Week 9: Redirecting and Expanding Mid-Journey

If you read this thread that I posted on Twitter Wednesday night, then you’re familiar with the story I am about to tell.

Two years ago, I would have told you quite confidently that I was not a digital humanist. My first year of graduate school was established scholars telling me which boxes I fit into: I was a cultural historian, I was an intellectual historian, I was a comics studies scholar, I was a digital humanist. I scoffed at all of them because while I might have identified as a comics studies scholar, that was not all that my work was, and in fact I preferred to self-identify as a literary scholar who happened to do comics. Even though identifying as a comics studies scholar sort of fit, I knew with certainty that I was no kind of historian– which left me with the mystery of the digital humanities.

The first advisor that I was matched with when I came into William & Mary was a Digital Humanist (capital D, capital H). Based on my writing sample, which was an exploration of identity in Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” I think it was assumed that I would want to come to do digital humanities, media studies and literature– in that order. The truth? That was the only 20 page paper I’d written in English during undergrad so it was the only thing I had on hand to submit. Former French major problems.

During my first advising meeting, my advisor asked me all kinds of questions about long term goals, publications I was hoping to write, conferences I wanted to attend, books and articles that I hadn’t read. I felt so in over my head that the only possible answer was to retreat into the world that I knew and had always excelled in: literature. Instead of diving head first into an unknown that I was attracted to, I crawled back into my comfort zone. I switched advisors, stopped going to Equality Lab meetings and I kept my head down.

I did well in my comfort zone. I did my master’s thesis. It was passable. It was interesting. It was exciting. After I wrote that thesis, however, my energy started to fizzle out. Then came Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities last fall. It was my first time being in an academic space with so many women, particularly Black women, doing incredible work. Watching rockstars like Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson and Marisa Parham dazzle the audience was the equivalent of watching academic Beyoncés perform. I knew I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t know how. At the time I was still not considering myself a digital humanist; I was an outside observer, a literary scholar come to watch the festivities.

Another year passed. No conference presentations, no talks, no potential publications on the horizon. I told myself that I was just feeling burnt out after my Masters, which is probably at least partially true, but really I was feeling uninspired by my work. I was existing, but I wasn’t excelling.

Enter “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I enrolled in an Introduction to Digital Humanities class and my professor urged me to go to “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I knew Catherine Knight Steele from Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and from Twitter, so I knew it would be a good time. Once I got there and was surrounded once again by Black women scholars doing incredible work, I finally started to understand where I fit. I was inspired by the words of Timeka Tounsel and Grace Gipson and their work on Black women digital content creators. I saw work that I could contribute to based on my own identity as a blogger. They showed me an opportunity to work smarter not harder. My former advisor has been telling me from the beginning that my identities as a blogger and a scholar do not have to be mutually exclusive but I didn’t have a model for how I could have them work together. “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” gave me models. Black digital humanities stitched my identities together.

And then I read Steele’s articles on Black women bloggers and for the first time, I finally had a good answer for “who do you want to be in scholarly community and conversation with?” My former advisor told me that half the battle of grad school is finding the communities where you feel supported. That’s what helps you finish. My community is in digital humanities. It’s where I fit.

So am I digital humanist? Not yet, I still have a lot of work to do– lots to read, lots to write, lots to think through. But I’ve decided to redirect, or even just add to, my identity as a scholar. I’m still figuring it out. But for the first time in a long time, I feel confident that I’m moving down the right path. This feels right. It feels both good and hard all at once, but it also feels very, very right.

So hi, digital humanists, it took me a while to realize this is where I belonged but I’m here now and I’m ready to get to work.

Surviving Postponement: Facing Fears During the Journey to PHinisheD

by Chantae Still

Three is typically my favorite number. I pledged a sorority and was the “Tre,” I am the first of my mother’s three children, and I grew up feeling comforted by the Holy Trinity (father, son, and holy ghost). However, this semester, entering the third year of the doctoral program and still completing coursework, felt oppressive. In 2016 I started this degree feeling confident that I could exceed expectations and do the four-year program in three. At the very least, I planned to graduate in December and complete it in three in a half. I registered for a full-time load every semester and probably could have finished my coursework in two years had I not picked up a graduate certificate that required an extra four classes. Either way, I was planning to finish my coursework the summer after my second year and take my exam in the Fall. Before life happened.

I was one of the doctoral students whose marriage didn’t survive. Even worse than experiencing a major breakup, a dissolution of marriage that I have to say was pretty amicable, my mother passed suddenly in the summer of 2017. Within one month I had suffered two major losses. One was legally gone with the banging of a judge’s gavel, and the other ended with a phone call that changed my life.

During the last conversation I had with my mother she asked me how school was going. “So when you finish they will call you doctor right?” The week after she passed, as my sisters and I picked up her ashes from the crematorium, I thought back to that conversation and realized I had to finish. It was the last thing she knew that I was doing. I was going to be the first in my grandmother’s bloodline to obtain a doctoral degree; quitting was not an option.

Despite advisement from close friends and relatives, I didn’t take any time off. I believed that even the smallest break would result in me becoming another statistic: the failing fifty percent of doctoral students that dropout, often before doctoral candidacy. I continued taking a full-time load while working forty plus hours a week to support myself as a commuter student who lived over an hour away from campus. When things got too challenging I quit my job and relocated closer to my university to make sure that school remained a priority. I was dead-set on finishing by any means necessary.

This August I met with a committee member to discuss the qual question that I would be given for the qualifying exam and my fueled freight train was forced into an emergency halt. “To be honest, based on what I am seeing, I don’t think you’re ready.” In a fourteen-word sentence, my confidence was hit with a figurative bullet and one of my academic fears was realized. I almost didn’t make it out of the office and to the ladies room. It took me digging my nails into my thighs and looking away to prevent a premature breakdown. Initially, I couldn’t tell if it was anger or sadness, but part of me wanted to flip a desk over while another part of me wanted to crawl under a table and lay in fetal position. I entered a stall and began to cry with a convulsing pain. I have never before experienced a panic attack, but this may be the best way to describe what I was going through. Looking back, I think I cried the tears that I suppressed for my failed marriage and the children we didn’t stay together long enough to have. I cried the tears that I stifled after my mom passed before I could experience a healthy mother daughter relationship or make her a grandmother. I cried the tears that I generally concealed when I felt insecure about, unsure with, or unworthy of the opportunity to enter this graduate school journey. I cried with intensity for eighty minutes straight without an ability to talk without hyperventilating.

I survived that day.

After a lot of face-washing in the College of Education bathroom I even attended a campus event that I previously committed to and went to class that evening. In bed that evening I reflected heavily, as what I identify as Imposter Syndrome related thoughts, crept in my mind.

I was raised by a bipolar single mother in Los Angeles, California so I knew how to survive and exist; but, I wanted to obtain this degree and the tools necessary to confidently declare that I was a researcher. I want to stand at the intersections of all my margins, covered by the shadows of people’s suspicion of my aptness, and remain feverently undisturbed or distracted. To do that, existing wouldn’t cut it. Doctoral students need to thrive.

I decided to heed the professor’s advice and postpone taking my Qualifying exams to the next semester even though doing so would push back the anticipated graduation date I worked so hard to maintain. Several times I considered taking the exam anyway to show that my abilities should not be doubted. I concluded it was just too big a risk, and not worth the appeal process that would be necessary if I took them and failed.

I had not told many people, but at the beginning of that third year I was so full of anxiety that I did begin seeing a counselor. Sessions had been sporadic due to my busy work schedule; but the day after this breakdown, I quickly made an appointment and committed to consistent visits with my counselor. I also made an appointment with a previous professor who I admired. She was a well published Minority Scholar whose class I thoroughly enjoyed. I emailed and informed her that I was in need of a “come to Jesus meeting.” When I took her class, she encouraged me to perfect my craft and made me feel that my work would be a valuable contribution once published. I was in need of the morale boosting that she supplied. The following week I went to the church I had been visiting and decided that I would join. I also began reviewing the course catalog to identify additional research methods courses that could strengthen my research skills. This experience of presenting my work to someone and having them dismiss it due to their doubt about my abilities was actually one of my biggest fears. And I faced it.

I was told by several faculty members that you will receive a lot of “no’s” before you get that one yes that you need. This experience drove home that point for me. The next time someone expresses their disbelief or disinterest in my work, my world won’t fall apart. I have now learned how to navigate after academic rejection by utilizing campus resources and accepting the support my support system has been attempting to provide for the last year and a half. The next time I encounter a person with an opinion like this I plan to encourage them to “say less.” They won’t be the first and they won’t be the last and they won’t be able to knock me off of my journey to PHinisheD.


Chantae Still is a Los Angeles, California native, third year doctoral student, attending a university in the South Eastern United States. She holds a Masters in Adult Education, with a concentration in Counseling, from North Carolina A&T State University and recently obtained a graduate certificate in Evaluation. Chantae has a heart for Qualitative research and is interested in investigating the role of Spoken word venues as contemporary learning environments, Mandated Parent Education classes and parent behavioral change, Protective Factors against Colorism for Black Women and Evaluation as a tool for community improvement.

Twitter: @D_Chantae

Week 7: Fall Break Reflections

Fall Break is often a time of reflection here on Black Girl Does Grad School. In the past, I’ve taken the break in classes to reflect on the first half of the semester, assess my progress on my goals, and even highlight some of the better texts I’ve read.

So, as I enter the fourth quarter of the year, I think it would be a good practice to assess the goals I set for myself a few weeks ago in “Week 1, or Goal Setting for a New Semester.

  1. Get through this last semester of coursework in one piece.
    1. ASSESSMENT: At half way through the semester, I think I can say that I’m getting through coursework okay. I’m reading the assigned material, I’m completing the writing assignments, and I’m going to class and participating. Fall break means it’s time to finalize those final project/paper ideas so that when I come back next week, I’m ready to start the projects in earnest.
  2. Finalize my Comps Committee.
    1. ASSESSMENT: This is done! I’m working with my advisor Professor Lynn Weiss on the first half of my African American Literature field, Professor Hermine Pinson on the second half, Professor Mel Ely on African American Intellectual History, and Professor Liz Losh on Comics and Media Studies.
  3. Set a date for my Comps Colloquium.
    1. ASSESSMENT: This is also done! I had my colloquium three weeks ago on September 21. I even set a date for my exams at the colloquium: April 29-May 3, and May 9th for the oral examination.
  4. Start reading for Comps.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m rocking and rolling on comps prep. I have a color coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet where I itemized every text I have to read, and then started a tab where I planned out my reading schedule for each week until December. (I’m reading on average 10 texts per week: a healthy mix of peer-reviewed monographs, articles, essays and fiction/poetry.)
  5. Prioritize my health.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I don’t know how well I’m doing on that front. I started cooking for myself again, which is a step up from existing on popcorn and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In “Goal Setting for a New Semester,” I said, Instead of laying in bed watching all of my favorite CW shows, I think I’ll take my iPad to the gym and walk on the treadmill while I watch instead. That, in all honesty, has not happened. In a half hearted defense, my favorite CW shows just came back on this week. (Okay, stop judging me, I’ll go to the gym, I promise.)
  6. I am going to prioritize my joy.
    1. ASSESSMENT: Because I’m reading for comps and doing coursework and trying to work for the Lemon Project, I haven’t been doing too great at prioritizing my joy aside from making time to catch up on TV. I did paint one small quotation for my new office last week, but I think I need to just take myself on an outing to Michaels and get new craft supplies so I’m inspired to make something with them.
  7. I am going to write again.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m doing it! It’s been hard to do but I started a new novel, I’ve continued to work on Black Girl Does Grad School, and I have a few ideas for a new short story that I need to just sit down and write. I’m not going to let rejection turn me around. I wrote more about my relationship to my words last week after meeting Nell Scovell.
  8. I am going to spend more time with people.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m definitely doing this. I’m not sure why all of a sudden I’m so social. Perhaps because this is my third year in this city and I know people from my last two years who want to catch up, or because I’m in my second year in a position that has brought me in contact with a lot of undergraduate students, or because I simply am feeling up to making new friends or connecting with old ones, whatever the case may be, for the first time, my network of friends in Williamsburg is big enough that I feel taken care of here. It’s ironic, because the last couple of weeks I’ve been wanting to withdraw again, but I’m reminding myself now that my goal was to embrace sociality.

I’m doing well on 6/8 of my goals from the start of the semester! When I reassess again at the end of the semester, hopefully I will have kept my promise to myself to hit the gym and to prioritize my joy. Even though there are two goals I haven’t worked on, I take heart in knowing that there were six that I have completed or am working on. I’m always doing so much better than I give myself credit for.


As you enter the fourth quarter, how are you doing on goals you set for yourself this year?

My attempt at joining the Academy