One year later...
Wow. It's been over a year since I've given an update, and it sure doesn't feel like it.
This past year brought me many challenges alongside many professional, personal, and social successes.
The way university faculty describe the first year as an Assistant Professor was eerily accurate to my first year experience here at Winona State University. Over the entire first semester I spent every weekday on campus from 8am to 7, 8, oftentimes 9pm. With 3 new preps, committee work, programming, and feeble attempts at staying up-to-date with my research, it took a while to learn how to balance all the professional expectations that come with the job.
While I found that balance sometime in my second semester, I did not find the work/life balance along with it. So, as you might imagine, when we decided to become first-time homebuyers *just before* interest rates sky-rocketed, my stress levels were through the roof. I was convinced that every decision I had made since accepting the job offer was the wrong decision and that I likely blew up my life for the job.
Fortunately, summer brought an expansion of myself, personally, and the break from work gave me the reset I needed to start evaluating just how much I was giving of myself to the job and exactly what I was getting in return. I spent the summer enjoying Minnesota's incredible proximity to sunlight, riding my bike, playing outside, tending to my plants, and completing way too many house projects.
I'm already 5 weeks into fall semester and I'm discovering how much I *thought* I needed to do to meet the requirements of my job. In light of these discoveries I've spent the past two weeks experimenting with doing less. I love experimenting. It feeds my curiosity, and, in this case, it helped me keep more of myself for me and my family all the while meeting my professional goals--including research!
I'm finally starting to feel like I can sustain this academic life...I only hope that the academy can learn to sustain itself.
Rereading my last post feels very strange. What was only a month and a half ago feels like lightyears away. Thinking back, I must have immediately started to feel more grounded and settled in my life here after writing about how difficult the transition had been.
In part, I allowed myself a nice stretch of time to breathe--go on walks, explore, get to know some locals. Shortly after that I really dug into my work. I designed all of my courses, I wrote a proposal for an anthology chapter, I started collaborating on an SCMS panel proposal, and I very quickly started to feel like myself again--but calmer. The work doesn't carry the same feelings that it did pre-PhD. I'm less stressed, more focused, and I'm certainly getting a lot more sun here in Minnesota.
This week wraps up hours and hours of faculty orientations, meet and greets, and hybrid meetings. Come Monday I get back in the classroom for the first time since spring 2020, and Alex starts his new job as a Calibration Technician in electronics manufacturing. In our rearview mirror we are leaving behind my final stress-filled stretch of formal education and Alex's very dirty career in plastic extrusion. We are continuing forward in calmer and cleaner waters--and I hope I never recognize green plastic dye ever again.
Well. I've landed in Winona, MN after what felt like a very long and torturous move. Mind you, I have never been to Winona (or even Minnesota) prior to moving here--my campus visit was virtual and my husband made the trip to find a house since he was fully vaccinated before me and not in the middle of defending a dissertation. As with all moves, nothing seemed to go as planned, and we ended up arriving at our new home three days early.
We approached the closest "big" city to our new small town around 9:30pm and immediately hit one of the darkest storms I've ever driven through. I could see almost nothing for the remainder of the drive into town and up to our house. I was exhausted and my nerves were shot. After I got to the too-big-for-us house (built in the 1890s) and did a walkthrough for the first time, I texted by friend and told her that I felt like I was in a gothic novel; major "driving up to Maderlay for the first time" vibes á la Rebecca.
Since then we've unpacked almost everything and set up house. I don't know if I just don't remember what it was like moving to Binghamton five years ago or if it really was different, but I'm absolutely struggling more with this transition. I feel like I'm living someone else's reality and while I go through the motions each day I don't feel in my body. I feel like there's some alternate reality where the "real" me is actually playing out her life while I'm here living someone else's.
On further introspection, one thing I've noticed that I've been doing to avoid the anxiety brewing beneath the surface is spending a lot of time thinking in the future--what will happen when it's time to move out of this rental next year? What will happen with the University budget in 2, 3 years? What will happen if we run out of money?
It seems easier to live in a terrifying future where everything that has went and is going right goes wrong than it is confronting the fact that my present looks a lot like the future I imagined for myself the past seven years. I would like to accept and love myself enough to not only extend myself grace when things go wrong, but to show myself that same love when things go right.
Big transitions tend to unearth underlying assumptions and deep-seated beliefs that I'm not typically aware are operating behind-the-scenes of my everyday life. I often said that I wouldn't internalized academia and scholarly work to the extent that it defined me, but I'm coming to realize that the difficulty in transitioning from being a student to being an assistant professor psychologically is telling. Addressing that discomfort now will help me let go of the kinds of attachments that I know will not serve me, my work, my students, or my community. I'm grateful to have this little stretch of time to work through these transitions and I want to resolve to be more present in this time.
More to come soon on my new works-in-progress, but for now I'm going to ground myself in this moment, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
I'm thrilled to bring so much good news to this little corner of the Internet today. Good news isn't so easy to come by these days, and I feel so grateful for all I have to share.
Here are the highlights:
Next stop: Winona, book proposal, four (!) new preps, and the next chapter for our family.
I hope you'll stick around for all to come.
Writing as a Starting point.
My dog, Jack, hates being alone in the car. When my husband stopped at the gas station after picking Jack up from doggy-daycare this past Friday he was careful to roll the windows down, stand next to Jack, and talk to him while he gassed my car up for me.
It didn't matter. Jack not only peed all over the front seat of my car, but he also peed all over a notebook that contained three years worth of my writing--part of a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach to treating anxiety and OCD. When my husband told me what happened, at first I was mad--a feeling I prefer, as I believe (rightly or not) that it's actionable. My anger lasted a total of three minutes, and I was completely caught off guard by myself, moments later, when I found myself devastated, sad, and at a loss.
I wasn't mad at Jack or my husband--it wasn't anyone's fault. It just was.
It's taken me three days to be able to sit down and think about the situation long enough to write about it. Every time I've tried I've been brought to tears, overwhelmed by sadness. What's obvious is that I see the physical output of writing as a manifestation of the actual work I've done to challenge and change deep-seated beliefs that no longer serve me for the past three years. I reasonably know that just because the paper copy is gone, that doesn't mean the work didn't happen or that I haven't changed or grown. I am now realizing, though, that I carry a belief about writing that is begging to be challenged.
Thinking that losing the paper copy means losing the progress is supported by the belief that writing is an end point and not a starting point. I want to challenge this belief for multiple reasons. First, if this belief were a fact, then that would mean I am exactly who I was three years ago, which negates the real life experiences that I've encountered, which ultimately negates me. Second, as someone who is writing many things--a dissertation, cover letters, teaching philosophies, diversity statements--this belief is subconsciously holding me back from enjoying the process through experimentation, creativity, and revision. Third, this belief deflates the power embedded in my dissertation writing, which makes visible labor practices that often render illegible the work of people that are both marginalized and foundational to an institution, art, or industry.
If writing is an end point, then my dissertation doesn't do anything. But based on my experience reading revolutionary work by Black women writers, such as Sylvia Wynter, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Jacqui Alexander, Carole Boyce Davies, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and more, I know that when the work enters the world it doesn't just enter a conversation, it also contains the possibility of entering movements and revolutions. Writing is a starting point. For me, reading other people's writing was the catalyst for changing the way I orient myself politically, intellectually, personally, emotionally, and physically to other people, realities, and worlds.
Losing the paper copy of my work was a good reminder that when the big picture is about the process, movements, and change, loss is a given. If I can't accept loss as a part of change, then I'm probably not ready to make the sacrifices that are necessary for the changes I want to help manifest.
So, today I am done mourning the paper copy. Instead, I can recognize this loss as a large indication of my privilege that affords me losses so small. I resolve to welcome loss into my process of writing, thinking, doing, and being. When we prioritize seismic levels of change, we shake the core of our world--if we aren't willing to stand on shaky ground and sacrifice our comfort to the cracks in the foundation, there will be no place for us to build something new.
Trying to do things I might have referred to as "normal" before being under NYS PAUSE restrictions as if nothing has changed is the equivalent of trying to go for a hike in the middle of a forest fire. This cognitive dissonance is lost on almost no one, considering the amount of self-care advice coming from all corners of social media and especially taking into account what I consider to be worse: the "how to be PRODUCTIVE!" porn coming from people who are so deeply grieving the loss of normalcy and just about every institutional form of media that exists.
I did the hustle to transition my face-to-face class to an online format, but I didn't do it alone. I worked with my students to understand the kinds of challenges they were and are up against, and we problem-solved together. I'm excited that a short reflection on that experience will be published in National Teaching and Learning Forum in May--while it may seem that I got entangled in the productivity monster's tentacles, what really happened is I pitched a reflection that I already wanted to share with my students. I want them to know how integral they were to our success. I want them to know how proud I am of them for embracing reality and flexing skills we have been developing all semester: flexibility, openness, and self-forgiveness. I won't re-hash the reflection here, as I'm excited to share the published product, but I do want to write a bit about how I'm experiencing the all-or-nothing form of pressure that offers self-care and productivity as binary options.
In this moment, all I really want to do is sit around and drown in familiar, nostalgic television that reminds me of getting off a yellow school bus around 3pm, plopping down with a math textbook, and pretending to do my homework while Laguna Beach distracts me from a world in which I feel unprepared and awkward. I've been doing a lot of this, combined with combing through social media and leaning into FaceTime and Zoom social calls. Unavoidably I feel guilty that I'm not practicing self-care the "right" way by exercising, stretching, meditating, connecting with my loved ones, etc. But I also (still) feel guilty that I can't bring myself to work. I find myself doing the bare minimum by making sure my students have some kind of content and guidance to work from, but I'm not reading or writing for my dissertation. My dissertation feels like someone else's far-off memory. I can't bring myself to think about it beyond either the tinge of guilt that tells me: "Danielle, you should be thinking about it," or the little sparks that go off when I read the brilliant engagement my students have with films that are part of my project.
From my perspective and location in the world, I am feeling like my students are thriving in comparison to me, and while I know that "comparison is the thief of joy," I also know that I put a lot of value on being accountable to them. I dropped the ball on some materials that I owe them, and while I'm owning that here, I still need to let them know: I dropped the ball, I recognize it, I am picking it back up, I am doing my best, and let it be a lesson that the compassion that I strive to always lend to them comes from a mirror of my own human fallibility. When I'm done here, I will write them a letter responding collectively to their reflections on their day-to-day work in the class, the transition online, and where they are in the process of trying to reach the goals they set for themselves. I can tell you that I'm pretty confident I won't work on my dissertation.
At this moment, teaching is the only thing that makes me feel connected to the world in a way that transcends my individual needs. I can't sew, and I'm scared to volunteer in person, but I can teach and I can help my students find a tiny nook in their lives where the purpose is not based on grades, tests, right or wrong, but instead is a space that fosters forgiveness and growth in the face of our reality. Whenever we add the "mistake" label to a setback we experience as a result of this sublime reality right now, we shift blame from a collective responsibility we have to each other as members of a community to an individual responsibility that further isolates us when we need each other most.
I try to remind my students that accepting our reality doesn't mean that we stop showing up. Rather, we begin showing up for each other in new ways: letting each other know that we understand or don't understand what we are going through, offering time and space to grieve or get our bearings, and re-examining and managing our expectations, always with the current moment in mind.
We are all doing our best, but it's important to remind myself that "our best" will not look the same from one person to another--we come from different worlds and starting points, and that means we need to cut out the noise that is, in good faith, trying to tell us how to survive this: make sure you exercise, establish a daily writing practice, pray, breathe just so. Sometimes, the greatest learning experiences can only emerge from our own explorations and curiosities, and sometimes I'm most curious about Rich White Housewives causing drama in Beverly Hills (I'm so thankful for Garcelle Beauvais's debut on RHOBH today!). Other times, I find a strange urge to sit down and write an informal reflective blog post while I procrastinate writing a formal reflection to my students.
If the outside push to take good care of your body, mind, and soul helps you then I am very happy for you. If the productivity porn is something you need, then embrace it if you'd like. But, if like me, you need to tune it out in order to find acceptance, you don't need anyone's permission to do so (but if you do, you have mine). The more I've accepted that flexibility and being stubborn about what I feel works for me aren't binary states of being, the more I've felt a teeny-tiny bit of drive returning to my soul. It's mine--it internal and it's nice to hear its song, take in the beautiful coloring of its feathers, be with it when it's there, and resist the urge to run for the binoculars in order to identify its genus and species.
My intuitions are so strong and beautiful, but the thing about intuition is this: if I try too hard, I stifle it in favor of prescription and "best practices," that don't feel the best. I'm not going to let the capitalist system that takes precarious labor like me, chews us up and spits us out, trick me into getting comfortable or feeling normal when the very idea of best practices in the face of an unprecedented pandemic is oxymoronic.
I am thrilled to announce that my peer-reviewed article, "'We control the engine, we control the world': the geopolitics of gender, nation, and labour in hard-to-place transnational films," is now available online in Transnational Screens. You can find it at the link below. The article comes out in the print journal in issue 2, 2020.
Read "'We control the engine, we control the world': the geopolitics of gender, nation, and labour in hard-to-place transnational films" here.
On to the next...
Today I got word that my last of three comprehensive exams "received a strong pass!" While all of my exams challenged me, this third exam worried me the most.
Each exam is produced in collaboration with one faculty member who acts also as the first reader. In order to pass, the first reader and a second, anonymous reader must both pass the exam. When I took my first two exams I had an idea of who the second readers would be and felt confident that they would be fair, critical, and ultimately pass the exam.
The last exam, however, I had no idea who the second reader would be, and how they would perceive the very particular approach I took in sensing the coloniality in the Colombian film, La Sirga. I told myself stories about how workplace politics might leave me failing the exam, and was adamant that if I failed I would drop out.
I occupied my mind with ideas about how it would play out that I couldn't possibly know, let alone control if my fortune telling proved true, and I made myself feel stuck. Only in the past week before finding out I passed have I been able to re-calibrate and begin working on my prospectus. Lesson learned for sure: there will always be aspects of life, academic or otherwise, that I cannot control, and instead of thinking of this as a loss or something to worry about I can make better use of my time by acknowledging the things that I cannot control and finding a sense of freedom in that. I cannot control other people's choices, which means I do not have to worry about what they will or won't do.
In my program I only have to be coursework complete, pass or waive the language exam, and pass the three comp exams in order to advance to candidacy and become ABD.
I am so excited--and so proud--that I can finally say I am ABD: All But Dissertation, or in other words A BIG DEAL!
I've outlined my prospectus and I am ready to move forward to the next stage in my writing life. I'm working on finding a comfortable daily writing practice while also accepting myself and my self-care needs.
Some goals going forward:
I don't come here often enough to give you updates, but I hope I can find this space to be more of a thought and idea dump than it has been in the past.
ABD Danielle, the PhD Candidate
Édouard Glissant, in his lecture titled “The Poetics of the World: Global Thinking and Unforeseeable Events,” states that “archipelagic thought is thought of the many, the multiple” (7). Glissant’s concept of archipelagic thought was not on my mind when I ventured out to take photographs of the Susquehanna River in the late afternoon of the Autumn Equinox. Initially I wanted to shoot at the river because both the Washington footbridge and the foliage surrounding the river maintain a color scheme this time of year that reminds me of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves. I was seeking tension in the juxtaposition of a still medium like photography and the evocation of movement in the content of the photos.
When I arrived at the river, however, a series of rock formations just shy of the bridge immediately called forth Glissant’s concept. The first set of photographs capture archipelagic rock formations as signifying totalities, while holding in tension “the one”—the singular rock—and “the multiple”—the island-like formations made up of many rocks that shift with the movement of the water and the movement of the camera’s point of view (7). The Susquehanna photographs contain many repetitions with difference. This first set, taken together, constructs circular movement through the shifting and varied viewpoints of the same rock formations. The effect—compounded by the ways in which the editing process announces itself through saturation—could be double: one the one hand, suturing together multiple viewpoints of the same formation constructs an impossible or unimaginable imaginary (4), wherein the viewer can “see from all sides.” On the other hand, the repetition of the rock formations with subtle differences in each photograph lends life, but also strangeness, to the stone archipelagos. Visually moving through the set, the rock formations come alive in the shifting formal construction of the photographs.
While in this first set of photographs stone evokes life as a form of movement, in the second set of photographs (taken at the Riverside Cemetery and the Westlawn Cemetery) stone becomes a medium preventing spiritual movement. At the same time, stone symbolically conveys memory of lost souls. The idea of shooting in a cemetery came to me on a whim. Originally I thought I could connect the two photographic sets through Glissant’s above-cited lecture and Valérie Loichot’s article in Callaloo titled “Édouard Glissant’s Graves.” However, in researching cemeteries I stumbled onto a blog post documenting a Holocaust monument in Riverside Cemetery with photographs. The monument, surrounded by white stones, was erected in 1952 making it one of the earliest Holocaust memorials constructed in the United States (Gruber). I was compelled to visit the monument, thinking a stronger connection might be made between the stones in the Susquehanna photographs and the stones at the base of the monument.
In my visit to both cemeteries, various kinds and constructions of stone announced themselves prominently, but especially in the stones placed on top of the grave markers. While the Jewish custom of placing stones on top of grave markers is far from foreign to me—I’ve placed stones on the grave markers of my grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles—this project provided the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the custom. Already familiar with this practice as a form of marking the memory of the dead, my research elucidated another reason for marking headstones with rocks. Rabbi David Wolpe, for example, writes about this practice and identifies its roots in Jewish mythology and superstition. As he puts it, “The superstitious rationale for stones is that they keep the soul down.” Further, Wolpe draws a connection between memory and superstition when he identifies solidity as one of the main characteristics of stone. In their solidity, stones keep memory alive while simultaneously weighing the soul down, “prevent[ing] the kind of haunting that formed such an important part of East European Jewish lore” (Wolpe).
In the multiple capacities of the stones marking Jewish cemeteries, movement becomes the central crux of haunting, memory, and migration, and while I strayed from my original idea of connecting the two photo-shoots through Glissant, I found myself coming back to Loichot’s article after editing the cemetery photographs. Both Loichot’s discussion of the dynamic and interactive aspects of Glissant’s grave (1021), and the relation she draws between life and death in Glissant’s image of “hollowing out the earth” (1015-1016), can be read relationally to the practice of placing stones. Stones, as markers imbued with memory, connect the living with the dead through the interaction between the living and the earth.
In retrospect, the cemetery photographs maintain a sense of opacity, or, in terms of Glissant and Loichot, incomprehensibility (1024). Rarely, if ever, do the photographs expose the names of those occupying the graves. One can only know so much about the relationship between the dead and the living through the images of the stones resting atop grave markers. At the same time, some of the stones and objects used as markers, such as the seashell or the glass beads, begin to hint at these relationships. Furthermore, the images evade context in their formal composition; instead, they isolate stones and tiles, fragmenting them or blurring them through the framing and editing processes. The inclusion of the Holocaust monument at the head of this second set of photographs acts as a reminder of the migratory nature of memory; the monument was erected as a way of marking the memory of Holocaust victims who perished in the concentration camps without a proper burial or grave marker. The memories of those victims migrated with and lived through the family members that survived, finding their way to Binghamton. Further, interred beneath the monument lay a copper box containing a list of names. The names on this list stand in for the lost victims’ bodies (Gruber). According to the cemetery’s caretaker, Arieh Ullmann, the cemetery has also created a digital database of names added by new Jewish residents of Binghamton during annual ceremonies held at the monument, or via email. The monument, then, connects members of the diaspora across time and space—spiritually, physically, and digitally.
The two photographic sets, when read together, are meant to document the life cycles of the stones themselves. Simultaneously, the collection of images as a whole exposes and suspends the “extreme process of violence” that “engenders movement, change, and sometimes, transfiguration ... and which bursts beyond reason’s mastery” (Glissant 4). Within the photographs, stones are movement, stones move, and are moved. Stone Cenotaphs only begins to hint at the forces behind this violent process of movement, for any attempt at petrifying such violence into a permanent object risks continually finding, according to Glissant, the “actualized equilibrium of this violence” (4).
Glissant, Édouard. “The Poetics of the World: Global Thinking and Unforeseeable Events.” Chancellor’s Distinguished Lectureship Series, translated by Kate Cooper Leupin, April 19, 2002, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lecture.
Gruber, Samuel D. “USA: In Binghamton, NY, Rediscovery of an Early ‘Holocaust’ Memorial.” Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art and Monuments, 13 Nov. 2015, http://samgrubersjewishartmonuments.blogspot.com/2015/11/usa-in-binghamton-ny-rediscovery-of.html. Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
Julian, Isaac, et al. Ten Thousand Waves, Isaac Julien Studio and Victoria Miro Gallery, 2010.
Loichot, Valérie. “Édouard Glissant’s Graves.” Callaloo, vol. 36, no. 4, 2013, pp. 1014-1032, DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0204, Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
Ullmann, Arieh. Personal interview. 15 Oct. 2017.
Wolpe, David. “Why Stones Instead of Flowers.” Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, Kindle Edition, edited by Jack Riemer, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012, Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
The Cineaste Project
I am thrilled to announce that I have been named a Public Humanities Fellow for the 2017-2018 academic year. The Public Humanities Fellowship is offered through Humanities NY and is funded by a grant from the Andrew H. Mellon Foundation.
The Fellowship requires that I actively work toward implementing my project in coordination with community partners, attend talks and workshops, and give two presentations at Binghamton University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH).
I look forward to blogging about my progress throughout the upcoming academic year. What follows is my abstract for the project:
Academia often frames the humanities as an essential aspect in the construction of the public sphere, but little emphasis is put on how the public shapes the humanities. Cinema highlights the mutual constitution of the public and the arts, as it is both a site of identity formation and a medium built by local, national, and global community actors. The public sphere is a critical component of cinema because the distribution of many films relies on a public audience at film festivals, movie theaters, libraries, and universities. Currently, Binghamton does not have a public film program that centers on the screening and discussion of film. My project title, Cineaste, means an enthusiast for or devotee of film. The Cineaste project would create a public space for SUNY Binghamton cinema students, local residents, and cinephiles from the greater Binghamton area to screen and discuss film on a regular basis. The larger Binghamton community has a diverse population with diverse experiences, outlooks, and ideas. Cineaste, then, would build a forum for critical dialogues focused on issues central to the community and the world, facilitating empathy. Empathy acts as a link between individuals, strengthening ties across the community.
Assistant Professor of English/Film Studies
Transnational Cinema, Decolonial Methodologies, Feminisms, Neoliberalism
Winona State University
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.