in the knowledge itself, it was no surprise the students were stunned that I had asked them to make something. It took a little pushing, a few quiet one on one conversations, and a little encouragement, but they slowly warmed to the idea. In the end, they spent more time than we’d anticipated sharing and explaining what they’d made, one student in particular was amazingly brave and vulnerable as she shared how her piece reflected her multi-faceted identity.

The afternoon continued to get tougher. The students watched 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the 13th Amendment, and it was…difficult. I noticed one of my girls disappeared well before the end of the film and wasn’t back when it ended, so I went on a mini quest to find her. When I did, the moment that we shared reaffirmed the reason I wanted to get my Ph.D. I wanted my degree for her. I want my degree so that I can be the professor that understands how hard it is to talk to a room full of white people about slavery and mass incarceration. In that moment, she needed me, a Black woman who had been in her shoes and who could cry with her because I, too, understand how heavy the burden is.

I honestly believe in lifting as we climb with all of my heart.

That moment was so powerful that I immediately cancelled my plans for the following day (I originally only signed up to help run 2 of the 3 day and had been planning to spend day 3 doing community service with the Black Law Students). I instinctively knew I needed to be there all three days.

Over the course of that three day retreat Ari walked them through history and taught them how to make it their own, I explained the legacy of Black expression and helped them create their own, and they learned that the best weapon they have in the fight to be better citizens is each other.

In just three days, they not only made strong bonds, but they completed bystander intervention training, they protested together at a weekly local event called Moral Mondays and created a digital exhibit which explores the College newspaper’s stances on race throughout the last hundred years.

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Lemon Project Branch Out students and facilitators at Moral Mondays; Photo credit: Zack Meredith
This kind of teaching also matters. The kind that engenders a kind, compassionate, empathetic, and creative type of student, whose thirst for knowledge comes from a desire other than an A on the next assignment. This is the kind of history lesson I’d be glad to teach for the rest of my life.

 

Week 17, or Ravynn Writes Her Conclusions

Whoever decided to only put one week in between Thanksgiving Break and the end of the semester deserves to step on a floor of Lego blocks for a very long time.

I didn’t realize how much I was depending on the turn around time after Thanksgiving to get ready for the end of the semester. Fortunately, due to my obsessive need to plan everything out and work weeks ahead of schedule, I found myself with a substantial part of my final papers done coming back from break. But I also realized that was somewhat unusual. Most of my peers had nothing written, no ideas, no arguments, and while I totally understand that procrastination is absolutely a way of life for some people, even the idea of having nothing this close to due dates was enough to nearly send me into a panic.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to work under the pressure of a next day deadline. I don’t want to imagine it. As a perpetually anxious person, I need to do anything I can to alleviate the stress I do have to deal with. So if that means getting an obnoxiously head start on papers…well, you know the rest.

Two of my three deadlines are Wednesday at 5 PM; the other isn’t technically due until Christmas Eve, but the thought of having one final paper hanging over my head for another three weeks also stresses me out, so that paper will probably get submitted with the rest of my semester portfolio.

As of today, I have drafts of two papers and half of the last; I’ve sent two in to professors to get comments and I have one back already; and after I finish writing this blog, I’ll probably get cracking on that last paper. Fortunately, it’s just a literature a review and a sort of exploration of my field of interest, which I’m discovering is Blackness in speculative, fantastic fields (thank you, Richard Iton, for expanding my ideas of the Black Fantastic), particularly sequential art and comic studies (which, thanks to Deborah Whaley, I’m realizing is not the same thing). Honestly, the literature review has been helpful; if anything it’s been helping me organize my thoughts and ideas, narrow down my areas of interest with laser precision, and read what else is out there, thus figuring out where my own work will fit in this larger intellectual conversation.

My research paper has been an experience. I started thinking about how I could track the image of Black Panther, the comic character, over time and then the deeper I got into the research, the bigger I realized what I wanted to talk about was. I wonder how often that happens and what happens when your realize your project is too big but you want to keep working on it…Maybe over time, with more research, this paper might turn into my first article that I refine for submission to a journal.

Finally, I’ve been working on a sort of interdisciplinary, literary analysis/criticism for my Interracialism class. I took a look at racial formation through musical and linguistic articulations, and how that may look in different geographic spaces, in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. I love that I’m coming back to works that I found intriguing in undergrad and finding a use for them now. So special shout out to Professor Hamilton who assigned some bomb books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise in Musical Fictions, and also to Professor Woolfork for her Fictions of Black Identity books. I should also take the time to thank her for kicking my ass in terms of my writing. I will never forget how hard I had to work in her class–I bring that ethic to everything I do now.

Through out all of this, I have been trying to take care of myself…with varying levels of effort, thus with sometimes spotty results. I did outline my ideal study/work day and my usual attempts to organize my work and life during finals, though, for the site I write for Literally, Darlingso if you’re interested in my tips and tricks for surviving the madness, be sure to check it out here.

It’s hard to believe that the next time I write might be the last until I gear up for Act I, scene II of the drama that is my life as a graduate student, because it’ll all be over for the moment. I can’t wait to reflect on it all, to see the road I’ve come down, and assess the path ahead.

Over break, I might toy with writing a few blogs on writing the big papers, figuring out your areas of interest and reading on your own, and application tips and tricks that I didn’t know about when I was getting ready do the graduate school thing.

I’m so proud of myself for making it this far, and thank you, dear reader, for traveling with me as I embarked on my latest great adventure.

 

 

My attempt at joining the Academy