Let the Circle of Sista PhDs be Unbroken!

 

As I have continued to make my rounds at professional conferences, summer institutes, and various university campuses I have been overjoyed to learn of all the other thirty-something black female PhDs who are making waves in the academy!  It’s always great to see a friendly face, but to make contact with a friendly face that is reflective of your own experience is exceptionally exciting! My professional “elder” T. Harris once told me to seek out the best and brightest in my field and to make them my professional support network. She advised me to lean on this circle for reading those raggedy drafts, for emotional support when the academy gets to be enough, and for collaboration on other professional projects.  It was a great piece of advice and although she didn’t point to other black women in particular, my black female mind was directed that way by default. That is not to suggest that I am opposed to black male scholars in my circle or even white men and women. I lean on more than a few, but this one is for my ladies. 

I knew some folks in my age range or a bit older with whom I shared similar interests, but the task of building the type of bond T. Harris speaks of has been grounded in more theory than practice. That is, until recently.  As I have encountered black female academics who are still in the early stages of their careers, as am I, I have made a special effort to lend my support and build professional and personal links to these women.  It is a work in progress.  I am a very shy and introverted individual—don’t judge me. Nonetheless, I am happily moving forward with building my network of thirty-somethings. I am so proud to share the academic stage with such fierce and innovative thinkers. Here are just a few of the amazing scholars with whom I have connected or intend to connect. Look out for us:

Therí A. Pickens, Assistant Professor of English (Bates College)

Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. Check out her blog: The Rogue Vogue Professor. Did I mention she isn’t even 30???  Do the math.

Folashade Alao, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies (University of South Carolina)

Her scholarship examines the construction of the Sea Islands as a significant cultural landscape in the black feminist imagination and historicizes the Sea Islands’ contemporary emergence as a site of memory.You can find her profile here.

Ayesha Hardison, Assistant Professor of English (Ohio University)

Ford Fellow, MLA Executive Committee Member of the Black American Literature and Culture Division, NEH Summer Scholar. Look forward to her monograph Writing Through Jane Crow: Race, Gender, and Genre, 1940-1954.

Koritha Mitchell, Associate Professor of English (Ohio State University)

She is most well known for her work on the depiction of lynching and racial violence in African American Literature and Drama, Living with Lynching. I can’t wait to see what is next from this scholar.

Aisha Lockridge, Assistant Professor of English (St. Joseph’s University)

A Diva in her own right, Professor Lockridge has crafted an innovative read of the the Diva in African American literature in her recently released book, Tipping on a Tightrope. Her next project will contend with the “magical negress” in popular culture. Read all about her research and teaching here. 

Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

The phrase she coined to describe her scholarship says it all: “Haute Couture Intellectualism.” I haven’t met this scholar yet, but her work on black women, respectability, and adornment sounds like a project that is well over due.

 

I will admit, with many of these women I do have a professional relationship and I am unabashedly promoting their work just for the sake of exposing others to the scholarship of other black female PhDs of a certain age.  Isn’t that, after all, also part of the professional life? Get to know them and support their work!!!

Beyoncé as Black Feminist Subject

 

As part of the amazing and generative energy cultivated during the NEH Summer Institute, I signed on to contribute to a project on urban fiction in visual and popular forms.  As the title probably informs you, I have committed to tackling Beyoncé Knowles and the “urban fiction” that has been created by her performance persona, music videos, and so forth.  It’s a bit of a daunting task, but I was inspired to think of Beyoncé critically during Eve Dunbar’s lecture and discussion of hip hop, pornography, and black women. 

We read an essay that attempted to position my girl B as an agent of post-Katrina feminist activism. As I began reading the essay, I kept an open mind. I thought, “Okay. Maybe this will work. Let’s see how she will lay out the argument”.  The essay left me unconvinced.  I did walk away, however, thinking that Beyoncé was saying and doing something important for young black women. I just wasn’t sure what exactly. 

We chopped up the usual criticisms of Beyoncé as narcissist, her overt consciousness of her body as visually pleasing, playing up her French “creole” roots, and of course, there were lengthy comments about her playing the role of prostitute—supplying her viewers with whatever fantasy (usually sexual) they desire. 

As our conversation parsed out the holes in the essay and we placed our critical gaze upon B’s video for “Déjà vu;”  I was struck by the metaphor of the prostitute and how that has all sorts of implications for black female sexuality.  I began to consider her body of work and what, if anything, Beyoncé is telling us about black female sexuality—or even her own.  What narrative of sexuality does  Beyoncé weave when considering her various performances—both entertainment performances and the performance of her public persona–as hood rat (think, Destiny’s child “Solider”), whore (“Déjà vu”), and wholesome (wife, mother)??

This is the question that is at the center of my burgeoning project. Now, I will be the first to confess I am a fan.  I know the lyrics, I know the choreography, and I know her story. I have paid to see her perform a time or two. You don’t know Beyoncé until you have seen her stage show. I am still thinking through my ideas and what I ultimately think of Beyoncé’s urban fiction.  I want to believe and argue that there is something powerful at play in the Beyoncé imaginary. I think that she just may surprise us by offering a transformative view of black female sexuality that is neither confined by social standards nor bearing the weight of the slave experience.  How active an agent she is in constructing such a narrative is another question altogether.

What I saw in the “Déjà vu” video was an invocation of another black female icon that disrupts binaries—particularly as it relates to Africana women’s sexual experience during slavery.  I will save the rest of my thoughts for the book chapter, but know that I am anxious to work through this project and to center Beyoncé as a black feminist subject.            

Single Black Female…..Mother.

 

I have heard much discussion about and have even experienced some of the difficulties of being a career-oriented woman. The balance of work and quality of life—which often means family—is not always easy to maintain.  One has to consider if and at what point marriage and child-bearing (and the thankless task of childrearing) will enter into the equation. Before of after tenure? Are you being justly compensated for the same work as your male counterpart? And maintaining the boundaries between the personal and the professional lives is always at the forefront—at least these are many of the concerns I have shared in my young career.  I’m sure many of my female colleagues would agree that this is pretty normal  stuff for us.  It’s part of the social inheritance of being a working woman. We just have to charge it to the game and work it out to the best of our abilities.  Most of us fare pretty well.

What I have heard less discussion about is the murkier waters of the career woman who has made it past many of the initial hurdles of securing a job, finding a partner, publishing, and procreating only to discover that the universe had something else in mind.  For whatever reason, career woman is now a single parent.  Now, the everyday tasks of raising a child aren’t really the challenge. There is certainly some adjustments to be made but we’re talking about Ph.Ds—career woman doesn’t miss a beat in that arena. But single parenthood creates all sorts of other interesting challenges for Lady PhD that I’m just dying to know about.

You see, I have found myself in this very predicament. The issue? How does one continue on with the business of academia as a single, black female mother?  In my previous life, I maintained an active presence with my professional organizations.  Usually I attend a minimum of two conferences a year.  Now that I am sans spouse, that seems like an impossibility.  Sure, I hear of parents who bring their children to conferences and expose them to the academic life.  They make all the claims that it is great for the child’s development.  I’m sure it is.

But you see, my current institution doesn’t pay me enough to incur the cost of flying my child to the conference site.  And to be fair, I don’t see my son sitting quietly in the audience as I present.  I’m just saying, you have to know your children and little man is much too….shall we say inquisitive for that. And further more, when I’m conference hopping, I’m always “at work” and I’m just not of the mind to bring my 4 year old into the work space. It’s cute and totally acceptable for other folks. I love to see kids in those spaces, but for the record—I’m just not that person. I prefer not to mix the two. Call it a personality quirk.  Rather than polling for answers to my unique situation, I am much more interested in how other single parents—and I am not privileging mothers—who are also academics maneuver through the minefield.

Conference attendance is just one issue—but it is pretty important to a young, burgeoning scholar such as myself.  Conference attendance is one of the forums through which I stay current in my field.  It is a very important part of my professional development.  What about others? I anticipate going on the job market this year—how on earth will I navigate invitations for a campus interview when I have no childcare solution for pre-school age kid? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill or are there other professionals who have had to alter their professional paths due to unforeseen life changes? And if so (as I just can’t imagine there hasn’t been) why aren’t people talking about it!!!???? I am all about making the necessary adjustments to make life livable and work doable—I just don’t know what they are.

I don’t have any answers. I am navigating each situation as it reveals itself. But I am seeking community—others with shared experience who might provide some insight.  After all, that is how we do things around here….right?

Teaching a Literature Course Online??

 

So, it has finally happened.  I am faced with the task of teaching a literary course online. I knew one day it would come to this, but I never imagined it would come so soon. 

Now, I know there are plenty of instructors who do this everyday.  I know composition course are regularly taught online or in hybrid classrooms.  I know many of the for-profit institutions offer online degrees.  I think its wonderful for those seeking access to education.  My course on Voodoo and Visual Culture had low enrollment this term and thus, it was canceled. The alternative I have been given, however, is to teach the course online in the spring. I was a bit hesitant to accept, but after a meeting with the instructional technology team I am excited more than ever to try this out!

With all the technology that is available to colleges and universities, it isn’t surprising that online courses are being offered more and more. I can narrate my power point slides, hold live chat sessions with voice integration, still make use of course reserves at the university library, and employ a plagiarism fail safe for all the written assignments.  Best of all, I can do all of the above without showing up to a half empty classroom twice a week (that is a definite plus!). I am excited about jumping into this new arena and figuring out if this is really something that works for me.  I  mean, there are certainly some pedagogical challenges that present themselves when considering my approach to teaching a literature course.

For instance, how will I shift from a discussion-based teaching style to one that is more lecture oriented to accommodate and make use of the available technology? Will something get lost in translation as I lecture to my laptop microphone about the oral and folk elements of the introduction to Mama Day? How can I be sure to cover topics that I may not find interesting or important about a text, but which my students are dying to investigate? How can I have an interactive discussion about a single passage from Praisesong for the Widow in an online forum?  I’m not sure how I will navigate these obstacles, but I do have plenty of time to develop a strategy. 

The truth of the matter is that students of all shapes, sizes, learning styles, and colors are demanding online learning to accommodate their lifestyles.  Many students are working one or more part time jobs to make ends meet. Online courses simply work better for them.  If I am going to stay current in the profession, then that means trying out and integrating new learning tools into my teaching repertoire. There aren’t many institutions that have not gotten on board the online teaching wagon.   I’m not at all sure how this will work, but I am up for the challenge and ready to expand my teaching arsenal. The future is present.