Tag Archives: phd

Digging in My Tool Kit: Navigating Identity in Academia

My first year as a PhD student has come to a close, and now after two months of much needed distance I can say that I somehow survived. I made it out with my skin still attached, I scraped past the beast and kept my teeth. I refer not to the “nightwalker” that is the looming deadline, or the paralyzing gorgon of self-doubt. I am not bemoaning the money that grad school has sucked out of my pockets like Charybdis did the sea. The hazard that I escaped is one that I had forgotten between my stints as a student: I had forgotten how it feels to be a problem.

Before I lose anyone on that point let me be clear. I am grown. I am not sitting at the cramped table of the intimate basement classroom tossing spit balls and forgetting to raise my hand. Oh no, this is PhD life honey! I am a problem in the same way all Black folks are in academia. I am an issue because I placed my body and its otherness into a space that fought so long and hard to maintain its monogamy. I hear people tell me, “You’re in the door girl! Now all you need to do is work!” To that I say, sure; if the proper symbol for the Black student’s entrance into academia were a door, then that would be an appropriate stance. But that expression isn’t fitting here. In entering the university, the Black student has not “gotten in the door,” the Black student has instead made her way through the first in a series of gates. These gates are meant to compartmentalize, to discourage, to limit and to control our experiences in the university.

The second of these gates to come crashing down in front of my feet was the gate of assumptions. The otherness of my body came with a great many numbers of expectations. My body belongs to a Black person, and with this package comes ideas about my personality, my speech, my history, my motivations, my interests and of course my abilities. My body also belongs to a Black woman. The otherness of my womanhood only tacks onto these expectations and with them comes a danger. In this body, in this skin I have to be careful. This gate, and its expectations, reappear over and over during the academic odyssey. It comes back y’all. It is battled using the greatest and most important tools in the Black student’s arsenal: The Black Performative.

For the sake of keeping things simple, I’ll speak on the most essential tools in the kit that is The Black Performative; these being the successful voice, the successful body, and mindful usage. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too; y’all know what the successful voice is. It is the change in our tonality, in our speech pattern, in the use of our dialect. Some of us call it “the school voice,” but it follows us. We pull it from our pockets on the phone, at the checkout, even when someone strange bumps into us. It is a defense mechanism that is literally needed to succeed in academia and so to call this tool the successful voice is very easy and very appropriate. I am immensely guilty of indulging in my successful voice. As a Black woman with southern roots I speak a very different English at home, one of which I am proud to say I could break down the grammar rules of on a dime. My home speech is unique, it is the remnants of an old code spoken in Dothan, Alabama. It is complete with its own rules and unique vocabulary that, outside of the comfort of my home loses all of its meaning, but y’all kin come takes muh words from muh cold dead hands. Ain’t not nare ‘nough yenom on earth to pay me to divorce muhself from muh language.* And the act of requesting me to do so is pure barbarism! I feel strongly for my words and advocate for inclusion of multiple Englishes in higher learning, but I am still guilty of falling into my performance. Should I blame years of knowing that it was necessary, do I not want to make things harder on myself as I near the end?

Digging back into that tool box, we come to the successful body. In the year that flew by between completing my MA and beginning my PhD I had forgotten the stress that comes with my physical presentation. See that pesky gate of assumptions coming down again? You may say, “Now Justine calm down we all need to look professional.” Sure darling, that’s true, but what is acceptable and professional in my culture doesn’t always fly in an academic setting, nor is it always worth the aggravation. I’ve taken care to make sure my shape, you know the body I physically live in, doesn’t show too much. God forbid, I am too obviously a possessor of two “X” chromosomes. I’ve waited an extra week before changing my hair for the eighth time in a semester just to push back that “your hair is always different conversation” and I have bitten back venomous words when classmates with whom I have never had conversations with reach out to grab, stroke, and pull my hair while they shower me with foreign compliments. God, I had forgotten what it felt like to be a problem. I have to smile through all of this, attitude in check, resting bitch face buried beneath a smile that reminds me of Barbie’s friend, Christie. I grew up in the 90’s and back then Christie (the Black Barbie) didn’t have any African features aside from her brown skin.

That 90’s Christie doll is a perfect embodiment of the last tool I’ll speak on today. She looks trapped in another body, carefully presented, forced to smile 24/7: This is mindful usage. Mindful usage isn’t about the presentation of the Black student’s body, it is about how the Black student moves in a public space. Those pesky assumptions that we have to fight against just don’t stop popping up. If I don’t mind how I move my body I typically get one of two responses: I am perceived as hypersexual or more annoyingly I am slapped with the violent Black woman sticker. I have to divorce myself from my non-verbal grammars, the languages I can speak with my hands and my neck, the nonverbal cues that are common place in my house, in my hood, in my space; they get left behind, unless of course I want to wear that “Black women have such attitudes” badge. I have slipped before and cocked my neck, given a sarcastic fluttering of the eye. This has led to some uncomfortable moments, but nothing of consequence, right? Oh, certainly not so horrible in the classroom? Well that depends on which side of the classroom I’m sitting. Yeah, I’m a PhD student, but I’ve been teaching at the college level since before I began this adventure. Being a Black woman at the front of the college classroom is altogether a different experience. I could write a book on that one. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too, the academic odyssey is a lot like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, navigate as best you can. And I urge you, try to keep as many bits and pieces of yuhself in dat boat as yuh kin.

*Nare means “not any” but is more firm!  Yenom is an old code for “money”


nullJustine Nicole Wilson is a second-year Ph.D. student at St John’s University where she majors in English and received her MA in English from Stony Brook University (Class of 2015). Justine’s research interests span trauma literature, the graphic novel, mythology, folklore and children’s media. Justine’s recent work aims to dissect trauma as “the common language of heroism,” and explores our societal consumption of trauma as a product. She is in the beginning stages of drafting her dissertation prospectus which will focus on the portrayals of mental illness and trauma in the Superhero genre.

“A nerd is someone who is as social as possible and that’s everyone.”

5 Tips and Tricks for Planning and Executing a Research Trip

As I type this, I am on my way back home from a four day long research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Really, it was only two days because I spent most of days 1 and 4 sitting on a train.) I’ve had the entire train ride to think about my trip and I decided that I wanted discuss how to plan and execute a successful research trip by reviewing what went really wrong and what went so very right. So here are a few steps (which are not necessarily in order) to a good research trip:

Step 1: Decide on a research topic.

My topic (which I won’t discuss in detail because I am trying my hardest not to scoop myself) sort of fell into my lap– a classmate sent me an article about an African American Black Panther comic book artist whose granddaughter lives in Williamsburg– and everything sort of snowballed from there into a huge project that I’ve been working on ever since.

Step 2: Figure out where your sources are.

I found out that some of the artist’s materials could be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Before I had even really decided to make this trip, I started imagining how I could get my hands on those documents. Once you start fantasizing about materials, you know you’re working on the right project.

Step 3: Make the decision to go.

I know this sounds obvious but I had to actively make up my mind to go on this research trip and decide that I would do whatever I had to do to see those materials, even if it meant doing a solo trip.

Step 4: Apply for funds.

I applied for funding through my program. PROTIP: If you think one source may not be able to cover all the costs of your trip, apply for funding from more than one outlet. Actually, just do it anyway.

Applying for the funding was the easy part: I budgeted how much it would cost for a round-trip train ticket, a metro pass, food and a room. ROOKIE MISTAKE: I did not include in my budget costs for reproductions. PROTIP: Always budget for reproductions. At the Schomburg, it was .25 cents per 8 x 11 page, but considering the nature of the documents I was looking at it, it would have been impossible to get enough money for all the reproductions I wanted anyway.

I anticipated that the whole trip would cost me $800. From the one source I applied to, I got $300. Fortunately, I had money from my fellowship that I had yet to use so I had a cushion. But had that not been the case, I would have very seriously reconsidered making the trip.

PROTIP: Be on the lookout for pockets of funding: apply through your program or department, apply through the university, leadership initiatives, through your graduate student association (just to name a few potential avenues.)

Step 5: Plan your trip!

This part includes the usual business: like booking a hotel room and securing your train ticket. For a research trip, however, you also need to plan your time in the archive, which means reaching out to the library or center where you’re going ahead of time to make an appointment. If you don’t know what materials you want to look out, reach out to a librarian for help looking for documents. If you do know what you want to see, compile a list and figure out what the appropriate avenue is for securing an appointment. At some places (like the VCU comic archive) they may prefer an e-mail, and at others (like the Schomburg) they may have an online form for you to fill out. In either case, make sure to include the location of the materials you would like to see, whether it’s a box number or a call number. If you don’t know, ask.

PROTIP: Librarians are amazing, usually very kind and always very knowledgeable.

PROTIP: Make sure to ask ahead of time if you can take photographs of the collections you want to see. I couldn’t, which sucked, but it also meant I didn’t have to lug my camera around.

Step 5a: Plan your (fun) trip!

Research trips are fantastic ways to explore parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet. Make sure to get your work done but, if you’re going to a place like NYC, always budget some time to do some fun things in the city too! My cousin and I spent afternoons in Central Park, visited the Met and caught up with some of my college friends.

Step 6: Go on your trip!

My trip was such a great experience. A family friend met us at the Amtrak station and took us back to it at the end of the trip, I saw two of my good friends from UVA, my cousin and I explored a little, ate some good food, and most importantly, I did a lot of good research. Even though I wasn’t able to take pictures, I did take about 9 single spaced pages of notes, from which I am planning on writing either a journal article or a conference paper.

Bonus: Find a travel buddy. (Optional)

If you, like me, find traveling alone daunting, see if you can find someone that would be down for the ride. Since I already had to book a hotel room, I offered my cousin the extra bed. All she had to do was pay her way. Having a buddy to pal around New York with was supremely fun.

After the trip…

After you’ve rested up from your adventure, spend some time looking through your notes from your visit. Write up more about your thoughts while on the materials while they’re fresh in your mind. Write a rough draft of something, a blog post, an outline, anything, but just write something so that you can refer to while writing up a more formal document.

Currently, I’m thinking about using the materials that I explored for the last few days to expand on a paper that I wrote last semester for my Histories of Race course and write an abstract for a conference or two. (I’m always happy to write a post about creating a successful conference abstract. Leave me a comment if you’d read that.)

I hope these tips and tricks help you plan your next research trip. Happy researching!

Guest Post: On Leadership in Graduate School

“Be a great leader” apparently isn’t the appropriate answer to “what do you want to do when you finish your PhD?” Neither is “sleep” or “go to Jamaica.” People seem relieved when the awkward silence that follows such a response is replaced with, “I’m looking to obtain a dual faculty-administrator position.” I think they’re relieved because “faculty” and “administrator” are accepted reasons to pursue a doctoral degree, not be a leader. Google “what is leadership?” and you’ll find these six views packaged in various forms:

  1. Leadership can be learned.
  2. Leaders motivate others to be their best.
  3. The ability to Influence matters, not a position or title.
  4. Leadership is not synonymous with management.
  5. Leaders continually strengthen their emotional intelligence.
  6. Without followers, leaders do not exist

These tenets represent a snapshot of the available information on leadership. It is left up to the leader to evaluate their own effectiveness through self-awareness, performance reviews, or the evaluation of follower output. Herein lies an easily overlooked aspect of leadership that allows many of us, myself included, to thrive within the comfort zone. How often do we deviate from the all-knowing, top-down assessment of leadership to ask our followers one simple question – how am I doing as a leader?

I understand this question isn’t an easy one to ask; however, not asking ignores a critical part of self-improvement. It’s much easier to avoid, ignore, or become defensive when given feedback from subordinates. As I’ve tried to strengthen my leadership skills, I’ve made attempts to incorporate evaluations from those I supervise. The key is creating an environment where supervisees trust me and my intentions. I do this because I’ve experienced the joy of working in environments with the level of trust needed to be open and honest. I’ve also experienced the need to remain gainfully employed (at-will employment is a thing) rather than speak my mind. I’ve tried to actively seek all forms of feedback, and it’s helped me to keep in mind that:

  1. If I ask for feedback, I must at minimum consider it.
  2. The feedback I receive is not a reflection of my worth or capability.
  3. Not all feedback will have equal weight.
  4. A person providing feedback is doing so through their unique perspective and life experiences.
  5. No matter what, don’t take it personally.

I promised myself that I would use this time in graduate school to physically, mentally, and spiritually grow so that I can return to the professional world with fresh eyes. Positive feedback is amazing and yet, I’ve grown so much more from negative feedback. The beauty of embracing imperfection is that it forces me to accept the need to continuously improve. My end is not to do something perfectly, but to do it better than I did before. The process of self-renewal has been long, challenging, and one that I know will continue throughout my career. I challenge you to embrace yours and do the same.


Asia Randolph Office HS.jpgAsia Renée Randolph is relationship-focused and a close friend had this to say: “[Asia is] an incredible friend. Our relationship is one of my favorites because I can count on [her] for honest feedback and the best support. [She is] one of the most authentic, thoughtful, and resilient people I have ever met. [She] is stronger than I think [she realizes] and I know [she is] unstoppable.” -SLQ

Asia is a third year Ph.D. student in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership (Higher Education Administration) program at William & Mary. Originally from San Diego, California, she holds a B.A. in Language Studies – Spanish from the University of California, San Diego and a M.A. in Postsecondary Educational Leadership with a Specialization in Student Affairs from San Diego State University. Connect with her on Instagram (@blackgraduate) where she posts about her life as a (sometimes struggling) doctoral student.