Tag Archives: Dissertation

Dissertation Check-In #4: The Council of Superfriends

My usually carefully planned out, weekly grad school blog has fallen woefully to the wayside since March. All things considered, it’s to be expected. Aside from the pandemic and uprisings and the impending election, it’s already difficult to write a dissertation and to sustain other writing projects while doing so.

So Black Girl Does Grad School has taken a backseat this year.

Nevertheless, I’m still here—albeit sporadically.

I’m currently in the editing phase of dissertation writing. I got the bare bones of what I’m trying to do and say down on the page, and now it’s about tweaking and adding and reading more and fleshing out the ideas that I already have.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, at least for me, it’s not.

Editing is actually the hardest part of writing for me. I think it’s the most valuable part. Much of the diamonds of your thoughts are excavated during editing. The push and pull of working and reworking your writing feels a lot like kneading dough. It’s hard, intense work that requires you to get your hands dirty, and do what looks more or less like destroying your hard work. But if you don’t knead— and importantly, if you don’t let your work sit, or prove, to extend the metaphor— you won’t have much worth showing at the end. It’ll be an underdeveloped bit of mess.

As much as I respect this part of the process, I find it really difficult to do on my own, and with my own writing. Even with feedback from my chair, I still feel rather alone in this journey. The loneliness also stems from writing this particular project about Black girls and fantasy and the digital without having a Black woman on my committee.

Yes, I am aware of how this looks. The truth of it is, when I entered grad school, I knew nothing of the politics of crafting a committee. This was information I learned on the fly. And at that time, a committee didn’t matter much to me, because four or five years ago, when I was applying and starting out, I didn’t know this was the project I wanted. Perhaps a little foresight might have directed me to a different program, with a different set of support systems in place, specifically the hand of Black women scholars.

But I just wasn’t thinking like that yet.

Now I am thinking about these things as I write this creative and genre defying manuscript, knowing in my heart of hearts, that in all likelihood my committee’s not going to get it.

And having to defend my project, and by extension, myself in the process, was enough to paralyze me going forward into edits. I needed to talk to people who would understand, with little to no explanation the why of what I was trying to do as well as the what and how.

So I called a meeting of the Council of Superfriends.

My Council of Superfriends is a collection of Black women I love and who love me from different parts of my life, who all think about Black girls and girlhood in various ways: there’s Dr. Autumn, Black girl literacy scholar and one of my dearest internet friends; Chardé, an anthropology Ph.D. student at my university; Taylor, a theatre artist I met doing Black Monologues at the University of Virginia; and, of course, my filmmaking soul sister, Micah.

I asked them for an hour of their time, to just listen to me try to articulate my project as it exists so far, and offer feedback, suggestions and questions. And as soon as we started, I knew calling this particular group of thinkers together was just what my project needed. More than I needed to be pushed and prodded in my thinking, I needed community. I needed Black women who could show me where the bounds of my own mind were with love and care. They were able to ask the hard questions, and the ones that matter most: if this is a project about the freest manifestation(s) of Black girls’ selfhood, why are you limiting yourself to what you think a dissertation has to look like? Would you even be writing a dissertation to answer this question? Can a dissertation, the way you imagine it, answer this question to your satisfaction? Why did you choose this form? If you’re not planning to stay in academia, why does it matter so much to do this in such a constricting way?

For a project about the potential of limitlessness, I realized I was trapped on every side by everyone else’s expectations. The reason I was feeling so paralyzed by the project was because I couldn’t even imagine what true intellectual freedom would mean and look like for myself under the system that currently exists. And that was the trap. I was trying to fly in a cage. Just because I made the cage bigger so I couldn’t always see the bars, didn’t mean they weren’t still there.

Over the years, I have gotten so good at doing what I want to do inside the lines, inside the cage, that I haven’t truly dared let myself imagine what exploding the lines completely would look like for me. Sure, it’s impressive to be able to do this sort of alchemy within, but that’s not the truest form of my self-expression.

I can’t lie to myself and also do this project.

What a waste. Of time, of energy.

If I’m doing this for who I say I’m doing this for, and if I’m truly doing what I want to do, there is no more trying to fly in the cage.

And in conversation with the Superfriends, Chardé brought up a good point: this is a Hurstonian project. I am a student of Zora Neale Hurston. I am not, nor have I ever been, the only Black woman to find the constraints of the academy and the way things have “always been done,” completely misaligned with my personal mission. I have people I can return to, whose work I can think through and build on, to craft something to ultimately matters to me.

We began the meeting sort of discussing the long standing irritation I have at having to “justify” my dissertation work. I shouldn’t have to explain why my work about Black girls matters: to question that is to question the essential importance of Black girls. And though I didn’t necessarily come to this conclusion in that hour, I did begin to realize that the first step in freeing myself to do this project justice is to stop answering that question. Stop wasting breath on people who need to be taught that Black girls’ lives matter.

It’s time to focus on the questions that do matter, and the people who are asking them.

The Superfriends reminded me who I’m doing this for, and why I’m doing it.

They reminded me that I still have a lot to learn and unlearn and relearn, and that this process is for me. Perhaps this isn’t why other people pursue Ph.D.s, but my project is a labor of love and care.

And it always will be.

How Writing Fiction Has Helped Me Write My Dissertation

One of my personal trademarks is my love of undertaking lots of projects at once. My mother characterizes me as someone who loves to stay busy; once she said that if you take a normal person’s full workload and add about five things, that’s my sweet spot. There are a number of troubling ideas tied up in this conception of busy-ness: critiques of hustle culture, the unreasonable workload hefted onto the shoulders of junior scholars of color (specifically women of color) and the very real trope of the Black Superwoman come immediately to mind. There are so many factors that leave someone like me vulnerable to overwork and burnout. However, a combination of boundless energy fueled by anxiety and often hypomania, and a desire to keep myself motivated by pursuing a number of side passion projects helps keep me sane while I’m writing my dissertation.

I have a few different hobbies, including yoga and crafting, that offer respite in different ways, but the number one activity that keeps me ready to dissertate is, surprisingly, more writing.

Since passing my comprehensive exams last May, I’ve been focused on my prospectus and dissertation. Since that same date, I have also drafted two novels, several comic book scripts, and over half of a graphic novel project.

Researched dissertation and article writing uses a different set of muscles than fiction writing. For me, it’s the equivalent of reading for research and reading for fun (which is also something I make sure to do while dissertating). Either way, like various forms of exercise, it’s all still good for you. It keeps your mind well oiled and practiced.

Writing fiction is actually a great motivator for me to do my researched work. I often don’t let myself write any pages on my fiction project until I’ve hit a predetermined goal for my writing session (usually something like 250 words or 2 pages). And because I’m eager to write new pages, I’m more likely to get my work writing done before heading over to my other Scrivener projects. It’s a great break for when I want to write but I’m tired of my “scholar voice” and want to explore things in other ways.

It also helps me hone in on what I want to say in my dissertation and how I want to say it. One of the novels that I wrote and have worked on a lot since I first drafted it last year is, in a lot of ways, a fictional adaptation of many of the themes I’m exploring in my dissertation. Trying to convey those themes in a Young Adult novel requires thought exercises that help me be clear and concise about the idea I am trying to communicate in my dissertation. The likelihood that anyone outside of my committee will read my project is slim, but these ideas are still important to me, so I slip them into my novel. Writing on (at least) two different projects helps me think through who my audience is for my work– all the variations of it.

I think this is particularly important to me as a scholar who writes about Black girls (and women). I want to talk to us. I want to use my words to reach somebody. And I know that my scholarship– my manuscripts and peer reviewed articles– may not be the work that gets to who I want to be in conversation with. But it might be my novels. Perhaps a blog post. Maybe the articles I manage to write when I have the time.

Then, practically speaking, writing fiction reminds me that my whole life isn’t my dissertation. It helps me keep things in perspective. My dissertation is not, will not, be my magnum opus. I am much more than these few hundred pages that I will produce as a representation for this sliver of time in my life when I was deeply invested in chasing this one particular set of questions. I will write other things. I will love writing other things. There’s so much more to explore than what will go between the covers of this project.

There are so many reasons why this works for me. I could write about how it’s a salve for my soul. I could write about how fiction saves me. But ultimately, I do this because I can’t not.

When I was a first year in my grad program, Edwidge Danticat came to campus and someone asked her why she wrote. She replied simply, “I can’t not.” Nic Stone recently said something similar on an Instagram Live video.

I write all of these things because I can’t imagine living with all of these stories inside of me, just carrying around from place to place. Wouldn’t they get heavy? No, I have to write mine down to make space for the new ones, and then one day, I will write those, too.

I can’t control how my ideas come out of my head and make their way onto paper. I’m just grateful I have the tools to work with them and help them find the form they need to thrive.

Dissertation Check-In #2: Motivation

I’m unsure if it was the pandemic or just how I was feeling, but the other day, I was daydreaming about what would happen if I just didn’t finish my dissertation. It had been days, weeks, since I’d touched it meaningfully. Ultimately, I knew it would be fine if I didn’t finish. The world wouldn’t stop and I would eventually find some sort of job. To no one’s surprise, images of myself with a stack of novels–ones that I had written–danced through my mind. I could just step out on faith and pursue writing novels full time. The thought of infinite time, uninterrupted by dissertation work, to write the stories on my heart was tantalizing.

But as quickly as the moment came, it was gone, and I was back working on the conclusion for a chapter as if the events of the previous couple of weeks had been a bad fever dream. (Which admittedly, they kind of were.)

Earlier in the week, I watched two panels featuring Black women authors speaking on their forthcoming, and, in some cases, recently published YA fantasy novels on Black Girls Create. They made me think about the future of Black girls in fantasy, and how bright it was. The feeling sustained me for days, though I didn’t immediately write about it. It gave me a reason to reaffirm why I was even doing this dissertation project.

So I pulled out my dissertation journal, flipping to a blank page, and wrote at the top:

“Motivation Prompt:

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Why are you writing this dissertation?

Why does it matter?”

In theory and in practice, you should know the answers to these questions. It’s what your chair and committee will ask of you before you even embark on your project. This means, you probably have a rehearsed answer. You probably have what we may think of as “the right” answer.

I needed to give myself permission to answer these questions openly and honestly, without judgment or expectation, because if I didn’t have a good answer, it would have been time for me to make some major reevaluations.

To my surprise, as I sat with the questions I had posed myself, answers–and not the ones I’d been rehearsing for months– sprung forth.

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Me. 

Yes, I was also writing this for all the Black girls who fly and the Black women who write them, but at the core, I was writing for me. For present me, who couldn’t imagine writing anything else; for future me, who would be extremely disappointed if I don’t give the world this piece of myself; and for past me, who would have been awe-struck to see how many Black girls fly these days.

Especially for little me, whose grandfather always greeted me with, “What you got? That Harry Potter?” when he saw me approach his and my grandma’s house, toting a book and pushing my glasses back up my nose.

She would have been so overjoyed to see that I still believe in magic.

Why are you writing this dissertation? 

How could I not?

What else would I write about?

What else moves me like this?

And also why not?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about our now ancestor, Cheryl Wall, and the photographs that other Black women scholars and writers have been sharing on social media of themselves with her. I love looking at those pictures, because they often are groups of Black women scholars and writers, lots of love connections in one image. When you look closely, you see that they are of all disciplines– literary theorists, anthropologists and poets… and they all know each other, love on each other, read each others’ words, are inspired by them, and work with them. It’s more than citational politics, this community of creation that Black women have fostered gives them infinite opportunities to be seen and known.

I want to be a part of that practice and lineage.

It also made me realize that I’m already doing some of that work. It’s what Micah and I have found in each other as we build off of each other’s work, getting inspired by each other’s words, finding peace and solace in the other’s worlds.

Some might think it’s self-indulgent to write about a good friend’s work; but this is how Black women writers and scholars have begun to build scholarly and personal community.

This is a love practice.

How could you see that in what is possible in your work and not want to be a part?

Why does it matter? 

Because Black women and girls matter. 

There was a moment where I realized the justification didn’t necessarily need to be much deeper than that. If we love and care about Black women and girls, we need to love the work that’s on their souls.

This is how I’m loving on Black women and girls. This is the work that’s on my soul.

This is the story I want to tell right now. 


If you get stuck writing your dissertation, I recommend giving yourself permission and time to sit with these questions, or your own, and see what’s on your heart. Let it motivate you. And write it down, so that when you lose sight of what’s important, you can return to the core of your inquiry whenever you need it.

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