#KeioChronicles: Round Three

Summer weather is dwindling to a close and the semester has already started. But before I launch full swing into this semester’s work, I want to take a moment to reflect on my experiences with the Keio Cross-Cultural Collaboration, a two week long exchange program with students from Keio University in Japan.

2019 was my third year working with the program– I was a Course Instructor in both 2017 and 2018. This year, however, I decided I was more interested in the administrative side of the program. I take pride in my organizational and logistics skills, and after seeing the program from one side, I had been taking note of things I could potentially improve if given the opportunity.

So I applied for the Academic Director position, and after sweet-talking my friend into applying for the Assistant Director job, we were selected in early March. One of the biggest differences between between a Course Instructor and being on the Director team is that despite the students arriving in Virginia-in-August heat and humidity, Keio starts when it’s still cold outside. My new position required me to conduct interviews for the Course Instructor jobs, held by American Studies graduate students, and for the Peer Assistant ones, held by W&M undergrads. I alone was responsible for planning the Academic portion of the program, so I had to immediately begin reaching out to potential lecturers, making sure that we had a good trajectory and flow through the various facets of American culture that we would be introducing them to. By the time early summer rolled around, I had a full staff, an academic plan with lecturers on deck and a long list of other miscellaneous things which had to be taken care of before the students arrived on August 5.

Even with the five months of preparation time, the summer flew by and August 5th was staring me in the face. I hurried to prepare the blog on which the students would write their reflective journal entries, do roommate assignments for the hotels, update the handbook and syllabus, and get the students all the information they would need for the program well in advance. I was also prepping for our staff orientation the morning before the students’ arrival, making sure staff was set, while also generally panicking (as I tend to do. I’m a worrier).

On the day of the students’ arrival, I rode to DC on a charter bus along with a PA to meet the group at Dulles Airport and to escort them back to campus. We waited with dwindling enthusiasm as an hour passed after their scheduled arrival, then another, and another. Finally, three hours after they’d landed, the group finally made it through customs after being caught in a traffic jam of six other international flights landing at the same time. We made a quick pitstop for dinner before pulling into our hotel for the trip around 10 PM.

Naturally, everyone was jet lagged and exhausted when we started our program in earnest the next day. Our lectures were interesting and also challenging: Professor Kitamura did an introduction to cultural studies while Professor Knight did a history of Williamsburg; Professor Ely managed to distill 400 years of U.S. Race Relations into 45 minutes and Professor Johnson gave an interesting talk on megachurches for our U.S. religions day. Professor Losh did an excellent talk on digital feminism, followed by an impressive talk on pop culture by American Studies Ph.D. candidate Khanh Vo and ending with a lecture on U.S. social movements by Dr. Singh. Each lecture was followed by break out sessions called Dialogue Classes, where Grad Student CIs helped students through the more difficult aspects of the lectures in smaller group settings. The lecturers would visit each small group to answer questions and talk about their lecture more in depth.

Some days were supplemented with extracurricular activities such as visiting local churches on our religion day and talking a walk through Colonial Williamsburg following Professor Knight’s lecture. We also spent a morning visiting a local business, the Canon company!

Afternoons were typically spent in Swem library where the students could work on their group research presentations on topic of their choice. We had groups doing everything from a comparative look at transportation to elementary school in U.S. and Japan to the function of vending machines in the two countries. In our final full day in Williamsburg, the groups presented their final projects, which we recorded to send to Keio University, before we went off to Washington D.C.

In D.C., the students were much more on their own than they were in Williamsburg. Due to the difficulty of getting around via public transportation and/or cabs and ubers, we (and by “we” I mean the CIs) shuttled the students around the city in 12 passenger vans. But in DC, they were free to metro, take taxis and walk any and everywhere they wanted to go, so long as they met us for the required activities. As dialogue classes, groups visited the Smithsonian museums; we went on a group tour of the national mall and we visited the Japanese Embassy, where two selected students gave a presentation of what they had accomplished over the last two weeks.

Before I knew it, we were at the last night of the program, which included a Farewell Dinner and Talent show. It was filled with singing and dancing and merrriment, gift giving, tearful hugs and so many selfies. I was really proud of myself for having gotten through most of the goodbyes without crying, but the next morning, after everyone had hugged their new American friends and teachers for the last time, I boarded the bus taking them back to Dulles for a final headcount. When I had the right number of students, I took a deep sigh, smiled and waved at them. All of them waved back at the exact same time and I immediately started to cry.

As the bus rolled away from the hotel, I took a breath, realizing with pride that I had not only managed to get through another Keio, but that I had successfully planned and executed this whole thing.

**

I continue to do Keio because a part of me, the 16 year old part of me that learned about Japanese culture for the first time at High School Diplomats, never grew up. I never get over the joy of learning about a new culture, or seeing others experience a new culture. It reminds me that the world is so big and that I have a lot to see.

So, until next year, Keio.

Thanks for everything.

Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

In a previous BGDGS post (“Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post Comps”), I wrote about how I would care for myself after comps. One of my suggestions was to do a writing retreat, but when I imagined this, I figured I would have to pay for it out of my own pocket. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a writing retreat would literally fall out of the sky and into my lap.

And yet it did. William & Mary Libraries hosts a week long writing retreat for faculty in the spring after graduation (and I believe in the winter, too). This was the first time they decided to open it up to a limited number of graduate students and I jumped at the chance. I applied for a spot before I went under my exams rock, and by the next Monday, I was in.

I have been riding a high since I finished and passed comps last Thursday, so this retreat came at a perfect time. I was still so jazzed and energized that I wrote a solid draft of my prospectus* in four days of work, wrote a draft of a 200 word abstract for a journal submission and worked on a strategic plan for a new project I am developing.

In addition to all the good work I’ve been getting done, being a participant of the Writers’ Retreat earned me a swag bag filled with a nice W&M notebook and pen, as well as a travel cup. Not to mention, breakfast and lunch each day were provided. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for any of this? They literally set up ideal conditions in which you have your own private space to work, nourishment, meetings with research librarians if you need them and a pretty steady supply of caffeinated beverages.

Despite being alone in my writing room for hours at a time, I found that I have met a bunch of really amazing people here. Breakfast and lunch are communal, and we share space with a bunch of other faculty retreats happening, including May Seminars, the Film & Media Studies Retreat, and the Coll 100 workshops. So I got to see a lot of faculty that I love, as well as meet new folks, including many of the librarians and a particularly cool Classical Studies professor.

The Provost Fellowship Writing Retreat is also happening this week. A few of my American Studies pals got Provost Fellowships and so they’re here in a different part of the library working away, though I do get to see them upon occasion during lunch.

It’s been a really nice week. I got a lot of writing done and had a lot of good fun with my buds while doing so. I hope to do this again in the future when I’m in the throes of actual dissertating.

William & Mary Libraries was right on time with the Writers’ Retreat– this was the perfect way to jumpstart my summer.

*The prospectus is the next milestone I have to conquer. This is essentially the proposal for your dissertation project. Different programs have different ways of dealing with the prospectus, but at W&M in American Studies, our handbook requires that the prospectus be 3,500-5,000 words (14-20 pages) and it should include: the problem, your intervention, a brief investigation of the fields and studies this work will build upon, an outline of your chapters and the work you seek to do in each section, primary sources you will be drawing from, methodologies, and a timeline for completion. After getting this document approved by my advisor(s) I will then have a colloquium where I will present my prospectus for feedback as I move into the formal dissertation.

A Debrief on Written Comprehensive Exams

Well, I did it.

Four days of testing, 6 hours per exam, 9 questions answered, and 59 total pages written.

I did it.

My brain feels like it has a rubber band wrapped around it, but I got it done.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Someone once told me (hi, Chris!) that it would be relatively anti-climatic after months of studying and preparation. In some ways, it was, but in others, I felt that taking the exams was an excellent culmination of my five semesters of graduate level coursework, and my semester of individual preparatory work. Every morning when I opened my email, I held my breath while I read over my questions, then let out the greatest exhale ever. None of my examiners/committee wanted me to fail, only asking me questions that played to my strengths.

Each morning I got up, showered and cleaned myself up, dressing in my favorite outfits to enhance my good energy. I calmly reviewed my notes and looked over book reviews of texts whose arguments had flown straight out of my head. Then, around 9:30, I made myself some breakfast and set up my testing desk. I wanted to take the exams from the comfort of my home in my comfiest chair so I set up a little TV dinner table as my desk. I gathered supplies– a blank sheet of paper and some pens for outlining. At 9:50, I lit my Black Girl Magic candle and made myself a cup of coffee in my Queen mug, both gifts from Dr. Tamara Wilkerson Dias, settled into a cozy living room chair and at 10, my questions arrived.

Each day I got 6 hours to do my best idea work and writing. However, as I’ve said, my examiners knew me particularly well and asked me things that they knew I’d have a lot to say about, and in forms that let me flex my creative muscles. I had questions that asked me to write a conversation between some famous figures in the history of the Black intellectual tradition; I wrote a lecture on depictions of race in popular culture (managing to tie in “Homecoming” while I was at it); I imagined designing a lecture on African American literature for a non-American audience (I’m sure my examiner was thinking about my role with the Keio program for the last three years while crafting that question); and I designed a syllabus on modern African American literature. I answered other questions as well, questions that let me explore the impact of Black women writers on African American literature since Zora Neale Hurston, and questions about speculative fiction and currents in the Black intellectual tradition. As anxious as I was about these exams, when I sat down and looked at the questions, I felt my heart swell because I knew the answers. I knew how to answer them. I knew which texts to connect and analyze. It was as if the tangle of 250+ texts just straightened out when I had to put my fingers to my keyboard and type.

It was actually kind of fun.

I never want to do it again, ever– but the process really wasn’t so bad once I adjusted the way I was thinking about it. I saw someone tweet (hi, Shannon!) that someone else had told them to think about the exams as writing days. And we all know I love to write, so that’s what I did. It took some of the pressure off and allowed me to get carried away by my ideas.

Practically speaking, I spent about 30 minutes getting myself organized for writing– selecting the books I wanted to use, jotting down ideas, connecting the dots. Once I had my outline, I just let my fingers fly. I wrote almost every day (in a Googledoc so there was no fear of losing my writing) for at least two and half hours without stopping. I would write until I had exhausted myself, then I would take a break for lunch, catch a second wind and then write for two more hours. I usually started to fade somewhere around 3 o’clock, which is when I’d start to round out my answers, read over everything and edit. I would add a sentence here, delete a sentence there, until it sounded the way I wanted. By 4 o’clock I had, on average, around 15 pages of work that I downloaded from Googledocs into a word document, then attached to the email that the questions had arrived in. I would submit them the moment the clock struck 4 and feel my body slump with pride and exhaustion at having finished another day.

I walked around the house with a mixture of fatigue and satisfaction for a few minutes after submitting each test, riding on the high of finishing, before I started on my relaxation routine. I would have a cider, my drink of choice, call my dad, do a facemask and meditate while the mask was on. Then I would spend some time either mindlessly flipping back and forth between the Vampire Diaries and Gilmore Girls or else reading a few pages in Justin Reynolds’ Opposite of Always. I’d have dinner then spend a little time looking at notes for the next day. It wasn’t a hard core study session, just a casual flip through notes. Even on my day off, I spent most of my time laying around. I was actually so wound up and buzzing with energy that I was convinced I should’ve just scheduled my exams to go straight through.

Thank God I gave myself that Wednesday break because by Friday at 2, I was crawling to the finish line. I think my answers were good that day, but it was obvious that I was running out of steam. Those were my shortest answers and probably my least well developed.

I wrote as much as I could on that last day and it was the only day that I submitted my answers before 4. I couldn’t look at my writing any more. I had written almost 60 pages total and I was done. I hit send and immediately a blanket of fatigue hit me. I had been running on adrenaline for pretty much the entire week.

I made a celebratory Target run and had dinner out with my parents. I was going to watch Into the Spider-Verse, but the fatigue won. I was out like a light before ten.

Of course, Karin Wulf was right all along: It was the process. Because I had carefully done my work over the last several months, I was more than prepared to take the exam.

I’m thisclose to ABD (All But Dissertation). Just an oral exam standing in my way.

But after surviving this ordeal, I can survive an hour with four people who only want me to succeed. The hard part is over.

And just like Professor Harold tweeted at me, I need to relax, but I won’t: I’m already plotting what comes next.

I’m too eager, too hungry, to relax– not when Ravynn K. Stringfield, Ph.D. is closer than ever.

My attempt at joining the Academy