Tag Archives: education

Week 4, or Meeting Henry Jenkins

One of my favorite things about being in grad school is getting to meet people. Through conferences, public seminars and video calls, I’ve gotten to meet amazing people, including quite a few authors whose work I’ve come across in course work. Within just the last two weeks, I’ve been able to talk with Dr. Johnnetta Cole (a post about that experience can be found here) and, this past week, Dr. Henry Jenkins.

I first encountered Henry Jenkins’s work as an undergrad in a required critical theory course for my Comparative Literature major at the University of Virginia. After stuffing my head full of Althusser, Freud, and Barthes all semester, I distinctly remember finally being able to breathe– I could finally read an article once and get the gist of it. Not only did I understand, I was enthralled by his discussion of fan culture. As an avid Tumblr user at the time, I didn’t know that there were people who studied and talked about communities in which I belonged. Jenkins was my key to understanding that not everything academic had to be dense and difficult to engage.

My second encounter with Jenkins’s work was just last semester in my New Media, Old Media class, in which we read Convergence Culture. As we read through case studies of collective participation through Survivor spoilers and political activism through Harry Potter, I found myself again utterly inspired by the clarity of Jenkins’s prose and the innovativeness of his ideas. My ideas were no longer an island. Through Jenkins I found a way to ground my work and a model for moving forward.

Getting to meet Dr. Jenkins in person, therefore, was quite an experience. Liz Losh, my professor and mentor through the Equality Lab, arranged for a group of us to have a private lunch with Dr. Jenkins, during which we had an informal conversation. The conversation produced questions such as how do you stay true to yourself as you pursue work as a scholar? How do you withstand disappointment and critique? Do you have any writing tips? All questions to which Jenkins had generous and “therapeutic” answers. He told us all writing is rewriting, encouraged us to write with colleagues and develop an online presence. He told us about his personal experiences with being openly and somewhat hostilely critiqued and encouraged us to take a high road– engage, cautiously, and look for points of commonality and misunderstanding rather than investing yourself in a counter attack. And most importantly, I think, he encouraged us to think of doing interdisciplinary work as “undisciplined,” in the best way. This means that we should not limit ourselves based on discipline but follow our interests as far as they take us, borrowing from whatever toolkits we have available, using whomever we find inspiring, to come up with exciting new ideas. Strictly following the rules of any one discipline will only get us so far. We are the intellectual entrepreneurs. We are the undisciplined.

That night, after the excellent lunch, I attended Jenkins’s public lecture in which he discussed the civic imagination, its functions and results. It was a multifaceted presentation which drew from a broad range of sources: from Foucault to Stuart Hall, Superman to J. K. Rowling, Black Panther to Ms. Marvel. In essence, the talk encouraged us, the audience, to think of the civic imagination as something that can help better the world: it can help us imagine a process of change, imagine the self as a civic agent, and imagine the experiences and perspectives of others. This is what helps us go out into the world and create better futures based on what we have imagined.

Dr. Henry Jenkins is a self-proclaimed optimist. It was refreshing to encounter someone so celebratory after learning to do nothing but critique for a year and a half. He’s inspired me not to give up on my ambition to become a public intellectual, because public-facing academics are what we need. He reminded me to think of the real root of the word that will become my career: professor, or one who professes. Knowledge is not mine to hoard but something which I profess. Now that is something I can believe in.

Week 14, or Believing in the Path

A friend called me yesterday and wanted advice about grad school– finding programs, applying, doing the work, staying sane, etc.

A part of me thought, I am probably the least qualified person to give him any advice, and another part thought, This is probably a good moment to think critically about my grad school experience so far. It was a bad moment to ask me because this past week I’ve been walking around with my disdain for grad school coming to a boil. I contemplated quitting. I was told by a different friend that if one of us quits, both of us quit– and she’s not quitting.

If we’re being real, a little bit of everything is getting to me. I’m lonely; I feel isolated in my pursuits; and I have a nagging feeling that at least one of my professors thinks I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a part of me that wants to give into this nagging fear and accept that I don’t know, but there’s a fighting part that is disgusted with myself for believing myself to be stupid for even one moment. I find myself walking that strange tightrope in grad school of trying to speak up so as to be heard and not speak too much, because speaking too much can come off as self-indulgent and not speaking seems to imply ignorance. Still, I want to make a space for myself, I want to be heard, I want to be seen, almost as much as I want to just be still and listen because there’s so much I have to learn.

My friend then asked me for a general piece of advice about grad school. After a beat, I told him to know when to sit down. Know when to get off your soapbox and listen. Keep your ears and mind wide open. But you also have to know how to stand up for yourself. Know when to fight back, know when to lay down your arms. Fight the good fight, but protect your energy. My dwindling energy tells me I’m not taking my own advice. I’m fighting, but not protecting myself. Despite having been worthy of admission, I still feel like I’m fighting to prove that I belong in this Academic space.

After an hour long conversation which explored every way I felt hindered, I started to feel a weight settle on my soul. If I was this unhappy, I had to ask myself– why am I still here? Why am I still doing this?

Ultimately, my answer is the same as it’s always been: I want to be a Black professor. I want undergraduates to have more Black professors. I want Black people to represented in the Academy. I want to be proof that you can be whatever you want to be. I never got my 40 acres and a mule, so I’ll happily take my free education from the state of Virginia instead, an education that worked hard for. I want to teach. In my mind, very few things are more political than helping shape young minds. And I don’t want to teach my students to regurgitate what I’ve taught them– I want to teach them to think critically and for themselves, so they can make the final call on what to take with them when they leave my class. I never want to stop learning– I have too many questions. I love the idea of getting to spend my life in a career where I will be constantly inspired to explore intellectually– and to write about the process and results.

I’m still doing this because I believe this path was meant for me.

Sometimes, I think I just need to remind myself of that.

Week 11, or A Classroom Should Be…

The high from last week spilled over into this one: I started out enthusiastic from putting on another successful Lemon Porch Talk, getting my article from the Junto republished on HASTAC.org, and finding out that I would be a HASTAC scholar for the next two years. Despite the feelings of excitement from gaining new Twitter followers and relief from actually finishing all my readings for once, I ended the week on a contemplative note.

I’ve been thinking about classrooms– how they are both sacred and contested, places of refuge but not life rafts. And while it was at first difficult to think of what exactly the magic of a classroom is, I could very quickly discern what it was not. It is not a place where participants interrupt each other, disagree aggressively or otherwise check out all together. It is not a place where hesitant attempts to contribute in discussion are met with snickers or side bar comments. It is not a place where you may take a pejorative or patronizing tone when explaining something that everyone else might not know. While these dynamics are understandable to a degree– excitement causes interruptions and the need to whisper your thought so as not to interrupt the person speaking can be understood– explaining away the problem does not negate the facts.

These dynamics are not conducive to a fruitful classroom environment.

If this is what I do not want my classroom to be, then what do I want it to be?

A Classroom Should Be…

  • A Safe Space; but that does not mean it is always comfortable. As an undergraduate at UVA, one of the first things I learned was that I loved my classrooms. I felt free to learn, make mistakes, and grow. As I took more classes, I realized that even though I loved growing intellectually, it was often uncomfortable. Professor Harold challenged me constantly, Professor Woolfork told me I wasn’t always right, Professor McGrady encouraged me to do the hardest thing I could imagine– because even if I failed, I could say I’d been courageous enough to try. I used to think those professors hated me, but they loved me. They loved me enough to force me out of my comfortable patterns of thought and actions so I would grow. It was tough love, but love nonetheless.
  • Conducive to learning. In order to learn, there is a certain amount of vulnerability one must have, and I believe we must respect and protect students in their moments of vulnerability. We need to make our students feel empowered and encouraged to share, because fear of being wrong is hard enough as it is.
  • A Workspace. In a classroom, learning is a communal process. A good class is one where I not only develop a rapport with the professor but my classmates as well. They become your teammates. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was Interracialism my first semester in grad school, and the five of us fed off of each other, built off of each other, learned from each other, encouraged each other. It was beautiful, and I wouldn’t have learned as much without my team.
  • A Space for Mistakes. I have made my fair share of mistakes and misinterpretations in the years and years in which I have been a student. I have indeed failed a quiz or two in my lifetime. There have been moments in which I have read every page of an assigned book and got absolutely nothing out of it. (Seriously, it happened just last week.) You won’t understand everything, you won’t ace everything, and you will occasionally follow a train of thought so far in the wrong direction that there’s no coming back. But part of the process is feeling free to go in the wrong direction and fall down a few times.

For a classroom to feel like this, it requires certain degrees of trust and respect that sometimes, admittedly just aren’t there.

Classrooms are hard spaces to “get right” and there’s no formula for it. Particularly since every classroom has a different purpose, a different professor, a different space, and most importantly, a different combination of students. Just one minute difference will change the tone of an entire class. As a scholar whose duty lies in the classroom just as much as it does in my research, I’m making a point now to think through power dynamics of the classroom and decide what I can do to create the kind of environment I would want to learn in.