So you want to go to grad school?! It’s the episode you’ve been waiting for: Brendane and Alyssa talk all things PhD life while incorporating that critical analysis you know and love. In our What’s the Word segment, we discuss the four waves of feminism and why people have got intersectionality à la Kimberlé Crenshaw all the way messed up. For What We’re Reading, we discuss the essay “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology” by Tami Navarro, Bianca Williams, and Attiya Ahmad in order to discuss the Self/Other problematic of anthropology that excludes and alienates women of color the discipline, as well as the particular racialized and gendered experiences that make the academy an unwelcoming place. Finally, in What In the World?! we answer your questions and we spill the tea on our application process, our journey to the PhD, shout out the folks that helped us get here, and why you need friends both inside and outside of the Ivory Tower. We also talk the best advice we received about grad school, and self-care where Alyssa shares how her hot girl semester helped her have a healed girl summer.
Get ready – it’s a long one! And also, apologies for the audio – we’re still learning our new mics and audio software!
Zora’s Daughter’s Podcast: Episode Seventeen
Co-hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa A.L. James
Title: Hot Girl Semester
Total Length: 01:54:06
Brendane Tynes 00:00:17
Hey everybody! Welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we discuss popular culture with a Black feminist anthropological lens. I’m Brendane and I use she/her/pronouns. We’re back this week to discuss a lighter subject because, y’all [sighs] shit is just heavy.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:00:34
So heavy. Hey, y’all! I’m Alyssa. I use she/her/hers pronouns as well. It has been qWHITE the week.
Brendane Tynes 00:00:57
Alyssa A.L. James 00:00:59
So we’re just gonna talk all things grad school. We asked y’all to send us questions on social media for this episode. Thank you very much. We will be getting to those in our final segment. And, of course, we’ll be bringing some of that dope analysis that you listen to us for.
Brendane Tynes 00:01:17
Right. So before we dive in, we just want to say thank you for all of the support, financial and otherwise, that we’ve been receiving—your emails, your DMs, the rating and sharing of our episodes. And all of these forms of support are things that we cherish, so muchismas gracias. I just want to check in because we haven’t done that in a while. Alyssa, how are you doing? How are things going? What’s been bringing you joy lately?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:01:43
Yeah, things are going well. They’re going well. I have been powering through some of these tasks that I have on my to-do list. I’ve been revising grant applications, reading for my prospectus. You know, just getting the work done. But I think a joy for me has been coming in the form of the weather—not the Christina Sharpe meaning of weather [laughter]. It is—you know, it’s been warm and sunny here in New York recently and so I’m just loving all of the flowers that are blooming. I’ve seen cherry blossoms and there’s tulips and lilies.
Brendane Tynes 00:02:21
Oh, I love those! I love tulips.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:02:23
Yeah! And so I have sunflowers and calla lilies in my living room and they just brighten my day. It’s really pleasant [laughs]. But how are you doing?
Brendane Tynes 00:02:35
I feel like I’m doing as good as possible given everything going on, personally and also just in the world. But I’m so happy to be on the mic today and to be in your iridescent presence. And I’m really looking forward to the end of the semester and a summer break of some sort. Like, the plan is y’all, I plan to have a healed girl summer. Meaning, you know, thank you 2020 and the beginning of 2021 for the reflection that you’ve brought and the pause that you’ve brought. But I want a healed girl summer with a little sprinkle of toxicity. You know, just a little sprinkle.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:03:23
Just a tad of mess. Just a tad.
Brendane Tynes 00:03:25
Just a tad. But not too much because I’m trying to I’m trying to maintain what my therapist has taught me [laughter]. So with that, do you think we should get into our word for the day?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:03:40
Yes. All right. Let’s do that. What’s the word? The word today is “intersectionality.” Where do we start? Intersectionality has been used and abused so much over the years. I cannot remember where I saw this. But someone said, “Y’all got Kimberlé Crenshaw regretting coining intersectionality and Barbara Smith doing damage control on identity politics, because y’all don’t read it!” People don’t read! But I think in order to help people get there, let’s just set the stage by talking about the history of feminism.
Brendane Tynes 00:04:23
Right, so the development of feminism is often divided into these waves, like, these different periods of history.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:04:31
Right, so it’s actually four waves now, which I learned today. I’m aging myself, but when I was in undergrad, there were only three waves. So I’m crine, I’m like, “Uh?” [Laughs]
Brendane Tynes 00:04:43
I think when I was in undergrad—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:04:44
I have crossed over!
Brendane Tynes 00:04:45
—there was only three, too. Honestly learned it—learned about this fourth one for our episode today. But—[laughs]. Let’s be clear that when we are discussing this history, we’re discussing feminism as movements and ideologies that advocate for the equality of the sexes within the US context. So we’re not talking about African feminisms, we’re not talking about European feminisms. In particular, we’re focusing on the US today. And there were four waves—I’m sure many more to come. The first wave being the 19th and early 20th century, when white liberal feminism had turned on this kind of gaining political equality, and particularly, the focus for white liberal feminists was voting rights, aka suffrage. So if you remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton [laughs], that was her bag, right, suffrage. But also thinking about how to improve sexual, economic, and reproductive rights for white women in particular as well. So the second wave arrived in the 1960s. And people credit Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, with sparking second-wave feminism. So this is the era of feminism that’s often associated with the phrase, the person—”the personal is political”—excuse me—which essentially means that aspects of our personal lives are politicized. So women’s inequalities are linked through the sexist power structures that set binaries where men—male on one side, right, and female—”feminine”—on the other. And so this awareness of the structural nature of sexism came as a result of different consciousness-raising groups. So these different political groups that came forward, that shared their personal experiences, and these women became conscious that the challenges they faced related to being a woman wasn’t actually personal, but it was the result of a structure of power called patriarchy.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:06:49
Exactly. Then we get the third-wave feminism. And that’s where things get really interesting because people start splitting off, doing their own things, right?
Brendane Tynes 00:06:57
The fights, the riots [laughter].
Alyssa A.L. James 00:07:01
So we start getting these feminists rooted in the second wave taking things further. So we’re thinking Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherry Moraga, bell hooks, and so on. And so they’re thinking with post-structuralism in order to take apart what being a woman, what femininity means, and then challenging the overrepresentation of upper middle class white women in the movement, as we talked about earlier. And so then they’re also bringing in these analyses of sexuality. And so people often say that the third wave took off in the 90s. And I’m like—now that I’ve learned more, I’ve grown more in my knowledge, politics—I’m like, “But hang on a minute!” You have Black women, particularly Black queer women—I’m thinking Audre Lorde, bell hooks, June Jordan, Angela Davis, the Combahee River Collective—they’re writing in the 70s and 80s to expose the interlocking systems of power that define women’s experiences. So they’re doing this sooner than people attribute the third-wave feminism was happening so.
Brendane Tynes 00:08:12
You know, that sounds pretty typical, par for the course. We be, like, half a century ahead of everybody else [laughs].
Alyssa A.L. James 00:08:21
Exacts. I mean—well, exactly. You say, “half a century,” and people are like, “Hang on, that doesn’t add up.” But actually you have Black women like Claudia Jones and Louise Thompson Patterson who are thinking about intersectionality before the term was coined. They were thinking about how to center Black women’s experiences in order to bring us towards liberation before Combahee. So I would argue that the third wave started much earlier than the 90s. But, you know, we can just let y’all have that.
Brendane Tynes 00:08:54
Y’all can have it [laughs].
Alyssa A.L. James 00:08:56
Because we know what we got. We’re good. We’re good. And then this is—so the third wave is also when standpoint theory becomes known—or becomes discussed. So standpoint theory, it says that a person’s social position influences how they see the world, and consequently, what they know. And we’ll come back to that in a little bit. So I’ll just say about the fourth wave that it started in 2012. It’s defined by justice for women and exposing sexual harassment and violence against women using social media. So if that sounds like #MeToo, you would be right. That is the pinnacle of fourth-wave feminism. I’m saying that. I don’t think anybody [laughs] who legitimately studies, like, digital feminisms would say that, or has said that, but maybe they have. But I think that that actually reflects the kinds of consciousness-raising activism and meetings that, you know, they had. So, you know, social media and hashtags are kind of the consciousness-raising of the new millennium.
Brendane Tynes 00:10:00
That’s really interesting, then, how they—I don’t know, now I’m gon have to read about how they actually demarcate between these waves. And if they are supposed to be waves then—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:10:11
[Crosstalk] —they become in and out?
Brendane Tynes 00:10:13
Yeah, do they end? Or does it just—a new one comes? Because [crosstalk]—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:10:17
—[Crosstalk] Well, I think—I mean, they don’t, right? Like, if what I’m seeing, and when I was, you know, refreshing my memory about all of these things, is that they each take parts—each wave has taken parts of the previous so they kind of build on each other and then they go back towards other things. So, if, you know, my evaluation of #MeToo being a consciousness-raising exercise and sort of activism, then, you know, they’re taking stuff from the second-wave feminism and then applying it in the fourth wave. So, I guess, in a sense, they do kind of recur.
Brendane Tynes 00:10:55
Yeah! I don’t know. I just was like, “Oh, interesting.” Waves, water.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:11:01
Brendane Tynes 00:11:02
Now all of that to say, right, intersectionality as a term was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw to theorize these interlocking systems of power that oppress Black women and other women of color. So she uses the term in a paper she gave called, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” And she further develops intersectionality as a legal term in her article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” which was published in 1991. So in this article, in particular, she discusses the three types of intersectionality. There’s structural intersectionality, political intersectionality, and representational intersectionality. And she discusses these terms and how they figure into the lives of intimate partner violence survivors of color. So structural intersectionality examines the structural experiences of folks at the intersections of the social categories that we have. So categories such as race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. Political intersectionality, then, examines the erasures, the fissures, and the coalitions that can happen at the structural intersections. And so in this article, she talks about how feminist and antiracist politics, which focus on white women and Black men, respectively, right, effectively erase violence against women of color, which we’ve heard that. We’ve all heard that, right? All the women are white, all the Black people are men. And finally, representational intersectionality, which she discusses in this article, examines how the cultural depictions of women of color can actually occlude their experiences with violence. When I have conversations with students about intersectionality, I tend to bridge all of these different definitions together and I offer them this piece, right, which is that intersectionality is a framework of analysis that considers the convergence of structures of domination and the lived experiences of people. So unlike what you may have heard, right, intersectionality is not about identity. It’s not about, you know, collecting your identity coins as you run the race through life. It’s actually about the forces that be, right? So the structural forces that create what it means to be Black or create what it means to be a woman, and then the social conditions that converge around that.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:13:38
Right, I think that’s really important, right? Like, if we go back to who she’s drawing on, right, like, this—these are Black feminist analyses. And so we can think about the Combahee River Collective. You know, they call them interlocking oppressions, not intersecting identities, right? So these systems of race and gender and class domination, they converge in ways that make the harm done by each inextricable from each other. I’m going to try to give a little example. I, this weekend, had a nice time out, you know, going outside for once.
Brendane Tynes 00:14:14
Alyssa A.L. James 00:14:16
I know, what is outside?
Brendane Tynes 00:14:18
Who is she? Outdoors, who are you?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:14:20
Haven’t spoken to her in a while [laughter]. So I learned while I was out that New York has a 1st and 1st. So it’s the intersection of 1st Avenue and 1st Street. So if I’m standing in the middle of that intersection and someone says—someone calls me, they’re trying to meet up with me and they’re like, “Hey, are you on 1st St or 1st Avenue?” I’m gonna be like, “I don’t know. Both?”
Brendane Tynes 00:14:51
Alyssa A.L. James 00:14:43
It’s literally impossible to say. Okay, now say someone that’s—now say I’m standing on that street and someone assaults me and I have to prove—okay, I’m thinking about prove in the legal sense because Kimberlé Crenshaw is a legal scholar after all—I have to prove that myself and the other person were on 1st Street or 1st Avenue? How do I do that? I can’t. It’s impossible because I’m literally at the intersection of these two places. So Crenshaw was saying that for Black women, you don’t know where sexism ends and where racism begins because they’re experienced simultaneously. And so she used this to challenge the limitations of an anti-discrimination law that fails to protect Black women. And so the way I saw this explained was that “The particular intersection where racism and sexism meet targets Black woman in a way that is invisible to people who insist on universal experiences of sexism and racism as separate forces.” And so I think that the way people use intersectionality today—which of course has now led Kimberlé Crenshaw to try to differentiate it by calling it “everyday intersectionality”—the way people are using this is a conflation of standpoint theory and intersections—you know, intersecting identities, if we want to call it that. It’s so people treat it as though everyone sits at the intersection of some combination of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, and then every -ism and phobia that is leveled against you compounds the experience of oppression. That’s not intersectionality [laughs]. Like, that’s how we ended up with this “Oppression Olympics,” where people try to rank themselves like, “Sure, I’m white, but I’m a poor lesbian. You may be Black, but you’re straight and middle class. So who’s more oppressed?” That’s not—that’s not how it works. And it’s also not useful to ask that question, because oppression isn’t quantifiable.
Brendane Tynes 00:16:58
Right, like, the math is literally not mathing. The social studies are not socially studying. I need people—I’m like—when people bring that up, I’m like, “What? That doesn’t even make sense.” This kind of thinking flattens difference and it makes all forms of identity “equal” in the sense where, like, race equals gender equals sexuality. And you can do some calculus, you know, you can find a derivative—these are the only math terms [crosstalk] [laughs]—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:17:29
—[Crosstalk] Here you go with the asymptotes again. We’re gonna get to the asymptotes, I don’t even know—
Brendane Tynes 00:17:36
The asymptotes! Yo, this is the math I remember from high school. And discover, you know, at the end of the day that we’re all the same, you know, and it’s, like [sighs] deep Negro sigh [laughter]. It—because, you know, what does that do, like, what does that actually do for trying to end oppression, right? I also get really annoyed when someone says, like, people are intersectional. I don’t know if you’ve heard that—[crosstalk]
Alyssa A.L. James 00:18:02
—[Crosstalk] Ooh yes [crosstalk]—
Brendane Tynes 00:18:03
—where people call themselves, like, “intersectional,” or they say, “Oh, I’m an intersectional feminist,” or “This person is intersectional.” And I really think that it’s a euphemism for saying, like, a person with marginalized identities. But the truth is, like, you actually cannot be an intersectional person. That actually doesn’t make sense. And if we’re going to go down that line of thinking, we are all in fact, “intersectional,” for we all sit at the intersections of interlocking systems of oppression. So what are you—you just tryna say somebody is different? And that’s—that’s weird, right? And the difference is, right—for some of us—is that our identities are marked at these intersections, where other people’s identities have actually been normalized, so we don’t even notice them or see them.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:18:55
Yeah, I—just you bringing up “the normal,” it just reminded me of this podcast I was listening to about the anti-Black origins of ableism. And woo!—the disability studies intervention to say that it’s the idea of “normal” and “the normal” and what is normal that oppresses us stunned me.
Brendane Tynes 00:19:15
Alyssa A.L. James 00:19:07
Because it’s like, “What if nothing was normal and we literally just accepted difference as that?” Rather than variations or aberrations on some standard? Revolution.
Brendane Tynes 00:19:27
Like, I don’t know. What if? What if we could?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:19:29
Brendane Tynes 00:19:30
What if we could?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:19:32
And I know sometimes I explained—because people always want to be like, “Oh, you’re anthropologists and, you know, well, what about the Caucasoid and the Negroid and these, like, ‘scientific’ versions of race?” And I’m like—[sighs]. I’m not a biological anthropologist, so I don’t—you know, we don’t deal in those kinds of concepts. I don’t know how people really—or if they continue to use them, to be honest.
Brendane Tynes 00:19:58
I don’t think they do. I think everyone kind of understands—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:20:02
That’s been debunked by now. [Crosstalk] Okay, thank goodness!
Brendane Tynes 00:20:05
You know, race is not biological. And, you know, there’s lots of research out about that.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:20:11
Exactly. Race is not biological. And so the way I usually try to explain it is, like—because I want us to move away from this “Race is a social construction” thing and make sure that people know that it is the meanings that we attribute to physical characteristics that are the problem, right? So it’s, like, every—people have different colored eyes. I think almost everybody probably has different colors, different shades. If someone was that attuned to color, they would be, like, “Everyone has these very different-colored eyes. Some of them are on the same spectrum.” But we don’t attribute the same kinds of racialized meanings to different eye colors. They just are. Like, imagine we started, like, segregating people based on their eye color. It would be—it sounds ridiculous, but it’s, like, that’s what people do with skin color. Or have done with skin color.
Brendane Tynes 00:21:01
Well, I mean—[crosstalk]. People do when they freak out when they see darker-skinned people with blue eyes. There’s—yeah, I see what you’re saying though as far as, like, it’s not like a—you’re typified, right, like, it’s not like, “Oh, you have blue eyes so that means that your people—all blue-eyed people need to live in a certain kind of house, in a certain kind of neighborhood, do X, Y, and Z,” and, yeah, it’s interesting what characteristics then become attached to race, as you were saying, like hair or nose shape. Lips, ears—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:21:40
Brendane Tynes 00:21:40
—shoulder—shoulder width, hip width, you know, the things that tend—people tend to look at and say, “Oh, that’s what makes you Black, or that’s what makes you not.” Hmm. That’s interesting.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:21:54
That’s how I generally will explain it to people but it’s in progress. Anywho, we are [laughter]—
Brendane Tynes 00:22:06
We’re traveling down a rabbit hole.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:22:08
We are. We could talk about this forever.
Brendane Tynes 00:22:10
Yeah, I think it’s important for us to keep in mind, though, that we’re bringing up intersectionality as a framework of analysis to think about particular experiences in graduate school and beyond. And so we thought that what we’re reading today would allow for us to kind of talk about both graduate school experiences but also experiences with faculty on the other side. So Alyssa, what are we reading today?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:22:35
Today we’re reading the article “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology” by Tami Navarro, Bianca Williams, and Attiya Ahmad. Tami Navarro is the assistant director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Her research interests include neoliberalism, capital, gender and labor, development, identity formation, globalization and transnationalism, race, racialization and ethnicity, and Caribbean studies. Bianca Williams is an associate professor in three departments. So in the Department of Anthropology, Women and Gender Studies, and Critical Psychology at CUNY Graduate Center. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University, and her first monograph, The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism was published with Duke University Press. Attiya Ahmad is an associate professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Her research interests include gender and feminist studies, Islam and Muslim societies, transnationalism and globalization, migration and diaspora, tourism, and she works in the Middle East and South Asia.
Brendane Tynes 00:23:55
So I went to Duke for undergrad. So I’m feeling a little, you know—it’s a little cool to see this. It shows me that something good actually can come from that place.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:24:10
[Laughter] What do you mean? You came from that place, too, and you are something great.
Brendane Tynes 00:24:15
I am reclaiming the pieces of my soul that have been left [laughter]. But—and I’m just kidding, there are lots of good things that come from Duke—I want you all to keep in mind, right, that this article was published in 2013, which means that it was probably written 2011-2012 the way academia works. But I’m learning, right? But many of the truths that they posit are actually timeless. Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad begin this article by framing where they enter in the introduction entitled “Gender, Race, and Anthropological Practice.” And in that introduction, they astutely explain how anthropology, through its ideological, institutional, and pedagogical practices, continues to harm scholars of color, particularly women of color. The authors are uniquely positioned to experience this harm because they are junior faculty at their respective institutions. And this article is based somewhat upon their own experiences [of] isolation and violence within the academy and the discipline itself. And though these institutions—so the academy and the institution of anthropology, right—they both aim to be more diverse, right, they actually fail to reconcile how their diversity efforts intensify racialized and gendered oppression, right? And one thing that I thought was really interesting that they noted as evidence of this, right, is how student evaluations are one particular site of violence. Because they talk about how student evaluations are one particular site of violence where students state how they are disappointed because they have been “cheated” out of a real learning experience. One because they’re not taught traditional canon and two because they’re not taught by “objective” white cisgender men. And I’ve had experiences as a TA with that. So I was like, “Testify! Testify, honey!”
Alyssa A.L. James 00:26:12
Listen. I had a student write in my evaluations that I’m condescending. But we’ll get to that for y’all, we’ll get to that. So I think that’s—I think what they’re saying is a really important intervention, right? Anthropology as a discipline perpetuates the idea that real anthropology only happens across lines of a binary difference. So anthropology operates with the understanding that there’s a Self—i.e., me—that is opposed to the Other—i.e., someone else out there. And so women of color anthropologists often find themselves written off as not real anthropologists because it’s assumed that there’s no difference between Self and Other in their research. So we are accused of doing “me”-search—like, “me”-search is research—while our white counterparts are not. We’re assumed to be the native anthropologist, and subsequently, have to do a lot of work to justify our place in the discipline, while justifying our place in academia. Like, that is just exhausting emotionally, physically, psychically. We tiyad.
Brendane Tynes 00:27:18
Tiyad. [Laughter] I was about to be like, “I’m muhfuckin’ tired!” [Laughter]. I’m muhfuckin’ tired.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:27:25
And then another conundrum that the authors highlight is the disproportionate burden of affective labor, aka that service work that women of color have to undertake as faculty.
Brendane Tynes 00:27:35
Ooh, chile. Mm. So much of that work that we do even as graduate students—and I imagine, Alyssa, when you become faculty member somewhere, right?—like, it will not have an appropriate place on our CVs. We can’t list out how many students we spend in office hours—like, how many students come, how many hours we spend in office hours. And it’s often work that is unseen and underappreciated—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:28:05
Brendane Tynes 00:28:06
That part. And it’s unseen, underappreciated, and unpaid because it’s feminized labor, right? Affective labor is feminized. So anthropology as a discipline, at least in the last 25-plus years—maybe we’ll say 30-plus years, right—has seen itself as being the discipline that kind of tackles these different hierarchies around race, around gender, etc. But it is rife, right, with these forms of violence in and of itself. And so the authors want to push readers to consider how the problematic construction of Self as this Me, but self—as Black women, we know the Self is not necessarily referring to us, right? Like, not—the Self is not necessarily us—but this anthropological Self and Other actually foreclose the possibility for anthropologists to evaluate scholars of color’s work effectively, right? Like, does this dualistic thinking actually account for the exclusion of certain forms of scholarship? And I would say, “Yeah, honey, it does.” [Laughs] And one of the things that they noted was that so many Black anthropologists, particularly Black women, anthropologists, find homes in departments outside of anthropology. And this might actually be the reason why. They suggest that the fetishization of difference that is endemic to our discipline actually makes it a hostile place for Black people and some other folks of color. And I condition that—some other folks of color. Very intentional about that. So we often run to, like, ethnic studies or gender studies departments where we’re shielded from some of that violence. And one of the things that I also find illuminating about their intervention is that they’re actually trying to take a structural approach to the race and gender problem that is—anthropology tends to have. So they’re saying—boldly, right?—that it’s not enough to diversify these departments. It’s not enough to hire one-off young Black person here, one queer person here, one non-Black person of color here, right? It’s actually—in order for women of color for students of color for queer students, etc., to thrive in this discipline, right, anthropologists literally have to change the way that we think, period. Anthropology has to change the way that it constitutes itself. But I feel like this is the conversation that we keep coming back to and like—we keep coming back to that, like, what to do with anthropology?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:30:45
I don’t know.
Brendane Tynes 00:30:47
I don’t know. That’s beyond my pay grade to answer, to be honest [laughter]. I’m just here to study.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:30:50
All right, so I think that—I feel like we’ve alluded to this in a few episodes. And so I really wanna talk about this accusation of “me”-search. So I don’t think I’ve gotten it that much because I research Martinique. And even though it’s the Caribbean, it’s different enough, right, to offer that binary, you know, that Self/Other difference. So I can be “objective” while I’m there. But I think, you know, we all know that 1, 2, 3—all PhD students—who are studying “Africa” from—
Brendane Tynes 00:31:32
You know, the comfort of their New York City apartments.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:31:35
Oh nooo. We’ll just go with “not Africa” [laughs]. And it’s like, “Are you ever asked to defend your choice of site?” It’s automatically assumed that they’ve chosen this place because their academic training has led them to ask questions that can be answered in that place, right? So we talk about this in our episode on reparations, the object of study versus the object of observation. For white anthropologists, it’s always assumed that that their object of study—as an example, you know, we can go with kinship—lead them to their object of observation, and that would be, in this example, “Africans,” okay. But then you think about Dr. Riché Barnes, who we had on the podcast, and she also studies kinship in its more contemporary sense. And then people always just assumed that she was studying herself and then that study of herself led to a kinship study. But why can’t it have been that she was, you know, reading all of this great work on kinship and thought “I have some questions about kinship.” And then was walking around and thought, “Wow, what a fascinating kinship situation that’s going on in these middle-class Black women at this library, where I met them,” right? Instead, you know, as the authors write, our “bodies and identities [are] always on display and actively implicated.”
Brendane Tynes 00:33:04
Right and it kind of sent me back to what I started saying earlier. Just, like, we as Black women in particular can never be the Self, right? We’re always the Other. And so it’s like we’re always studying ourselves because we’re always already the Other. I’m gonna get into this later when we get to the “What in the World?!” section, but I am actively implicated in my research all the time. I get accused of studying myself actually quite a bit. And it’s been happening for a long, long, long time since I started in undergrad doing my work. And—but I will say—to break away from that, like—when I TAed, I got one bad review from a white male student because I had followed class policy and gave him partial credit when you turn in an assignment over a week late, you know—and you shouldn’t have gotten that partial credit, but I’m not even gonna go there. So he sent me an email, after he—you know, send me an email after he saw his grade and he was like, “I sent you an email saying I was going to turn it in late,” and that was it, right? Not, like, an explanation, but just that “I sent you an email saying I was gonna turn it in late”—and y’all, this is pre-pandemic, before y’all try to roast me. So this is, like, pre-corona[virus], pre-, like, “It’s a pandemic, why you expectin’ students to do work?” This was before this time, right, where students—we were seeing each other in-person and we had classroom policies and things to follow.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:34:37
Not to mention, it wasn’t your policy, right? It was the instructor’s policy, and that’s how we get paid is by following other people’s policies so.
Brendane Tynes 00:34:46
Right. But, of course, I was the only TA in the class and I was a Black woman, the professor was a white man. So the professor didn’t get the email about the grade. I got it. And it was not a nice email. But him sending me the email before was supposed to be reason enough for me not to treat him fairly. So then the professor had to intervene eventually, like, I CCed the professor on my response and correspondence afterwards because the student actually got disrespectful. And I know, like, thinking about how my body and identity’s always on display and actively implicated—I know that if I weren’t a Black woman, he would not have popped off like that. Like, Tim—and his name is not Tim—but Tim would not have said what he said—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:35:32
You keep picking on Tim [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:35:35
I don’t know!
Alyssa A.L. James 00:35:36
This is the second time you’ve used Tim [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:35:39
There’s a mythical white man named Tim out there whose ears are ringing right now. But [laughs]—I don’t know who this is—but yeah, he would not have popped off on me like that if I were Susan and I looked differently. Or if I were a Tim, he would not have popped off like that. So I just think about that, like, even as TAs, our bodies are implicated in how students even respond to us or evaluate us and, like—didn’t you get a bad comment from a student, too? You talked about it earlier, it was—I remember you talking about it, though, like when we were in “Decolonizing Methodologies” together. And you were asking people whether you come off as condescending because it had actually really bothered you.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:36:22
Yeah, yeah. I’m very sensitive, y’all. I think it wasn’t—it wasn’t even a university evaluation, right? It was one that I took upon myself to give out midway through the semester because, for me, I think teaching is important. I actually really enjoy it. And I wanted to learn about what students needed and how I could better help them understand the material. And so, you know, I’m trying—I’m being—I’m out here trying to be reflexive, as the anthropologists do, busy navel-gazing, and I’m like, “Am I condescending? Or am I just Black in a position that the student couldn’t reconcile me being in?”
Brendane Tynes 00:37:05
And that’s the tea. That’s the tea, like—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:37:08
[Laughs] So asked—I was like, “Am I condescending? Ah—no—I—am I though?” And I think, you know, I’ll say that that might have been the inception of my American racial consciousness [laughs]. But—But I mean, the authors talk about this, right? They explain that women of color professors—or even TAs—they face discrimination because of students’ pre-existing raced, classed, and gendered expectations of what constitutes a professor. So, again, we’re kind of seeing these effects of intersectionality.
Brendane Tynes 00:37:40
Right? They also were talking about how students often vent their frustrations about not having a “real professor”—that is, this kind of white man. And we can argue that even in some disciplines, right, there’s an expectation for an Asian man to be the type of professor, right, in their evaluations, which I—I can’t imagine that evaluation coming across my computer screen, where somebody’s child says, “I wish I had been taught by Tim.” Like, I—I don’t know what I would do. Pack my bags, maybe? I don’t know. But—and, you know, thankfully, Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad did not do that, right? [Laughs] And in this essay in particular, right, they talk about this kind of—the corporatization of the university and how the reduced endowments and other things of that nature have actually pushed universities to operate more like businesses. And so when they do that, right, they treat students as consumers, and they say, “Well, classes are supposed to be for consumer satisfaction,” right, “The customer’s never wrong” kind of idea. And so these evaluations, they don’t just help professors improve courses, right? They’re actually helping students to decide what classes to take, they—departments use those to decide which courses to fund. Those evaluations also fold into tenure files for assistant professors who are moving towards promotion. And they help assess the professor’s value in this kind of higher education economy. So Black women are actually systematically disadvantaged and predisposed to negative reviews for reasons out of their control, such as what they choose to wear, what their hair looks like. I remember a Black woman professor saying that a student wrote an evaluation about a time that she came into class and she looked angry. And the student felt like she couldn’t learn because the professor looked angry, you know. And that actually causes Black woman to be denied tenure because tenure committees don’t—basically, they don’t account for these, like, structural issues. They don’t—they don’t take out the confounding data to see, you know, what’s going on.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:40:00
Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I’m like, “Are these teaching evaluations really to help students choose their classes or whatever? Or is it just a form of surveillance?” And a very insidious form, right? Are y’all pleasing the customer?
Brendane Tynes 00:40:16
And I think, you know, question mark—that might be somebody’s dissertation work. Teacher evaluations, surveillance—I think so. I think so. I think something that was also really interesting to me about the article was that the authors kind of turn the ethnographic gaze inward, in a sense, and they discuss vignettes of their own actual factual experiences as women of color. And I want to say this to pause, like—Dr. Navarro, Dr. Williams, and Dr. Ahmad, if y’all ever listen to our little podcast, I just want to say that I’m so sorry that you had to endure such racist and misogynist violence. And we know that we are a community of women of color who experience things to varying degrees, so just know Zora’s Daughters, we wich y’all in, you know, in coalition and actually in experience. Yeah, I just want to encourage you who are listening, right, to make sure that y’all actually read the article for yourselves and engage with it because we’re not able to do it justice in our short podcast today.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:41:22
Yeah, so I think we’ll end the section with a direct quote from them: “It is necessary that the academy take a holistic approach to all faculty members.” And I’ll add students.
Brendane Tynes 00:41:35
Alyssa A.L. James 00:41:37
[Laughs] “We argue that the wellness, comfort, and value of women of color and their research must become an institutional priority in order for the climate of academia to change.” And with that, should we move on to the next section? What—
Brendane Tynes 00:41:52
Yeah, like, what?!
Alyssa A.L. James 00:41:53
—in the world?!
Brendane Tynes 00:41:54
What in the world?!
Alyssa A.L. James 00:41:55
Brendane Tynes 00:41:56
What. [Laughter] So we asked y’all to write in with questions, and woo, did y’all have something to say to us, like—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:42:07
Brendane Tynes 00:42:08
Y’all deliverdt. Deliveredt? [Laughter] Delivered. For real. So we’re gonna answer some of the questions and themes because there were several kind of similar ones and then some of the questions were actually really specific. So we’ll try to answer them as best as we can. And if we don’t answer your question, please charge it to my head, not to my heart. I heard somebody say that one time.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:42:32
Oooh, I like that.
Brendane Tynes 00:42:33
I don’t quite know what it means, but imma just [laughs] insert it here. And if we don’t answer it, right, it’s probably because we actually don’t have an answer to your question—which is possible, we don’t know everything—or we can’t answer it. We just—there’s no way for us to in the time we have. But we want to encourage you all to look at all the resources that are out there for applying and staying in grad school for Black women, students of color, and first-generation students. I recommend that y’all check out The Professor Is In book and blog. I got that book summer before I started graduate school and it—reality check, honey, reality check. And also the Andover Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers and Black Girl Does Grad School, those are also really the resources.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:43:20
Yeah, so I think you all can check out—and this is particularly for STEM—you can check out Malika Grayson’s book, Hooded: A Black Girl’s Guide to the Ph.D. I also read 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School, which is a lot about the so-called hidden curriculum, which are, you know, the unwritten and unofficial rules, values—
Brendane Tynes 00:43:41
So many rules.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:43:42
—perspectives, and expectations that aren’t explicitly taught, but that you’re kind of expected to know. So there’s this kind of grad school habitus—if you want to use that—that some of us don’t have—myself included. Y’all, in undergrad, I almost never went to office hours. I didn’t know you could just show up in professor’s offices and be like, “Hey, what’s up? Tell me about your life.” [Laughs]
Brendane Tynes 00:44:05
That’s actually pretty common, though, especially for first-generation students.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:44:09
Brendane Tynes 00:44:11
You don’t—you know, like, “Oh, I’m not”—I didn’t know that office hours could be, like, “networking”—and I hate that word—but, like, “networking,” or, like—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:44:18
Yep, me neither.
Brendane Tynes 00:44:19
—ways to build relationships with folks, yeah.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:44:21
Didn’t know. Now I know, I go hang out with people. [Laughter] So yeah, I think—you know, I was gonna say the same. It’s just—it’s a disadvantage. It’s one of the disadvantages that first-generation students have in higher education, especially if you went to public school. I feel like in private school, it’ll be a little bit more, like, “Just send emails,” “Here’s how you send a proper email to your professor” and things like that so. But one of the things that I thought we might explain—since it has and will come up—are titles. I was gonna say the assistant and associate professor, but I think we’ll just go with the PhD titles. So since I’m a PhD student, Brendane has said she’s a PhD candidate, some folks are probably like, “What are y’all talking about? Why are you different PhDs?” So this is, again, in a North American context—a PhD candidate is someone who has advanced to candidacy. So they’ve completed all of the requirements. So it’s usually courses and then comprehensive exams to earn a PhD, except the dissertation. So you’ll also hear people say, “I’m ABD.” So that means “All But Dissertation.” Some people will also “Master’s out” of the PhD—this is a term, “Mastering out.” And that means that they’ll leave once they receive their MA or the MPhil. And that has a whole different set of associations that we won’t get into. But at Columbia, after two years of courses, you receive an MA, a Master of Arts. After your third year, when you pass exams, and defend your prospectus—which is what I am about to do and Brendane did last year—then you advance to candidacy. You receive an MPhil or a Master of Philosophy. And so that’s the most advanced master’s qualification that you can receive. And then in the UK, they, you know, you can actually go to study for an MPhil, it’s usually a research master’s and it’s two years versus the one-year MA. And then you write and defend your dissertation. Bam! You have a PhD, a Doctor of Philosophy. You know, like it’s that easy. Just a little Emeril.
Brendane Tynes 00:46:31
Yes, yes! Just, you know—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:46:32
A little Emeril, a little Salt Bae [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:46:33
She said, “Bam! Here it is, a PhD.” I wish honey.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:46:39
The other thing that I want to make sure that folks know is that PhDs are the OG doctors. Okay? PhDs were the first to use the title “Doctor” and then the MDs—the physicians—started using it. So don’t hesitate to call me Dr. James in a few years. Okay? [Laughs]
Brendane Tynes 00:47:00
Honey, you know—you know I will not—one thing I won’t do is hesitate to call you Dr. James. I’m taking in what you said finally [laughter]. And thinking about, like, the different titles, and as someone who had no clue coming into graduate school, what any of those things meant, I think it’s so helpful to break these things down, right? And so many of y’all are starting graduate school in the fall or even thinking about applying in the fall. And for those of you who are at that stage where you’re thinking about applying, believe it or not, you should actually start planning your applications this summer.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:47:37
Deadline’s in December.
Brendane Tynes 00:47:39
Deadline’s in December. I know it’s April and you’re like “What, girl?” but I am that kind of person when it comes to my future, I kind of want to have a plan. I might not have a plan for tomorrow but if you asked me about five years, I have a little plan for that. And so I actually started my application process more than a year before I actually turned in my application. So I was starting fall 2015 for the admission cycle and fall 2016 to be admitted in fall 2017. Yes [laughs]. And there’s actually a story behind that that maybe I’ll tell one day, but I have a whole timeline for what to do basically each month or quarter of the year leading up to the application that was gifted to me by Dr. Ashley Farmer, who is now at UT Austin. Thank you so much. And she’s like—her guidance, her mentorship, as well as other Black women in the academy are the reason why I’m here in graduate school today. And what I did—I’m the type of person that like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just gonna send an email and, you know, if they respond, they respond, and if they don’t, they don’t.” And I literally sent Dr. Keisha-Khan Perry an email. And I was like, “I’m a Black woman and I’m interested in this and I want to go to grad school.” And she was like, “Yeah, call me.” And we literally talked on the phone for an hour and she was like, “Do this, do this, do this, do this.” And like, I literally would not be here without her. So thank you, thank you. But even in talking about this, I’m thinking, like, we’ve discussed our journeys to anthropology as a discipline, right, as PhDs in anthropology, but we’ve actually never discussed the application process. And so I want to just ask, like, what was yours, Alyssa, and, like, how did you go about applying?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:49:31
Oooh. Uh. Hm. [Laughs] It’s a funny story. All right, buckle up, everybody [laughs]. So in Canada, you do a master’s first. And so our PhD programs are a little bit shorter than in the US, generally. So I was in the last year of my MA writing my major research paper, which was—is this, like, a step down from a thesis and I was like, “Ah! I’m gonna take another year off, reflect on whether or not I really wanna, you know, do the PhD—continue this.”
Brendane Tynes 00:50:02
Take some time.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:50:03
That was, you know, when the whole coffee revival project is dropped in my mailbox. And someone remembers—I think I told that story already.
Brendane Tynes 00:50:11
Alyssa A.L. James 00:50:12
And so, you know, someone in my program—she’s also doing a PhD on some really cool stuff around the temporality of the Slow Food movement in Italy. And she was like, “Hey, you should check out Columbia. You know, Vanessa Agard-Jones is there, Paige West is there, and that would make a lot of sense for your interests, right? Like, coffee and Martinique.” I was like, “America, hm. [Laughs] Interesting.” So anyway—
Brendane Tynes 00:50:37
You were like, “America, the ghetto!” [Laughter]
Alyssa A.L. James 00:50:41
Y’all don’t have health care. Oh, shoot! Social safety nets? No, no—okay [laughs]. So, you know, I defended my “merp”, the M-R-P—major research paper—and then I was like, “Eh, all right.” So I ditched, moved to Spain, split my time between Barcelona and Lausanne in Switzerland and—
Brendane Tynes 00:50:55
Ooh, sounds exciting.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:51:05
It was great [laughs]. It was a nice year. And then I was like, “Yeah. For sure. I’m pretty sure I want to do this.” So I studied for a month, I wrote my GRE in Geneva. And I used—to study, I used a bootleg copy of one of those prep books that I got online somewhere [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:51:21
Do what you got to do.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:51:23
I mostly studied math, because I figured most anthropology programs—and I was, of course, looking at the expectations and the requirements—most of them don’t actually have requirements for math, unless they’re for field programs, in which case, they might have a minimum, but it’s, like, a very—it’s a pretty low minimum. So I knew that I just needed to get the minimum score on the math and then, you know, I would—I generally test well in reading and writing so I didn’t need to study too much for the, like, verbal section of the GRE. Also, fuck racist and classist standardized testing.
Brendane Tynes 00:52:01
Alyssa A.L. James 00:52:01
Anyways [laughs]. Did that. Researched the schools that would suit my interests. I settled on four. I started writing my statement of purpose based on the examples that Duke anthro have—I don’t know if they still have them, but they had them on their website.
Brendane Tynes 00:52:15
Please, please! If y’all don’t put them back on the website. Y’all have helped me. You’ve helped Alyssa—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:52:19
Brendane Tynes 00:52:22
Two—so far, two for two, like, keep them on the site, please.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:52:26
Yes, that was my—I use that, followed it to the letter. I was just, like, looking at the structure, followed it. Because I didn’t have anyone read my statement of purpose before I submitted it [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:52:41
Alyssa A.L. James 00:52:42
Okay, let me—
Brendane Tynes 00:52:43
Alyssa A.L. James 00:52:44
—explain. I—honestly—brave or stupid, I don’t know. I’m,—you know, I’m first gen, I don’t feel entitled to anyone’s time. So I didn’t like asking for help, so I just didn’t [laughs]. Fast forward, y’all, I got into all the programs I applied to. Okay [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:53:06
Perrriood. Okay, okay, okay.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:53:07
So then I started asking people to write my letters probably about a couple months in advance of the deadline. I asked four professors. So it was my supervisor, my committee member of my master’s, and then a professor that I got a good grade from in my master’s. And I also asked a professor who I had just randomly met during fieldwork—or she had actually emailed me because she found my blog on Martinique and we met up in Martinique when I was doing my research and she was a professor in the US. And so, you know, we still talk now, she’s great—hi! [Laughs] If she listens to this. And that was just a unique fourth person. I sent them an educational packet, which was basically a zip file with my transcripts, statements for each school, because each school, you need to write a different statement of purpose to acknowledge the particularities of that program and also to speak to the professors that you wanna work with. And I think it had some other things that are required, I can’t remember now. And then I reached out to some professors. Depending on the school, you know, I generally got a good response [laughs]. Some responded to me with a long email or we met or you know, other people just were like, “I’m accepting students. I’ll speak to you if you make it out the trenches.” [Laughs]
Brendane Tynes 00:54:30
Wooooow! At least you got a response.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:54:32
Yeah, I mean, so one of the things you do want to know is, like, are these people accepting students? So at Columbia, for example, you don’t get accepted to the program on the basis of the professor you wanna work with. The whole department decides on who gets accepted. So you’re not attached to a specific professor. That’s not the case at all programs. So if there is a situation where you’re like, “Oh, this person, I really want to work with them”—check and make sure that they’re not gonna be on sabbatical for two years while you’re studying. So you should still reach out just to find out how things work in the department. And then, the one thing that I will say as a tip, because Dr. Vanessa Agard-Jones—she brought this up at a University Life roundtable for students of color—was that she remembered my name when my application showed up on her desk because probably a year before, while I was still doing my master’s, I saw that she was teaching a course called “Isle of Intellectuals”—it was about Martinique. So I reached out just to ask her for the syllabus. It was just, like, a simple, sincere thing. I was just really interested, wanted to see how people were teaching about Martinique in anthropology. So I just said, “Hey, I’ve read your”—not “hey,” I didn’t—obviously didn’t address it like that [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:55:48
“Hey girl!” [Laughter]
Alyssa A.L. James 00:55:50
But, you know, it was a general “Dear Professor, I read your work. I was in Martinique at the same time as you, actually. You know, saw you were teaching this course about Martinique. Would you mind sending me the syllabus?” And she was like, “Sure,” she attached it, and she was like, “Maybe we’ll see each other Madinina side one day.” That was it [laughs]. Lo and behold, she’s on my PhD committee now. And I wasn’t—you know, I wasn’t even thinking about applying at the time. It was just this, like, small thing. But enough to get a second look, so you never know what showing an interest in something will lead to. That’s my long story [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:56:27
Long story, but I think something to point there, right, is that, like, sincere. Like, it was a sincere interaction. But yeah, I think we’ll get to that a little later. I wanna say wow, that was, like, quite the journey. I—it’s so interesting. I’m always—I’m fascinated with how do we come here, you know, come to be here?
Alyssa A.L. James 00:56:49
Yeah, I mean, we talked about it in such a conceptual way, like, “How did we get to anthropology,” but “What were the practical steps that we took to actually get here?” is another question.
Brendane Tynes 00:56:58
Literally. And so many. So many [laughs].
Alyssa A.L. James 00:57:02
Yes. So, you know, on that note, let’s get to the questions. All right, folks. Close your eyes. Unless you’re driving, don’t do that. Just imagine yourself, you know, you’re sitting at home. You’re thinking, “Ugh. Academia. Cesspool of racism and misogynoir. Should I go there? Should I enroll in a PhD program? Yes. Yes, that is what I want to do.” Then you start [to] ask yourself questions. How do you select which type of program? One way to go about it: look at the research that excites you. Then you’re like, “Okay, how do I know what excites me?” Think about which scholars you read, the scholars you admire, the work that you love. Which universities did they go to? Where do they teach now, right? What programs did they choose? And then head online, go to the internets, and look at the current state of the program. Who’s on faculty? What is the racial and gender composition of the students? Because one thing you don’t want to be is a pioneer.
Brendane Tynes 00:58:16
Please, let’s underscore. You do not—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:58:19
You do not.
Brendane Tynes 00:58:20
You do not [laughs].
Alyssa A.L. James 00:58:22
I mean, like unless you do. But let’s just say that you [laughs]—you don’t want to be Ruby Bridges, you know?
Brendane Tynes 00:58:30
You don’t. You don’t want to integrate—
Alyssa A.L. James 00:58:32
You don’t want to integrate the program.
Brendane Tynes 00:58:34
Alyssa A.L. James 00:58:37
So, you know, my process for selection was different. Because I was kinda—I was happy, like, with what I was doing, right, I was freelancing, I was traveling. So I was like, “I’ll apply and if it’s for me, it’s for me, and I’ll get in” [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 00:58:53
Wow, the trust. The trust.
Alyssa A.L. James 00:58:58
It’s not— I guess. So I chose anthropology because of what I said in another episode, right? Like, one of the most insightful texts I remembered—and remember, at this time, I’m at least four years out of undergrad. So this was a text I remembered reading—it was by an anthropologist, and I was like, “Cool. I want to study with him.” I applied to that one school for my master’s [laughs]. And I got in. So I was like, “All right, cool. This is a pilot study. If grad school is for me, I’ll like it, and then I’ll continue to do the PhDs.” Now, I know that not everybody has that privilege but in Canada, research master’s programs are fully funded, like PhDs are here. So, that was basically how that process went [laughs]. How about you? How did you choose your program?
Brendane Tynes 00:59:47
How did I choose? So I—I’m fairly vocal about this. I am an alumna of—I was like, “Alum? Alumna?”—of the Andover Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers. And so that was actually a program that Dr. Keisha Khan Perry put me on to that helped me with my statement of purpose, helped me with choosing schools because they have a consortium of schools—of, like, 40-plus schools—and you get free applications to, like, 12 or—they might’ve increased the number now—but you get free applications to 12 of them. And so, once I made the decision in October 2015 that I was going to go to graduate school, I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna apply for this program. This program is going to help me,” and I just chose out of their consortium. And they encouraged us to reach out to professors before we started the application process to ensure that, again, this is the department that actually is going to do things—do right by you, essentially. And I applied to—I ended up applying to three different types of programs. So African American and African Diaspora Studies programs, American Studies, and Anthropology. And this was because when I, like, would write to faculty at different anthropology departments, they would respond to me and say that my project was not anthropological and that I should look elsewhere. One professor in particular was like, “Yeah, just—that sounds like American Studies. Why don’t you take it over to American Studies?” Which is fascinating now.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:01:23
It’s also interesting that you got a lot of different suggestions as to where you should go because it wasn’t just American Studies. It was also, like, Education and other ones. And it’s just, like, why did it seem so hard for them to find a home, you know, for your work?
Brendane Tynes 01:01:38
Yeah, well, I don’t know, maybe it was just the way that I had no effing clue what I was doing or what I was talking about. And so I would—maybe I was describing my project a certain way and also just kind of what Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad were talking about, this kind of binary Self/Other construction of anthropology that actually restricts the discipline’s theoretical capacity. So it’s, like, we don’t really have language in anthropology to talk about the things that you’re talking about. Which I’ve discovered as an anthropologist now. Like, oh, yeah, actually, I rely a lot on other disciplines to help me articulate, help me bring together all the things I want to bring together and talk about in my future dissertation. All that to be said, right, I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college like Alyssa, right? First person to pursue a graduate degree. I had no clue about this hidden curriculum, I had no clue that, you know, you should be talking to professors and trying to figure out if you’re a good fit and things like that. I thought that I could do this experimental ethnographic project about Black woman in the US because I had did it in Duke’s cultural anthropology program. So I also was trained at Duke cultural anthropology as an undergrad, and I thought, “Oh, I could just do that anywhere. Everybody’s like Duke, they’re gonna let me do this.” I quickly learned that that was not the case, like, every anthro program is different. I literally cannot stress enough how important it is to read the department website. And I know this might sound elementary, like, “Brendane, like, what the hell? Why are you telling me to read the department website?” I’m not gonna say this from personal experience—wink, wink—but make sure you read the department website and email students and faculty so that you can get a sense of whether the school will be a good fit. So it’s a—it’s a signal and a sign if nobody responds to you, right? It’s a signal and a sign that, like, something might be afoot if you reach out and someone tells you to take your work to another department. Don’t just apply to schools, because you know—Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, you know, like, the Ivy League, or this kind of prestigious school—because what could happen is that you could end up there and be prestigious and miserable. And nobody wants that. But when it came down for me to selecting a school, I sent out 13 applications. I was not nearly as targeted as you [laughs]. But because—I had to. I had to apply to, like, 12 schools in the consortium, so—.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:04:20
Yeah, I learned that people do that I think for McNair Scholars. I learned about McNair when I was going on visits, and I was like, “Why?”—I remember reading the GradCafe forum—if y’all aren’t on that and you’re thinking about going to grad school, it’s a toss-up because if you are a—
Brendane Tynes 01:04:34
It’s toxic. It’s toxic!
Alyssa A.L. James 01:04:34
It’s toxic. If you have a high anxiety, you don’t want to do it [laughs]. But I remember people being like, “I applied for 13 or 15 schools and I didn’t get into any last time,” and I’m like, “You spent how much money?” But then I learned that McNair Scholars—and maybe yours—they cover the fees or, you know, they’re comped so it’s like, “Why not try your luck at 15?”
Brendane Tynes 01:04:59
Yeah, I think Mellon—Mellon Mays, is that what it’s called?—does, too. But yeah. I applied to 13 different schools. I got nine rejections. So I was left with four schools to choose between, Columbia and three others [laughs]. And for me, when it came down to selection, I was like, “Here’s my little spreadsheet.” So Alyssa talked about her process, sending the packet, etc. Since I’m that girl that started a year out, I was sending emails to recommenders. And since I was applying to so many different schools, I chose a wider pool of people so that everyone wasn’t writing recommendations for every school. Which then made things a little bit more complicated on my end when sending out emails, but essentially, I did my own little information packet, I had color-coded grids and schedules for people. And people on my committee who know me now, I tend to operate pretty much the same way, like, “Here’s an information, here’s an update, here’s a grid, here’s a schedule, here’s a calendar.” That’s how I tend to move. And my recommenders really appreciated that. They were actually like, “Thank you for sending us all this information ahead of time.” I sent stuff in August for them to turn in in December and it was laid out. And they were like, “Thank you for doing this because it makes it easier on us.” And for those of you who, like, are interested in seeing those materials, and you are Black—I want to—I’m gonna be specific about this—feel free to send me an email. It really came down to me, though, when thinking about choosing between the four schools that I had, came down to stipend, cost of living in the area that I was in, the environment based on school visits. So I was able to visit three of the four places that I applied to. Or got accepted at. And then also just, like, the location and then other stuff, like, geographic, My criteria for selecting schools out of the consortium was, like, I’m only going to apply to schools that have a sufficient—which, really, literally only means two or more—Black faculty who could support my research. And also at least one or more Black student. I was like, “If you didn’t have that, I was not applying to your school.” Because I did not—did not—want to integrate a department. I had a very hostile undergraduate experience. And I was not trying to replicate that in graduate school. Also, you know, my ancestors have done enough integration and pioneering, like, I think I can honor their sacrifice by refusing that violence, you know.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:07:37
I’m laughing, but I know that’s for real. That’s, like, real talk right there.
Brendane Tynes 01:07:42
That’s like me being like, “Okay, my ancestors have actually paved the way. They’ve done enough.” I also didn’t wanna be somewhere where I couldn’t afford to eat on my stipend, or to pay rent, which—I applied to schools in California but then when I was talking to students and they were talking about having four or five roommates and paying $600 a month to sleep in a corner of the living room, I was like, “Oh, this is not the kind of life I want.”
Alyssa A.L. James 01:08:06
No, thank you.
Brendane Tynes 01:08:08
Because it’s not college, right? You’re adults. You’re living an adult life. And so it’s very different. And I also wanted to be somewhere that was, like, close enough where I could see my family in South Carolina, but not necessarily close enough where they could visit me—[laughter]—spontaneously. And so—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:08:26
Oh, the thinking, the thinking. Your mind.
Brendane Tynes 1:08:30
It’s, like, close enough that I could get on a flight and a flight won’t be too long, but not too close that someone could, like, pop up on me. So when you’re thinking about selecting a school-for those of you who asked us, right—you have to do so based on your priorities. Like, if a school is—if a program is unfunded, and you know you need money to live, and you don’t have no fellowships or scholarships that you’re bringing in witchu?
Alyssa A.L. James 01:08:53
Don’t do it.
Brendane Tynes 01:08:55
Don’t do it.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:08:56
Don’t do it.
Brendane Tynes 01:08:56
Obviously don’t do it. Don’t stress yourself out.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:08:58
Do not take out loans to do a PhD. That is my opinion. But—
Brendane Tynes 01:09:09
[Imitating Tamra Judge] “It’s my opinion! It’s my opinion!”
Alyssa A.L. James 01:09:10
[Laughs] But seriously. It is not like going to law school. It is not like going to med school where after you graduate, your earning potential is going to be high enough that you can pay that loan off. No. It is not. Do not take out loans to do a PhD.
Brendane Tynes 01:09:32
Alyssa A.L. James 01:09:33
But I think that’s really important to point out that people—I think that sometimes when people hear that I’m doing a PhD, they assume that I’m rich or that I’m drowning in debt. I do have debt from student loans, despite being Canadian [laughs]. We do still have to pay for school. However, I don’t have debt from my PhD because we receive stipends. So, a PhD program where you are performing research and labor in the form of teaching fellowships or research assistantships—things like that—they’re generally funded. So you will receive a tuition waiver. And then you will receive what’s called a stipend for living expenses. Make sure that the programs that you are going to offer those things—unless you got it like that and loans or savings aren’t a problem [laughs]. But I think, you know, that’s really a good segue into one of the questions that we had, which was, you know, what are our thoughts on who is able to attend graduate school? Research PhDs are funded. It’s not an amazing sum of money. I think, actually, what universities do in my mind—and no one’s ever confirmed this—but I think that they hire those management consultancy companies. They say, “What’s the minimum amount that somebody needs to live in the city?” And then that’s what they pay us. And then, of course, the person that they imagine is single, healthy, able-bodied. They don’t have family who relies on them for money. That is who can live off of a stipend in any city. And so if you have a family, that changes. If you have health challenges, you will have insurance—in most cases—but it still costs money because y’all ain’t got no universal health care in this country. That still makes me sweat. If you have family members who rely on you financially or otherwise, that’s another challenge. So it comes down to researching the funding, as Brendane mentioned, and on The GradCafe—on that website—there is now like a spreadsheet where people talk about the funding packages that they receive at their different schools, because a lot of the time this is hidden in the same way that, like, we don’t talk about people’s salaries. It’s kind of similar in the PhD world. Of course, these things should be public for transparency, but they’re not because no one’s gonna make them do it. And then as far as the time commitment, which was part of the question, that’s a personal choice. I started my PhD at 29—wow, and I’m just aging myself in this whole episode. I started my PhD at 29. And I do/have/have had some anxieties about how old I’ll be when I finish and, you know, at what age I’m going to have a stable job. I have friends who are starting families and buying homes and things like that, and I’m like, “Hmm, I might have a job when I’m 40.” [Laughter] And that is stressful. When I do get too worked up about it, I’m just like, “I will figure it out. You know, things will happen the way they’re supposed to.” Of course, I’m not gonna adjunct for years and things like that. I’ll just go back to, you know, the stuff I was doing that allowed me to travel and live a nice life before I did this.
Brendane Tynes 01:13:00
And now the price will go up because it’ll be like, “Dr. James.”
Alyssa A.L. James 01:13:02
Brendane Tynes 01:13:04
Right. Exactly. [Laughs]
Alyssa A.L. James 01:13:08
Someone—oh, someone else asked, you know, if they would be able to get into a top tier school with a degree from a small liberal arts college? I think that’s one of those specific questions that we were like, “I don’t know if we’ll be able to answer that.” I think, of course, it’s possible. It’s just going to take some work. It’s going to take more work than other people. And that’s just the truth of it. Because in my cohort at Columbia, I’m pretty sure half of the cohort—and I think we’re six—they went to Ivy Leagues at some point. I was in Canada, but my undergrad is from, you know, one of the best universities in the country. The anthropology department where I did my master’s is very well known in the US. So it’ll just take more work in terms of, like, getting your statement noticed and building relationships with, you know—in these universities and, like, finding out what it is that they need and want. But, of course, it’s not impossible if you have a great project and you’re smart and they like you, they’re going to accept you.
Brendane Tynes 01:14:02
And I would put an asterisk on the smart thing because—.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:14:11
Brendane Tynes 01:14:11
Well, actually, you know what, nevermind. I’m just gonna leave it blank. [Laughs] I’m just gon leave it blank here because we’ve sat in some [unclear] together, so I think Alyssa knows what I’m saying here.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:14:22
We’re in some group chats [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:14:24
We’re in some group chats. The smart thing is asterisk. But actually I never really thought about that, like—and I guess it’s part of the privilege of coming from an elite institution undergrad. Not really thinking about “Oh, are the people from elite institutions?” And so when I think about people in my cohort, yeah, I do think most of the people in my cohort actually attended Ivy League institutions.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:14:50
Ivy Leagues or definitely, like, Ivy-plus.
Brendane Tynes 01:14:53
Alyssa A.L. James 01:14:53
Although, my cohort has quite a few international students.
Brendane Tynes 01:14:56
Yeah and I think that it does play a role in it, as you were saying, but it’s also just, like, about the other pieces of your application. And so I know for sure, for myself, that my recommendations had a lot of weight in my acceptance. And I can’t remember which one of my advisors mentioned it, but it was just, like, you—”Your recommendations were amazing.” And that’s partially because in undergrad, I was, you know, a hot girl. And I was out here [laughs]. I was out here. I didn’t really understand what office hours were for but I would go and talk to professors and build relationships with professors. And my recommenders actually knew me well and could speak to my potential in the department and the discipline with clarity. They knew about the struggles and obstacles that I’ve faced before Duke. You know, growing up with lots of housing insecurity, growing up very poor in South Carolina, being at Duke, trying to do the work that I was doing there—the scholarship I was doing there—and, like, also the challenges that I faced as a student—just personally and academically—and then, like, what my potential would be in the academy. So they were able to, like, narrate that.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:16:14
That’s so important. I think, we should underscore that. It’s, like, the relationships that you have are so important.
Brendane Tynes 01:16:22
I mean, I don’t know, this is gonna sound so awful, but—not awful—but when I tell you the level of “I have no”—I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I didn’t even know who—if my department was well known and or not. Like, in the discipline or not.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:16:40
I didn’t know either. I only found out later [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:16:43
You know, and so the—yeah, you find out later, like—one of my recommenders—I don’t think she would mind me naming her but like—you know I find out later Diane Nelson, who’s a wonderful person, is also like a big name. And I’m like, “Oh! Girl, you could’ve told me!” I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. Dr.—just kidding, Diane [laughs]. But like—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:17:05
It’s because they don’t assign their work and you’re not—you’re not aware enough to, like, look at the citations of the work that they are assigning and then realizing that they get cited in everything [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:17:17
Right, or like—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:17:18
But I see it now. I’m like, “Oh, wow, you’re, like, citing my undergrad Caribbean history professor.” [Laughter]
Brendane Tynes 01:17:26
I didn’t know, or even like—honestly, my mentor from undergrad—her name’s Anne Maria Makhulu—she rode with me through the trenches, honey, was shooting with me in the gym, was there for me through so much. And— and I’ve never seen a letter that she’s written for me, but I can imagine that letter being a great one. And she was—she saw me through my thesis, through my hard times, you know, and even continued to be a source of, like, support for me through Columbia. And so it’s important to build sincere relationships, I think and sincere is the thing here. Like, I don’t move from a place of like, “Oh, I need to get to know this person, because they’re gonna help me get somewhere.” Which is one way to move, yes, but I tend not to move that way because I don’t want people around me who only want to be with me because they think I’m gonna get them somewhere. That’s important to keep in mind, like, as you’re applying. It’s like, “Who do I have these authentic relationships with?” Like, don’t chase after a name. Your recommenders should know you well enough to write great letters for you. Oh, we also had some questions about self-care and navigating graduate school as Black women, how to deal with racism, misogynoir, how to literally survive. And honey, these are heavy questions, they’re heavy things. So imma spin it to you first [laughs]. Alyssa, how do you survive as a Black woman in academia? Like, how do you care for yourself?
Alyssa A.L. James 01:18:59
[Laughs] This is gonna sound—I’m so embarrassed. No, I’m not embarrassed, but it does sound—
Brendane Tynes 01:19:06
Don’t be embarrassed.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:07
Brendane Tynes 01:19:08
No, you’re a hot girl.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:10
So when I started the PhD, I dated.
Brendane Tynes 01:19:14
Hot girl. Real hot girl shit.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:16
Brendane Tynes 01:19:16
Real hot girl shit.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:17
[Laughs] For context—wow, I’m really exposing myself on this episode—I was fresh, fresh—
Brendane Tynes 01:19:26
Who knew? Who knew this would be the episode?
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:27
I know [laughter], ‘Kay, so I was fresh out of a six-and-a-half year relationship. So I went on dates, like, every weekend.
Brendane Tynes 01:19:42
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:43
Every weekend I was on at least one, sometimes two. Sometimes I was double-booking niggas, like—[laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:19:51
Amen! Do it! But—yo, do it. Do—do it. Oh my gosh.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:19:57
So my now partner, he’s actually the third person I went on a date with. No, fourth—sorry, because I double-booked that day [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:20:06
Amen, get them meals paid for. Also, dating is a good way to get your meals paid for. Save that stipend—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:20:12
Save some money!
Brendane Tynes 1:20:13
—for Fenty Beauty. Save the stipend for Fenty Beauty and get someone to pay you. To pay to go on a date.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:20:20
Exactly. So he was the fourth person that I went on a date with—although we didn’t—you know, we didn’t become official until many, many months later. So there were many dates in my first-year history. But I’m fresh off a breakup, I’m in a new city. And I thought what better way to discover new places and meet people, you know, that are outside of this bubble of academia, which I think is really important. But what better way to do that than go on dates. So the takeaway [laughs]—.
Brendane Tynes 01:20:51
I love it! I was in a relationship when I came to New York so.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:20:58
No, it was great because you would just be like, “Oh, I’ve lived here for like a month,” and people would be like, “Oh my god, okay, I have to take you to, you know, First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum.” Or, like, “Oh okay, we have to do this,” you know? It was really fun. And so, you know, what I would say the takeaway from that, then, is, like, get some hobbies that don’t involve people on campus. So, you know—besides my dates [laughs]—
Brendane Tynes 01:21:22
[Laughter] Make dating your hobby.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:21:29
It actually was a hobby for me. It was really fun. I’m trying to remember if I had any, like, funny situations where I ran into people from campus. Oh, I ran into you! Oh my gosh, the first year!
Brendane Tynes 01:21:41
I was like, “You gon forget?”
Alyssa A.L. James 01:21:43
At the Angela Davis talk, I was there with someone.
Brendane Tynes 01:21:47
Alyssa A.L. James 01:21:48
Bicycle, yeah. At the Angela Davis talk. Yes, yes, okay.
Brendane Tynes 01:21:53
See that’s what happens when you start bringing people into academic stuff, then you start—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:21:56
Exactly. You don’t want to do that. So besides the dating, I—you know, pre-pandemic, I was also taking dancehall dance classes. And I just—I love dance because it kind of—it just breaks apart this body and mind binary, but in a very material way, rather than just a conceptual one, right? You know, you have to have it both at the same time, in a way that, like, when you’re reading or watching TV, or just lifting weights doesn’t really offer. So I really—I really like dance for that reason and it was a good way to kind of decompress. And I miss going to my dancehall classes. And so the reason I say that, you know, you don’t want to necessarily involve other academics is because it helps you to realize that this racist, misogynoirist institution is not the be-all end-all. And I think that’s one of the things that makes academics so the way that they are—[laughs] interesting, unique—is that, you know, they are literally institutionalized from birth to death. Like, most go straight from high school, straight to undergrad, straight to grad school, straight into an academic job. And it shows. Like, it really shows because it’s, like, for them, there’s no world outside of these relations—these institutional relations. And it creates a very interesting environment that you should try to escape [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:22:00
I think maybe we talked about it? The article—or maybe Chloé sent it in—like, the number of professors—or there’s, like, a significant percentage of people who are professors, their parents were also professors. So, like, when you talk about institutionalized from birth to death, it’s quite literally the case for many people in academia. And I’m very thankful for the fact that I took a break between undergrad and graduate school.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:23:24
Brendane Tynes 01:23:27
And for those of you who are in your last year and undergrad and thinking about graduate school, take a break. I know it doesn’t feel like you have time but you’re young. If you’re a traditional student in undergrad, right, you’re young. And I promise you life is there. Graduate school will be there.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:24:09
It shows in the work, too. It shows in the work.
Brendane Tynes 01:24:11
Yeah, it shows them how you think, it shows them how you relate to people. And it shows them your mental health as well because the thing that also—the shift that you have to make from undergrad to graduate school is that in undergrad, school is your life, right? Like, that’s your friends. That’s your social whatever. That’s your source of political whatever. That’s your source of study. Whereas in graduate school, it’s like you’re an adult. And so you go to school for school, right? You are building this, like, “job training,” essentially, right? So, like, you’re building professional relationships, you’re understanding your discipline, you’re moving through, but your everything is not on campus, right? There’s the expectation that you leave campus and you do other things—unless you’re an international student who does stay on campus and then I think there are other things that they do to accommodate students who can’t do that—but there’s a shift that you have to make in your life from undergrad. And having a break between actually helps you make that shift, like, mentally and gives your body a break.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:24:12
And just helps you realize that the university is not the only thing that exists in the world.
Brendane Tynes 01:25:20
Right. And there are people and places outside of that. I think, though, to think about what you were saying earlier about the dating—your hot girl life, which I—you, know I did not have the privilege of having a hot girl life when I came to New York. I was in a relationship and I’m no longer with that person. But the person I’m with now is not an academic. And I know your partner is not an academic. And I think that helps both of us—Alyssa and I spend a lot of time together these days, right? It helps us, like, take a break. We know we could go to our partners and talk about things that have nothing to do with our research. And that really helps. And I think that one of the most important things that I can say to someone who wants to survive graduate school, right—with your soul intact—is to find your people.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:26:09
Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Brendane Tynes 01:26:11
And, like, keep in mind that your people may not always look like you. So we all know that saying “not all skinfolk are kinfolk.” And I agree with that, I abide by that. And I’ll say that though I do feel safest in community with Black women and Black queer and trans folks, I know that not all skinfolk are kinfolk. But what I did when I came—when I walked onto Columbia’s campus, and I was like, “Oh. Oh! You know, I’ve heard a couple of anti-Black comments here and there.” And I was like, “Oh, I need to actually—I get what people were telling me about graduate school. I need to find community.” And so I built a community around me comprised of people who would be willing to read my work and to offer feedback and—because this is important—who wanted to share their work with me. Because there are people who want to read you—and not read you in the colloquial sense—but, like, read your work and not offer—and offer feedback, but aren’t willing to reciprocate. And that’s kind of—that’s a power dynamic, right? I surrounded myself with people who treated university staff—so that means administrators, custodians, facility people, right?—with sense. I watch how people interact with people, and if you treat someone who’s working at a school differently or less respectfully than a student or a faculty member, I have questions about your character, right? I was like, “I’m looking for people who don’t associate themselves with toxic, harmful, or violent people unless they’re forced to do so because of power dynamics,” like, “Oh, that’s the only professor in your department who studies why the sky is blue” and so you have to. But honestly, would not survive graduate school if it weren’t for my community at Columbia. Alyssa’s part of that community. You know, the other Black folks in the department, some people in my cohort, etc. And then my biological and chosen family that are outside of academia, right? I cultivated a life where I treat my studies like a job. And I have a life—a beautiful life outside of them. Like, lovely life outside of them. I have friends outside this shit, like, I don’t—like, not all my friends are academics. Thankfully. And I say the ivory tower is not my end-all be-all—which, it’s so funny that we both said that [laughs].
Alyssa A.L. James 01:26:21
I know [laughter]. Y’all, sometimes—so we actually do type up notes and things like that, and we don’t always read what the other person’s gonna say so.
Brendane Tynes 01:28:44
[Laughs] We just kind of had a moment of synchronicity here.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:28:49
Love to see it, love to see it.
Brendane Tynes 01:28:51
You love to see it. And I would say it’s a job that I do because I enjoy reading and writing and talking to people. And, additionally, for those of you who are like, “Okay, I want to know how to survive graduate school”—Dr. Christine Pinnock, who used to teach at Columbia before she got free—and this is her language—”got free”—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:29:11
Brendane Tynes 01:29:12
—and decided to work for herself, she told me at the beginning—I’m so grateful I took her class first semester—she was like, “Go home, sit down, grab a piece of paper and create a list of things that bring you comfort, joy, and ease. And put it on your wall and refer to it because there’ll be moments”—she was Iike, “When shit gets hectic”—right?—”That is the list of things that you do to bring you joy.” And so I want to pass that to you. Create your own comfort list, your own joy list. It could have things like calling grandma—mine did—calling grandma, calling dad, doing my makeup—putting my Fenty Beauty on—taking a bath—things that I enjoyed that were low cost because the truth of the matter is there will always be another sentence to write. There will always be another book to read. And these days, there will always be another m-effin’ Zoom panel to attend.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:30:08
[Imitating DJ Khaled] Another one.
Brendane Tynes 01:30:10
Another one, right? But the work is always going to be here. And if you don’t take care of yourself, though, right, there won’t be a you of sound mind and spirit to do that work right. And so you’ll be coming to it all fragmented and afraid and abused and depleted. And it’s not worth it, right? Like, this white supremacist institution does not deserve your all. Or, even honestly, your best, let’s be real. Let’s be real.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:30:39
That was so well thought-out. Mine was just like, “Look at me being, like, cute!” I am not always the most, like [laughs]—
Brendane Tynes 01:30:48
No, I meant like—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:30:49
—spiritually intentional person.
Brendane Tynes 01:30:51
But that’s just because, you know, I grew up in a church, so that’s—I think that’s just different. But if I could have gone on some dates, honey? Please.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:31:00
Well, on that note, somebody actually asked about decolonizing syllabi. You know, people talk about letting anthropology burn, people talk about reforming or, you know, fixing this institution. And I take the same tack that somebody who wrote a tweet that kind of went academic-viral said, which is a lot of these people in these institutions need to die or retire before we can [laughs] have a better one. And that is—that’s kind of the tack that I take. Not to say—that’s there are not—
Brendane Tynes 01:31:38
I mean, can you argue with truth? Can you argue with—some of these institutions are actually embodied. And so no matter how many people you hire, right, if you still have folks who stand by the old vanguard, it’s gonna be very difficult to move the needle so. Yeah, no, I mean, can you argue with that?
Alyssa A.L. James 01:31:59
So on that note, I was just thinking decolonizing the university as a whole, because of the question about decolonizing syllabi. I think after reading the essay, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” I’m just so skeptical of this whole decolonizing industrial complex [laugh]. Like, everyone and everything claims to be decolonial—even when it isn’t. And so I mean, the way to have a “decolonized” syllabus is to not have one at all, right? Like—
Brendane Tynes 01:32:28
Dot. Dot, dot. [Laughs]
Alyssa A.L. James 01:32:31
The worship of the written word is itself a part of white supremacy culture, right? So there’s that. And then that kind of actually brings me—so then like, what can you do, right? And then that brings me to another question about being an academic without a university or, you know, without access to the literature, and I think more literature is being put online. You know, it’s also accessible via library card. I think most libraries will have a subscription to JSTOR, which, you know, my partner asked me once “Is that still a thing?” It is! Still use JSTOR.
Brendane Tynes 01:33:04
JSTOR ain’t going nowhere. [Laughter]
Alyssa A.L. James 01:33:07
But the thing that I would say, if you’re like, “How can I practice academic-ness—practice intellectualism?” You know, I’d say just listen to people. Seek out the patterns in those conversations and then develop theories about it, right? Like, when you listen to people talk, ask yourself, “What are they saying?” And that’s how you can be an intellectual in your everyday life. But then the original question—it was about decolonizing. So, you know, the process. And I think our “Decolonizing Methodologies” course was an excellent example of that. We also took “Critical Indigenous and Native Studies” together and, you know, we read, like, the whole Turtle Island canon—and then some—you know, and that was incredible. But you’ve—you know, you’ve taken courses outside of the anthropology department. So what are your thoughts?
Brendane Tynes 01:33:57
Yeah, I think—well, I have many thoughts. But I agree with you, especially thinking about okay, decolonized syllabus would mean, there is no university really to even put forth this thing. And I also—I think people think that decolonize means, like, representative or, like, intersectional [laughter]. Which is—you know, it’s not quite the same thing. But I really—I dunno, I’m sitting with this—yeah, like, intellectualizing, thinking about what people are saying. But I will push back against that a little bit because there was a rapper, who shall remain unnamed, who was like, “I don’t read but I think,” and then started asking questions that had been answered already. And so I think it’s good to sit, to think, to listen to people and then if you are able to read or be a part of a reading group or be a part of, like, an—what do they call it? Alt-Ac, or like, non—like, a secondary or—what do you call it? Academic spaces that aren’t associated with a university? I don’t know what they’re called. But, like, being a part of those spaces, because not all—like, the academy does not own intellectual thought, right? So, like, there are lots of movements that are built from those spaces. And the thing about building a “decolonizing”—a “decolonial” syllabus—I kinda understand the controversy behind it, like in a historical sense. Like, yeah, there are issues with putting certain people on your syllabi because of X, Y, and Z. But now I think we’re in a place where it’s like, yo, if you want your students to Assata Shakur in an English class, or whatever, put it on the syllabus, and if somebody has something to say, figure out how to justify it in a way that makes sense to them. There’s no way for you to, like, “be decolonial” and be the favorite in a department. Or be, like, the one that the dean loves the most or be the one that, like—if you want to be decolonial, you’re gonna have to let go of being accepted by authority, right, and being, like, approved of by authority. Like, if you wanna be radical, or whatever, like, you have to let that go. And just do what you want to do and see the consequences of that. See those consequences out, right? Or protect yourself as much as possible within that. If you want your syllabi to be more “representative,” then do the work to make it so, right? Like, don’t just have a “Feminist Week” where you talk—you read feminist literature. Or a “Black Woman’s Week” where—I’ve seen courses that do that, where the course will be like economics or—I’m just naming a random subject—but like economics, and then they’ll have a week where it’s like, “And this is what women have to say about economics!” [Laughter] “And this is what Black people have to say about economics!” And it’s like, no, actually integrate that work throughout the course so that students can see that all these people are doing this writing all along the way. And I actually know people who actively refuse to actually teach white canon stuff or even anything normative. And they actually prioritize marginalized voices. So you’ll look at their syllabi and they don’t have a single Foucault, a single Bourdieu, a single, you know, Judy Butler on there. And, you know, really—they prioritize the voices of, you know, Black and Brown, queer and trans people. Start with that, right, and like, think about who’s not invited into this conversation around economics that needs to be here, right? Do they write academic stuff, first of all, right? If they don’t, like, what do they do? Do they sing? Do they dance? Do they write poetry, right? And then incorporate work that allows you to have the conversations that matter about the things that matter to students, right? And matter to you for whatever work you’re trying to do.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:37:48
Yeah. I think our podcast has shown that you don’t have to go to Foucault and you don’t have to go to Judith Butler to have rigorous and critical discussions around a lot of topics—any topic pretty much. And where we’re at is just the tip of the iceberg. So there’s so much more to think about, discover, read. We also are very particularly positioned, right? Like, we read—for the most part—texts that are in English, produced by people in the North American academy, for the most part, you know. So there’s a lot of work that even we haven’t incorporated or haven’t been able to think about as yet, as much as we would like to. Okay, so—we’re trying to get through these questions, y’all. This is going to be a long episode. You’re just gonna have to bear with us and love it and live with it. [Laughs]
Brendane Tynes 01:38:44
Bear with us. We just—so many questions!
Alyssa A.L. James 01:38:45
So someone asked about how to shake the doubt about going to grad school that professors are kind of putting into them, giving them. I think it’s hard to really say without knowing exactly what the professors are saying. But the truth is grad school is hard. And one thing you’ll learn, one thing you’ll see, if you ask a grad student, you will doubt yourself a lot. You will question whether you’re smart enough, whether you’re cut out for it. I was just saying this two weeks ago [laughs]. On top of that, you are underpaid. You’re under-resourced, and that’s in terms of support for your work, but also support for your mental and physical health, support for your life, generally. And that’s just a baseline, right? Like, that is just for the “average” student—I’m putting that in quotes because, you know, the average student is basically like a cis, white, able-bodied male. That’s just the baseline for everybody. But don’t be queer! Don’t be trans, or poor, or racialized, or disabled, or undocumented. Like, don’t be having a family member who’s chronically ill.
Brendane Tynes 01:40:13
Ooh, child, don’t do that.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:40:14
And for the love of all things holy, don’t be or become a parent [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:40:22
That—mm! Especially especially if you are—I would say if you are a person who was assigned male at birth and you live your life as a cis man, people don’t question being a father. But if you are giving birth to people, that is when the whole “Ooh, parent? You want to ruin your career by being a parent?”
Alyssa A.L. James 01:40:48
Yeah, it comes with a whole host of microaggressions. There are people who will treat you like shit, who will disregard you, who will undermine you. And I’m talking about people in all of those categories. They won’t have an institutional framework for how to help you or how to support you. I mean, in that essay, “Sitting at the Kitchen Table” that we read, you know, the authors wrote that this institution and its structure was built by white men who never fathomed that we would be walking its halls. Or sitting at a seminar table. Or teaching in its classrooms. But, however, you might just find people who will. People who believe in you and your work and who do as much as they can to help you get through and get your work into the world. I think both of us have talked about people who have helped us get here. Like, we did not do this on our own. And so the one thing I will say is that if you do want to go to grad school, have a purpose.
Brendane Tynes 01:41:57
Oh gosh, please.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:41:58
Because people—don’t just go because you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know what to do after undergrad.” Have a purpose, because people are going to put doubts in your head, you are going to doubt yourself the whole time. [Laughs] And the one thing that you need is something you can hold on to and say, “This is why I’m doing this.” Brendane once said during a talk that we gave—and I’ll never forget because, woo, it hit. It hit. She said, “I cannot rest until Black women and girls are free.” And I was like, “Ooh, child, shit.” [Laughter] I say it very calmly because we were on a talk, but I was just like, “What.” My face could’ve been a meme inside. But anyways, I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions or, like, put words in your mouth but, like, is that—you know, is that what helps you get through?
Brendane Tynes 01:42:53
Yeah, I would say, like, first of all, I don’t remember saying that. But it’s true—you know, sometimes I be in my bag, you know, like on the low. I’m just kidding. But, like, it’s very true, right? These days what gets me through is the love of my people, right? Like, it’s the truth. I often think about the Black girls—who are now young Black women—I taught—oh my God, I’m going to cry. Let me take a breath. And the Black, Brown, queer, and trans students that I taught, they’re—they keep me going, like, thinking of them thinking of making the world a better place for them and for the ones they love keep me going. I think about my relatives, my mother, my grandma, my aunt, my ancestors, my friends, and how this world has truly truly has us fucked up. Even Assata Shakur sometimes comes into my mind when I’m really feeling down and how she, like, reminds us that it’s our duty to fight for our freedom. And it’s our duty to win. And I really think about what you said. Like, don’t do this because you think it’s something you’re supposed to do. Like, you could get a—you could get a job. You could get a job and not be coming up on 28 with $30,000 a year. It’s like—you’re could get a job. Please enter into this work with a purpose because that is what will sustain you and will also draw community to you and make you feel like this work is actually helping you complete that purpose versus it feeling like a detraction from it.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:44:27
Also don’t think that this is the only place where you can do that work, you know. I remember this was at another talk that we gave—see I remember everything you say [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:44:41
Look, and I’m like, “Ooh.” I forget what I say so much.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:44:44
You know, you were talking about how if that is the kind of work that you want to do, academia doesn’t have to be the place because, if you think about it—if you look at—if you read an ethnography, sometimes you’ll see that they were doing their fieldwork in 2013. And the book isn’t published until 2021. So this process, this institution, this system—it moves slowly. And if what you want to see is change and you can see that you are making a difference in that moment, academia might not be for you. That said, there are ways that you can use your position in academia to do a lot of that kind of work, to do a lot of activist work. Some people say that comes a little bit later. It’s possible, but just know that you won’t always see the changes that you are hoping or expecting to see immediately.
Brendane Tynes 01:45:45
Right, like, a lot of times I think about my work and—it’s a PhD—outside of the activist co-work or whatever work you want—however we want to label it that I do—of, like, in a PhD, I’m able to influence what people read about Black women and girls, right? And, like, my major intervention in this work is like, “Oh, I’m changing how people read.” And possibly how they think about Black women and girls when they encounter my work. But if I want to literally change the material conditions of Black women and girls, that work has to happen outside of the academy. So if that is a distinction that helps you think through that, I hope it helps you because that’s what grounds me. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing this so that 20 years from now somebody will read this essay and say, ‘Now I don’t see Black women and girls in the same way as I did before.’“ But the work that I do when I get off of Zoom—get off of Audacity—right, is for Black women and girls in Baltimore here and now. So yeah.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:46:49
Great. So I think that to close out, we should probably answer the question: What’s the best advice you’ve received about grad school?
Brendane Tynes 01:46:58
Oh, okay. So the summer before I matriculated, I was advised not to read a thang, honey, a thing. Not even a fictional thing, right? Because I would read enough in graduate school. And I’m so glad I listened. Like, you read enough in grad school. There’s no book that you need to read right before you get up to help prepare you, like, don’t do that. And then also, secondly was, like, to treat this shit like a job. Like, your cohort are your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends—they can become your friends but they don’t have to be, right? Your advisors are your mentors. They’re not your parents.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:47:36
Not your parents.
Brendane Tynes 01:47:37
Not your parents.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:47:38
Underscore. Underline [laughs].
Brendane Tynes 01:47:40
Right. And graduate school can feel infantilizing, but remember, these are your colleagues, you’re growing up as a colleague with these folks, right? They’re your mentors, not your parents. And to set boundaries around my academic work like it’s a 9 to 5. It was easier for me to do that with coursework than it is now because I’m in the field. But the 9 to 5 thing was really hittin’. Mine was more like 10 to 3, but it was a hit. It was a hit.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:48:06
No, I do the same. I’ve been doing the same this week and I’ve actually found myself so productive, so incredibly productive. Just being, like, “I’m working from this time to that time,” and I’ve been really getting things done. For me, the best advice—I was like, “I don’t know anything,” because we were talking about before we were recording that everything you’re listening to right now, you’re gonna forget. It’s not gonna really register, it’s gonna be really hard for it to really, like, stick in your mind until you’re actually in grad school. And so I couldn’t really remember any advice. But one thing that I thought of when you were talking earlier about, you know, about finding a community of people who will read your work and give you feedback, that would be the advice that I’ve heard, that I’ve experienced, that I know works. So my master’s cohort—I think there are about eight of us—five of us now are doing PhDs. And even my supervisor acknowledged that it was pretty out of the ordinary for that many graduates of a program to be doing PhDs. And then on top of that at these, like, top programs. So besides being—
Brendane Tynes 01:49:25
I see y’all. I see y’all. Okay, stunt. Stunt on us real quick.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:49:28
Yeah, you know, why not? And so I think that, you know, besides being smart and driven, I also attribute it to us creating a culture that was intellectually generous. So we read each other’s work. We challenged each other, and after some of the talks that I have seen in my time, you know. You know when the person doesn’t have a friend—neither fish nor fowl, as my mom would say—to read their work [laughs]. Like, you know when that’s happened to them. And so people always say that academia is this solitary enterprise. But just make sure the people, you find the community you build, make sure that they will not let you get up in front of an audience and look stupid. Don’t—just make sure. Because I’ve seen it and I’m crying.
Brendane Tynes 01:50:24
I had this—when I was 12, I had this realization that a lot of people think love comes without accountability or without correction. So like, “Oh, if I love this person, I’m not gonna tell them that something they did is wrong or something they said is wrong.” And that’s not love, y’all, that’s weird. That’s weird, that’s something else. It’s not love, right. And so it’s like—
Alyssa A.L. James 01:50:47
Brendane Tynes 01:50:48
It’s enabling. It’s—I don’t even—there’s a word for it and I can’t even think of it right now, but it’s just—it’s not love, right? And so if you’re building community that’s rooted in love, right, accountability and correction is there. And, like, you have people who love you enough to say, “Actually, this term that you’re using? Mm, unh-nn.” Or “Actually, maybe you don’t want to say this sentence. Maybe you should think about it like this,” right? And, like, think of those acts of correction and critique as love and not as someone attacking you at your core. That’ll really help you get through. Now—if it’s coming from a loving place. If it’s coming from an abusive place, that’s very different. But yes. Find you a fish, fowl, or friend who will talk to you when what you’re saying doesn’t make sense. Before we close out, of course we’re taping this 24-plus hours after the reported killing of Ma’Khia Bryant and we wanted to just quickly honor her and also two other women—two women, excuse me, because Ma’Khia Bryant was a child—two women: a Remy Fennell and Jadae Peterson. Remy and Jadae were two Black trans women who were recently killed, both of them in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ma’Khia Bryant was a young Black girl who was killed by police in Ohio. We want to take some space to honor all of you here—and the women whose names we don’t know and the girls whose names we don’t know who experience violence—and say that we are working towards a world in which we don’t lose Black women and girls to patriarchal and state-sanctioned violence, and we send love to their families and their loved ones and also to those around the world, right, who are mourning them closely and deeply.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:52:30
[OUTRO MUSIC BEGINS]
Alyssa A.L. James 01:52:35
Well, that’s all we have for y’all today. Thank you for listening. This episode was produced by yours truly, Alyssa James, and the lovely Brendane Tynes. Our intern is Menkhu-ta Whaley, and music is by Segnon Tiewul. The podcast is distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. And this season of the podcast is generously funded by the Racial Justice Mini Grant Program at Columbia University, which is funded through a partnership with the Office of University Life, the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. Further funding has been provided by grants from the Office for Academic Diversity and Inclusion, the Arts and Science Graduate Council, and of course, donations from listeners just like you.
Brendane Tynes 01:53:25
Thank you all for all of your support again, again, and again. We love hearing from you and we’ve really appreciated the conversations that we’ve been having in the DMs and the email inbox. So if you would like to get in contact with us, head on over to zorasdaughters.com to find transcripts for the episodes, our bios, contact info and on Twitter @zoras_daughters.
Alyssa A.L. James 01:53:55
All right everyone. We’re still in a pamplemousse, so be kind to yourself. Bye!
Brendane Tynes 01:54:00
[END OF RECORDING]