In this episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Ravynn Stringfield, Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at William and Mary and founder of the celebrated blog Black Girl Does Grad School. We talk with Ravynn about her journey to graduate school, the importance of creating spaces and communities for people who are marginalized by the academy, and the importance of ancestors. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @RavynnKaMia.
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Mary Churchill: [00:00:00] Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts, Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam, bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Do they rock the boat? Yes, but in doing so, they rock the academy.
Rocking the Academy is sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of excellent books on higher education.
Roopika Risam: [00:00:35] On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we chat with Ravynn Stringfield, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William and Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls in new media narratives that are fantastic, futuristic, or digital in nature. Stringfield is also the founder of the celebrated blog Black Girl Does Grad School, which provides content by and for Black women in pursuit of advanced degrees, with the goal of building a community that promotes transparency about graduate school.
Welcome to Rocking the Academy, Ravynn. We're super excited to have you with us today. And I will turn it over to Mary for our first question.
Mary Churchill: [00:01:18] What inspired you to pursue your Ph.D.?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:01:21] There were so many people who saw this path for me before I saw it for myself. Professor Claudrena Harold at UVA was like, “Yeah, you're going to grad school,” and I ignored her. And my scholarship chair, Andra Gillespie, who's now I think at Emory, also said, “I'll help you with your application.” And I was like, “I'm going to be a diplomat.” Then the government shut down--I think my second year of college that happened, and I was like, “Well, maybe I should have a secondary career path.” Then, what really I think sparked the moment for me was I read comics for a really long time, and I would pass by my actual major advisor's office on my way home from the library, and I would always have stacks of comic books with me. And at one point he just looked at me and was like, “You know, you can study those, right?” He said, “There are people that make their careers studying and researching comic books.” And I was blown away. So that's kinda how I ended up doing my undergraduate thesis on people of color in French comic books. And from there, I realized I had questions I wanted to ask about American comic books. So that kind of led me into American Studies. And I've been here ever since.
Roopika Risam: [00:02:31] Are you still working on comics?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:02:34] Yes. I have a chapter on comics in my dissertation. It's evolved into new media a little bit more generally.
Roopika Risam: [00:02:42] So what's your angle on new media?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:02:45] I'm interested in Black women and girls in new media narratives that are fantastic, futuristic, or digital. The question I'm chasing is "What is Black Girl Magic?"--and also the literary legacies of it. So, basically, what I've done is seen where the hashtag started to come about and then ask myself [how] Black women have been engaging with conversations about magic forever. This is not a new thing at all. And I'm a literature scholar within American studies, so I've been doing a lot of digging into the literary legacies.
Roopika Risam: [00:03:23] Great. I always think of your amazing blog Black Girl Does Grad School as a kind of Black Girl Magic. Can you tell us about how you got started with your blog and what kind of responses you've received.
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:03:34] The one thing that I did know going into grad school was I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting myself into. I figured if I provide a space for me to reflect, it'll be useful for me, one, and then hopefully it might be useful to one other person. My favorite responses about Black Girl Does Grad School come from Black undergraduate women, students who are finding the blog, telling me how it's encouraged them to look into grad school or ask certain questions they may not have thought to ask before. And so that has been really encouraging. And, so, this is not just my blog, I should say. At this point now, it's a collective I would say. I very much have an interest in many different voices from many different perspectives--usually from humanities and social science perspectives, but I love when we get STEM people because I think that's super important. But finding those people and seeing that they found a place to talk about their experiences in a way that is kind of like a balm for their soul--it gives them reassurance that they're not alone. That is and has been and will continue to be my legacy in grad school.
Roopika Risam: [00:04:47] So, did I see correctly that you've started working with Contingent Magazine?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:04:51] Yeah, I'm on their board of directors.
Roopika Risam: [00:04:53] So, how did that get started and what do you see as the contribution that magazine is making?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:05:00] What ended up happening was I got contacted by Mark Reyes who--a lot of them actually, Mark, Bill Black, Erin Bartram, were all fans of Black Girl Does Grad School. And I was astonished when Mark approached me and asked did I maybe want to write something or would I be interested potentially in joining the board of directors. I want to be a part of anything that's really public-facing scholarship, which is why I love Contingent. Because it's very simple: they want public-facing scholarship from people on, sort of, the outskirts of the academy--and they want people to be paid for their work. We need a space for folks that the academy really struggles to make space for. And it's not even a struggle to make space for them--it's more of a refusing to make space for them. So we are finding ways to create our own space. That kind of links back to Black Girl Does Grad School. I saw very quickly that what I was doing didn't have a name in the academy and I continue to just do what feels right. I fortunately have an advisor who really loves the work that I do, whatever I do. I work with Liz Losh.
Roopika Risam: [00:06:13] I love Liz Losh. She is an amazing mentor for me.
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:06:17] No matter how wild or seemingly unrelated to my dissertation the idea is she's like, “Okay, let's find a home for this idea.” And we do.
Mary Churchill: [00:06:27] So, one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you, one of the many reasons, is because we feel like you have--and you've just articulated it really well--created some solutions for some of the challenges that particularly graduate students face in higher ed. So as a graduate student, what do you see as the most pressing challenges or concerns?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:06:46] Some of the things that have really been on my mind recently is, I've been following the Ethnic Studies Rise roundtables and #LorgiaFest. This kind of goes back to the question about whether or not the academy is going to make space for scholars of color, for women, for queer folks. And on the one hand, I look at Ethnic Studies Rise, and I say, “This is the solution.” In some ways, this work that is being done around Dr. [Lorgia] García Peña's work, this is how we make the space. But it's also exceedingly sad that we have to do all of this extra labor in order to find recognition. We're still trying to articulate to folks that are on tenure committees why this sort of work matters.
Other things that I think are pressing: I know people have been following the unionization efforts of graduate students at Harvard. I think it's also important to know that those sorts of things are happening everywhere, not just at Harvard. Because there is no reason for us to be putting this much work and effort into upholding this institution and for them to not be paying us. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to have adequate health care, especially when we're at institutions that make disgusting amounts of money. And who knows where that money is really going?
And then I think the last thing that I will say [is] I get really frustrated that a lot of times graduate students don't get appropriate pedagogical training before they're put into the classroom. Being able to research does not mean that you are prepared or qualified to teach, and I think we need to rectify that. A two-hour workshop before a semester qualifies you to teach? I don't think so. I think we need to do a little bit better than that.
Roopika Risam: [00:08:36] It's always striking, you know, on the one hand, we have these charges from the right wing about the liberal brainwashing of the university. And then, on the other hand, we have just such horrendous labor practices that if the university really was good at liberal brainwashing, they'd be much better about their labor practices.
Mary Churchill: [00:08:56] Yes. I was just thinking when Ravynn was saying that, of this prestige culture meets EDI values and priorities, right? This is this clash, and where I am, we're dealing with that. That is not going away. That's going to get worse, and that has to be resolved. How can you meet your equity, diversity, and inclusion goals in a prestige culture?
Roopika Risam: [00:09:20] For example, Stephen King apparently said something the other day about [how he prefers] quality over diversity, and it really struck me how recalcitrant that rhetoric is. I was actually organizing--rather on the program committee of--a digital humanities conference many years ago, and I got into it with the chair of the entire organization, who said the same thing to me. I was reading that Stephen King quote and I thought, “Wow, this really just does permeate culture.” As if these things are mutually exclusive. I think they're actually mutually inclusive. You can't have quality if you don't have equity. So, Ravynn, what gives you hope and where do you find inspiration?
Ravynn Stringfield: [00:10:02] Where I get my hope definitely comes from individuals that I've met. So, whether it be people in my immediate circle at William and Mary or people that I meet on Twitter and then run into at conferences--people that have great ideas and are really going to try to run with them really give me hope. I appreciate that because that's also how I build my communities and my communities have given me hope. So, there's always this joke about you don't have to put everything on Twitter, you can put it in a group chat--and I actually have a group chat of Black women graduate students. They keep me hopeful. It reminds me that we are everywhere. Black graduate students, grad students of color, the people that really do have the ability to change this system, we are everywhere. And we are unstoppable now in a lot of ways because of social media, because of the internet. And it's one of those things where I really have to remind people that the internet--yes, I understand how and why we get to the internet is an evil thing. I get it. I do. I truly do. I understand. But there are also these pockets of freedom and liberation that I think have happened too. That's not to say it will not come under fire, and I think we need to be prepared for that possibility or that reality, rather.
Those things give me hope and I like to read things, new things in conversation with those of the ancestors. So for instance, I read Jessica Marie Johnson over and over and over again in conversation with Audre Lorde and in conversation with Alice Walker because we are all in a lineage. And I think understanding the lineage and understanding where these ideas are coming from really helps put things into perspective. And I think reading the ancestors' works is really important because it reminds me that these ideas, these problems, these situations are not new. And if we've found ways to overcome them--or not even overcome them, but if we've found ways through--we will find ways through again.
Roopika Risam: [00:12:18] You've been listening to Rocking the Academy. Rocking the Academy is sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education by Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney, available where books are sold.