“Writing Your Way In: Creating a Digital Space for Black Women Graduate Student Experiences”
Fugitive Futures: Grad Students of Color Un-Settling the University,
University of Texas at Austin, March 2, 2019
Ravynn K. Stringfield
In August 2016, the Sunday before I was due to start my first day of work at my new graduate school institution, I made the decision to start a blog. In my first post, I wrote: “But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here. A Black girl about to break into the Academy by way of a Masters/Ph.D. program in American Studies.” (“Ravynn Stringfield, (someday) Ph.D.”) Every Sunday of each semester since, I take an hour out of my day to recap my adventures in the Academy. Some weeks are filled with triumphs, some with trials, but no matter what, I vowed to keep it transparent, keep it honest, and keep it real.
In documenting everything, from first archive visits and conference presentations (more than likely including this one) to documenting the process of writing my Master’s thesis and comprehensive exams lists, I was creating a space to let others know how I was surviving the university, taking care of my mental health, and (sometimes) being supported. I knew I wasn’t the only one going through these issues, so I sought out other Black women to write about their own experiences in different graduate programs. I began to create a community of Black women scholars who were helping each other through this process by being transparent about our experiences.
Shortly after starting this venture, I realized I was not the only Black woman engaged in this sort of critical reflection about their own journeys through the Academy. From Allanté Whitmore’s podcast Blk + In Grad School to Autumn Griffin and Tiffany Lee’s blog Blackademia, black women in graduate school have been resisting the desire of the Academy to overlook and isolate them. Instead, we have insisted on being seen and having our humanity valued through the creation of counterpublics online.
And while a lot of these conversations are happening on Twitter, I find myself most interested in the conversations happening in the blogosphere.
Researchers such as Catherine Knight Steele have examined Black bloggers and the public sphere, as well as arguments surrounding Black women in media. However, I am currently in a moment where I am digitally surrounded by Black women graduate students sharing and engaging with their own graduate school journeys online so I’m interested specifically this community of bloggers. This is particularly important to me considering the isolation of my graduate school experience. Currently, I am one of four Black students in the American Studies graduate program at William & Mary, a predominately white institution (PWI). There are two Black men affiliated with the American Studies faculty—and a Black woman professor that I’ve never met in my three years there. Due to the lack of institutional support from my program, I have had to search beyond William & Mary for networks and I found my biggest network of support online. Joining twitter chats orchestrated by Tryna’ Grad, writing guest posts for Black women graduate student blogs and websites, and reaching out to Black faculty with Twitter presences have been effective ways to find community with others who are either journeying alongside me or have made it to the finish line and are serving as faculty. In all honesty, it is these digital relationships and communities that have keep me in grad school this long.
So today, I offer the following questions: How do Black women graduate students circumvent the discomfort of being forced to conform to the constraints of the Academy? How do they build community if they lack it institutionally? How does social media play into their construction of community and their engagement with self-making and world-building? How are they negotiating their Black womanhood and scholarly personas in digital spaces?
This presentation is based on a study that took an autoethnographic approach to exploring the ways Black women graduate students use media to build communities, network, and engage in scholarly and personal self-making by creating their own counter publics, analyzing my own process of building community, networking, and engaging in scholarly and personal self-making through running my blog, Black Girl Does Grad School. While writing, I followed the example of Moya Bailey in her Digital Humanities Quarterly article, “#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics” in which Bailey explicitly lays out a means of ethically performing research, engaging with communities and providing a critical reflection of her own process. I am also interested in her term “digital alchemy,” which she describes as “the ways that women of color, Black women in particular, transform everyday digital media into valuable social justice media magic that recodes failed dominant scripts.” (Bailey, “#transform(ing)DH”) I would argue that Black women graduate students engaged in the act of blogging their experiences are also performing digital alchemy by writing themselves visible in a system that often refuses to see and value them.
It’s important then to think about what graduate students of color are up against. Susan Brown’s contribution to Liz Losh and Jacquelyn Wernimont’s edited volume Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities (2019), offers an important insight to the way work is often parceled in the Academy. Brown here points to the fact that women and femme scholars are often saddled with additional service labor unlike their male counterparts. This includes, for example, serving on diversity committees, panels on status of gender (or race) in the Academy/one’s given field, or doing work for university projects that may not count towards one’s tenure file. However, Brown fails to address the intersections of race with this statement. Scholars of color often shoulder the extra emotional labor of service positions related to their racial or ethnic identities, as well as providing mentorship for undergraduate students that come to them in search of a professor that can understand them.
Black women specifically often find themselves in positions representing both women and scholars of color. But as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw aptly describes, spaces meant for Black people are often posited towards Black men, and spaces meant for women tend to be for white women. This leaves Black women in the Academy often without a supportive institutional home. Black women find ourselves often as the sole representative of either or both Black people or women, leading others to believe that we represent all of either or both Black people or women, ignoring the heterogeneity of both groups. As Patricia Hill Collins (2015) informs us, “Despite the common challenges confronting African-American women as a group, individual Black women neither have identical experiences nor interpret experiences in a similar fashion. The existence of core themes does not mean that African-American women respond to these themes in the same way.” (27)
Black women faculty are underrepresented in higher education, and thus experience “hyper-visibility and attention, pressure to over-perform, and social isolation.” (84) Shanna Benjamin, Roxane Donovan, and Joycelyn Moody (2016) also write that, “In addition to tokenism effects, other institutional and structural barriers work independently and collectively to hinder Black women faculty’s academic success, including excessive service/caretaking expectations, student opposition and hostility, devaluing/undervaluing of research, and experiences of gendered racism and racialized sexism.” (84) It is out of the scope of Benjamin, Donovan and Moody’s work, but I argue here that many of the concerns they present as obstacles for Black women faculty begin early in the graduate student career as Black women graduate students navigate classroom environments as teaching assistants and power dynamics in working with their advisors.
As bell hooks (1994) writes, “Work by women of color and marginalized groups or white women, especially if written in a matter that renders it accessible to a broad reading public, is often de-legitimized in academic settings.” (p. 63-64) This leads us to think about the problems with blogging as a form of knowledge production, particularly amongst Black women scholars. hooks points out that accessible forms of writing are devalued, but if this is true, why is that so many Black women have taken to blogging (and to an extent Twitter as a form of micro-blogging) to supplement their academic experiences? What are Black women graduate students are doing in these digital spaces?
I suggest that Black women thus take to digital arenas to decompress and retreat from these stressors, or to share experiences, seeking out those who might relate.
This presentation is based on a longer study which includes analysis of two amazing sites, Joy Melody Woods’ Without A Space and Tiffany Lee and Autumn Griffin’s ReadBlackademia, but in the interest of time, I will speak briefly about my own site, Black Girl Does Grad School, and the interventions I’m seeing there.
Black Girl Does Grad School began with me wanting to document my journey into the Academy, with the modest hope that my stories will reach those who needed them. The doors of Black Girl Does Grad School opened to more content creators as guest writers, which enriched the narrative and reach of the site. Black Girl Does Grad School also became home to team of editors, who work to help writers achieve their best potential with their words.
A string of guest posts supplemented my own narrative on Black Girl Does Grad School by offering different perspectives on graduate school. For instance, the site became the literary home to the likes of filmmaker and playwright Micah Watson (NYU Tisch), who offered up posts on the process of deciding to apply to graduate school and deciding which school was right for her; actress and writer Taylor Lamb, who provided a counter-narrative to Watson, deciding that though her passion resided within the arts, she would not be pursuing an MFA and why that decision was right for her; and law student Kelsey Watkins, whose poignant post about law school and what it feels like to (still) be a problem remained the most viewed post on the site for two years. Posts on the site diversified, writers taking big issues, such as how to deal with the pressures of graduate school while also remaining true to oneself and navigating other people’s dreams for you while pursuing your own. The posts also became personal, like the difficulty degreed Black women find dating and what it means to change one’s hair mid-graduate school journey.
[Without a Space is divided into two sections, “Personal Space,” which is the narrative of Joy Melody Woods, and “Shared Space,” which makes visible the concerns of other graduate students of color. Woods blogs about everything mental health: how to talk to a Black family about suicide, what she does to personally combat her depression, and how to navigate being a graduate student whose primary responsibility is to read when she has three learning disabilities. Woods’ candor and sensitivity to dealing with the intersections of Black, womanhood, and disability gave me another space in which I could heal. Though I had my Black Girl Does Grad School family and the community was thriving, I found that I only implicitly dealt with my own struggles with my mental health there. As a result of my own investment in a façade of perfection, my unintentional goal was to provide positive, “you-can-do-it” type narratives. Woods offered me the opportunity to write about my own experiences with coming to terms with my Bipolar II diagnosis while in graduate school, which I was more than happy to do. I needed a community that dealt more explicitly with mental health issues than what my own was offering.]
I am also thinking about these interventions by way of Black Code Studies and 4DH, both concepts related to Jessica Marie Johnson’s work. Black Code Studies, as Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal (2017) describe it, is “queer, femme, fugitive, and radical;” it is “insurgent;” and “centers black thought and cultural production across a range of digital platforms, but especially in social media” (p. 1). In Johnson’s most recent publication (2018), she expounds on her imagining of digital humanities as it appears in four different forms and connects it Black femme forms of knowledge and practice. She writes that “As a DHdp or digital practice, my meditations are not necessarily seen as intellectual work, much less intellectual work worthy of note. And yet creating methodologies for witnessing and mourning in a world seeped in black death is precisely the intellectual and kinship work black women and femmes have engaged in across time and space.” (p. 666) In this Johnson is acknowledging that which has proved to be a problem across this presentation: not only does that which is accessible and more public is often perceived as less intellectually rigorous, the question of that which is digital and the publics we create around digital worlds is less valued as well. It is unclear which is the most undesirable aspect: that which relates to the public nature of the work, the unapologetic Blackness, the womanhood or the digital.
Yet Johnson points to something important: Johnson has cultivated what she calls a “digital black femme love practice,” which looks different for many Black women and femmes. While this practice may not be traditionally scholarly, this practice is important to her continued success as a Black woman scholar. This is what Black Girl Does Grad School contends with: I am creating a digital black femme love practice in which we recognize the challenges we face as Black women scholars and love each other in adversity. In many ways, while the content is the important aspect of the work we are doing, it is the work they are accomplishing in the act of writing public facing work in community with each other which constitutes a radical act of resistance.