Tag Archives: grad school

Doubt, Failure and Rejection

If you follow me on Twitter, or even here on Black Girl Does Grad School, it’s evident that I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a little while. Okay, a lot of a funk and for a long while.

The truth is, it happens and it happens frequently. Grad school is just like that: some weeks you are fine, you feel like you are killing the game, you’re writing, you’re reading, your productivity is through the roof. And some weeks (or several of them…in a row) are about opening rejection emails before you’ve even left your bed in the morning, blank word documents, institutional drama, and the increasingly depressing feeling of trying to keep afloat in the middle of the ocean, knowing that any moment it could swallow you whole.

In particular, rejection letters really have the ability to drown me when I’m already barely afloat. On a day when I’m balanced, feeling healthy and whole, surrounded by love and support, rejections barely cross my radar. On a day where I’m already irritated and isolated (often self-imposed) due to circumstances outside of my control, rejections take me out. Negative self talk is already the soundtrack of my day, I’m feeling like my writing is particularly weak, and then bam– the worst sort of confirmation.

I sort of came to an understanding with myself. I stopped trying to fight the labels that academics were using to make me legible. I instead focused on simply doing work that fed my soul and that I felt was a direct expression of me walking in my purpose, worrying less about categorizing it and making it marketable, and more on making my words fly. This mental shift helped me prioritize, focus on and execute my work in a way that was meaningful to me.

And it worked.

Until it didn’t.

I now believed in my capacity to produce substantive, rigorous and complex work; I was focused enough to write it; I was becoming brave enough to submit it but nobody seemed to believe in me as much as I now believed in myself. It was enough to crack even the strongest of foundations and then the doubts seeped in. The worries that I had finally managed to shake reached through those cracks, grabbed ahold of my soul and squeezed. As often as I jokingly recount the tale of how I became Peanut Festival Queen of Suffolk, Virginia, the nagging thought that follows like a bad aftertaste is, Did I peak in high school? It seemed that making your dreams come true was a concoction of ambition, consistent hard work and a dreamer’s heart, but I lacked that dash of magic that seemed to be the key.

When all is said and done, I know I usually like to end my blog posts with a neat bow. I am nothing if not a (somewhat performative) optimist. I like to believe that even if I haven’t yet, I will overcome adversity and the fruits of my labor will be rewarded. And while I do have faith that everything will work out for me, I’m still living in a moment in which I am constantly stewing in a stale pot of doubt, failure and rejection, instead of perfecting my recipe for Black Girl Magic. I’m learning to live in the space between my imperfections and my potential, coming to embrace the harmony that failure and resiliency produces. Practically speaking, it means I honor my feelings, because even if I know that my future is bright, today’s forecast is overcast and rainy. It means that I take a moment to be transparent in my writing about what this moment is for me, instead of hiding from it, as if it doesn’t exist.

And perhaps…the answers that I have been hearing are not a no.

It’s an implied not yet.

Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.

The Wasteland: Dating in Grad School

I’ve been single for so long that none of my current friends have known me with a partner.

My dating life for the past seven years has been a series of starts and stops, misunderstandings and miscommunications, and unrequited loves galore. It’s particularly bad because I spend months, or even years at a time completely floored by mood episodes that leave me unable to care for myself, forget dating. When I can afford to think about dating, I’m usually hung up on some guy that either strung me along or didn’t want me, causing me to believe in the falsehood that I was unworthy of their love. If I fall, when I fall, I fall hard and am essentially inconsolable until I completely move on, which, to the chagrin of my inner circle, could be years. (I honestly still cringe at the number of hours I spent crying over the dude I was in love with the last half of college. Whew, chillay.)

In undergrad, everything was so ephemeral and there was no pressure. Not to mention, I was at UVA on a mission to get that degree and nothing else mattered. My blinders were on and I didn’t stray from the path. When I emerged four years later, with a degree in hand, I barely had any relationships to show for it, friends or otherwise. But now? Now I’m putting the pieces in place to build the life I’ve always wanted. Being a grad student is the start of my career, not just preparation. Everything in my academic career is falling into place: I’ve developed a brand that’s based in large part on transparency and public facing work, I have a publication in the works, I’m getting ready to pass my comprehensive exams and propose the course of my dreams to teach next year. I have a platform and my words are making their way out into the world. My social life, however, is an actual wasteland.

There are plenty of things that account for that. 1) Williamsburg, VA is not where you go when you’re in your mid-twenties and you’re figuring out your life. It’s where you go when you want a nice place to retire, and yes, I figured that out after I accepted my place here. So there’s a scarcity of young people; specifically young Black people that aren’t undergraduates, so 2) my pool is limited. Then, even if there were young Black people to meet in my area, 3) I don’t go out. I spend most of my time holed up in my apartment working, and when I’m not there, I’m holed up at my parents’ doing work. So, it’s partially my fault, but also even if I wanted to go out, there’s nothing to do, which is related to point 1.

Then, once we get past those factors, there are the more troubling concerns that no one really wants to talk about. A plus-sized, solidly brown-skinned girl is rarely anyone’s top choice. Drop my degrees, ambition, height and willingness to stand up for myself into the mix and you’ve got an “intimidating” woman, who should be avoided at all costs. (I can already anticipate the dudes in my mentions once I post this article trying to refute these claims, but you try being single for seven years and then we’ll talk.)

The worst part is, once you get past all the superficial reasons why I’m single, you get to the core–is it me? That guy from undergrad seemed to have a cutting word about me for almost every letter of the alphabet. Some days, I was “abrasive,” others I was “bossy” and “demanding.” Did those words actually describe me? Maybe. But at my core, underneath the sarcasm and hard exterior, few people could see me for who I am: an over-emotional, empathetic, but loveable piece of work.

While working in a profession that makes me doubt myself daily, my lack of social life really makes me doubt my worthiness. After spending all day worrying if I’ll pass comps, if I’ll ever get published, if I’m good enough to teach, I get to spend all night wondering why I haven’t been good enough for anyone in nearly seven years. My engaged friend soothes, my church girl prays, my other single friend commiserates but at the end of the day, I’m still me, alone and stuck in this spot for as long as the dissertation dictates, with no prospects and no hope.

Well, not quite. “The hopeless romantic in me won’t let the hope die,” as my friend Alexis would say. I hope I can have my career and a family one day. The good news? I’m still young and there’s plenty of time for things to change, but for now I guess I’m just chilling in the Wasteland, waiting for Future Husbae to appear.

I can’t wait to meet him.