This academic year I’m working in the UW Madison Writing Center as an instructor. Being at a research one university, the Writing Center welcomes not only undergraduates across disciplines but also graduates. Master’s students with theses and doctoral candidates with dissertations. This seems daunting for any tutor: he or she must help a student with his or her personal statement for dentistry school in one thirty-minute session and then switch gears to a dissertation chapter in plant virology in another thirty-minute session.
I actually welcome this intellectual challenge, because I was told by a very wise diversity-minded administrator that education comes as much from outside the classroom as it comes inside the classroom. So revel in tutoring sessions that turn into reciprocal lessons.
For example, I met a dissertator in my program a couple months ago, an African American woman tending to five children back home. She recognized me immediately; she remembered that she was supposed to have met me during my visit to the campus one year before but didn’t for one reason or another. Instead of discussing the abstract of her dissertation, the student wanted to use the session to get to know me and how I was doing in the program.
I told her I was interested in digital literacy and race but that I was hesistant on making that my dissertation topic because I didn’t want to be yet another Black man writing about race and I also thought academia may not value it as other forms of research.
The dissertator student stopped me. “That”s hot!” she said. “I’m all about putting together two or three things that don’t seem to fit, and digital literacy and race, man, that sounds like something that doesn’t mix well, and you should do it!”
Then she told me to embrace the Black man writing about race persona, because it’s important that we talk about ourselves in academia. I realize that for years, decades, centuries, white people have written the stories of people of color across media and writing genres. I studied it for two semesters last year, and that was a I point I kept missing. Other scholars (read: white scholars) have studied African Americans and written about African Americans in as many ways as they can thin, many of those words unfavorable, and although we live in a world with Black Twitter and #BlackLivesMatter, this trend continues. I would say that the conversation is a bit different because now African Americans, and other people of color, other minorities wrestling with intersectionality–are talking back and they are talking loud and in many different forms: still images, GIFs, hashtags . . . Of course, that’s at the risk of being a spectacle, an absurd performance art, at least for some people.
And that’s okay. At least they hear those voices.
Thanks to my chance encounter with my dissertator colleague, I forge ahead with my research interest in computational literacy and African American literacy. I don’t have much power; my voice isn’t big or important enough to participate in the ongoing battle within “post-racial” America. There are enough voices already, and I won’t compete with them. But if I were to say one thing about race, if I were to publish something that’s accessible to other people, I would want my dissertation to be that one thing.
It should be the one essential moment when I speak and I hear my own voice speak about myself and other African Americans.
Then I’ll recede into the shadows and teach freshman composition for the rest of my life. 😉