Take the plunge. Write before you are ready.
Today I participated in my first dissertation group meeting of the semester. As always, the experience of being in it reminds me of the pleasures of intellectual collaboration, especially coming out of a long winter break punctuated by slow, torturous attempts to get myself to “really” write. Although today’s conversation centered around two specific (and super exciting) prospectuses, what I found most exhilarating about the discussion was the affective energy it generated, which felt something like José Muñoz’s sense of “being-with.”
This feeling of togetherness, I believe, comes from a shared stake in meaningful dialogue, making the conversation matter to the people’s whose work we engage, but also to ourselves- the questions that pique our curiosities and drive our research. The best discussions for me are the ones where I not only contribute something useful to push someone else’s thinking, but also where I am pushed and pulled in return. This post is an attempt to capture the ineffable quality of these kinds of dialogues, which happen all too infrequently. Here are a few of the things today’s conversation invited me to reflect on more deeply:
Writing letters is something I do a lot in my teaching and for the dissertation working groups I am involved in. I find that composing a letter allows me to really be in conversation with someone, whether it is explaining to a student how to craft a stronger argument and read more deeply into the text, or offering suggestions for a colleague’s chapter or article revision. I like giving others something concrete to hold on to when they return to their own writing to begin the difficult process of re-thinking and re-crafting. After all, so much gets lost, forgotten, or misremembered in verbal communication before we find the energy to reflect and revise. The form of a letter also helps me organize my thoughts; it forces me to think hard about what someone is trying to accomplish through their work. Writing out what I understand their paper or project to be doing gives me a chance to make sense of what is there, but also what needs to be added, elaborated on, or cut out and saved for another occasion.
Only recently have I begun to apply letter writing to the seminars and public lectures I attend. On one hand, I’m surprised that I did not think of this sooner, but on the other, I guess I’ve always thought that my letters should be for people to whom I’m qualified to give advice, mentorship and support. I have come to realize, however, that letter writing is about creating a common ground, a space for dialogue. Because I spent so much time this semester composing letters for the peers in my dissertation workshops and writing groups, I decided to experiment with this practice in seminar discussions where the people whose work I was reading and to whom I’d be writing would not necessarily be there to receive my letters.
Before I offer my reflections, I want to thank both Roderick Ferguson (Professor of African American and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago) and Brent Edwards (Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University) for making room in their busy summer schedules to help facilitate the first Mentoring Future Faculty of Color (MFFC) dissertation workshop. Thanks also to Herman Bennett (Professor of History at the Graduate Center, CUNY) for helping us organize this event, and of course to the Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity Programs (OEODP) and the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY for contributing the funds that made this workshop possible. Last but not least, I want to thank my co-conspirators in the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color project for dedicating their time and energy to planning this event and, more importantly, for agreeing to share pieces of their truly exciting work.
This dissertation workshop was a rare opportunity to participate in a critical conversation about our research with established scholars of color. Professor Ferguson and Professor Edwards engaged us in a discussion about what it means to frame and write a dissertation, asking tough but important questions about exigency, methodology, and text selection. The comments and suggestions I received on the opening pages of my first chapter will be a great resource as I move forward with writing (and revising) my work. It was a rewarding experience to be able to discuss my project among such a supportive group and to receive candid advice about framing my dissertation, especially as I begin to think about navigating the job market.
Last Friday, the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color project (MFFC) held its final lunch and lecture series so I wanted to use this opportunity to reflect on what has been an incredibly inspiring and generative spring program. First, I’d like to thank Nikhil Pal Singh (Associate Professor of Social & Culture Analysis and History, New York University), Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman (Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies and English, Brandeis University), and Tina Campt (Professor of Africana and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, Barnard College) for agreeing to share their research and engaging us in conversation. Thanks also to my amazing allies in MFFC whose energies and organizing skills helped make these events such a success.
All three lectures raised important questions that have pushed me to reflect more critically on my own scholarship. Professor Singh’s talk, “Race, Crime and Police Power in the Making of U.S. Empire” reminded me of the important histories of racialized criminality and policing in the United States that will inform my thinking as I explore contemporary forms of racialization and disciplining that manifest within the U.S. academy today. Professor Abdur-Rahman’s discussion of her book, Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race (2012), introduced a different genealogy for African American literature by tracing the development of tropes of sexual difference, which both excites and inspires me to find other ways of reading and conceiving Asian American literatures in my research. Finally, Professor Campt’s presentation on the serendipitous encounters that led her to her current work on convict photo albums (collected at the Archives of the Western Cape in South Africa) and the haptic dimensions of working in the archive are lessons I will take with me as I prepare for my own archival encounters in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University this summer.