Ravynn K. Stringfield
Ravynn K. Stringfield (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her dissertation research, for which she was awarded a 2021-2022 Halleran Dissertation Completion Fellowship, centers Black women and girls in fantasy new media narratives. To borrow terms from Catherine Knight Steele and Moya Bailey, Stringfield is a practitioner of Black digital feminism and digital alchemy, and strives to explore examples of both in her work. In connection with her scholarly production, Stringfield is also a blogger, essayist, and fiction writer. Her creative writing can be found in Catapult, ZORA, Shondaland, midnight & indigo, and Voyage YA Journal. To learn more about her writing, research and teaching, please visit her website ravynnkstringfield.com or follow her on Twitter @RavynnKaMia.
Dreaming up a Digital Class for Magical Black Girls: A Reflection on the Place of Black Girls in American Studies Scholarship and Pedagogy
American Studies is a constantly shifting and evolving field, growing to encompass as many explorations of American culture as possible. Its adaptive nature is its strength, and yet a limitation. American Studies programs and departments are often places which collect eclectic mixes of scholars with very distinct specialities and configurations of subfields, sometimes borrowing them from larger disciplinary homes with specific methodologies—English, History and Anthropology, to name a few. As a result, each American Studies program or department is unique despite sharing the same name. The expansiveness is intellectually freeing, but can lead to particular gaps simply as a result of who is represented in a given American Studies program.
The malleability of American Studies gave me the necessary space to evolve as a scholar—my initial specialities of literature and comic studies grew to include new media and digital humanities. It enabled me to continually begin a series of questions about the presence of first Black people, then Black women, and then Black girls, in media. The further down the rabbit hole I went, the further away I got from anyone in my program who had an even tangential speciality that could advise me. An examination of where and from whom I could find help in my studies in my own program made me reflect on the absence of Black girls in American Studies scholarship.
As I began my dissertation work, the literature I found myself most citing for information on Black girls came from education and literacy studies subfields, sociology, and occasionally, history. The work of Ruth Nicole Brown, Monique Morris, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Aria Halliday and a number of emerging scholars of Black girlhood scholars such as Stephanie Tolliver, Ashleigh Greene Wade, and Autumn A. Griffin provided much of the foundation I needed to explore Black girls’ relationships to literature, media and digital spaces. Their work cannot be discounted, but it begs a lingering question: where are the Black girls in American Studies?
The course I taught in Spring 2021, Black Women and Girls in New Media Fantasy Narratives, was the class of my heart, a spin-off of my dissertation work, and also, I quickly realized, a necessary addition to the intellectual landscape of my institution. Originally, the syllabus was built in a pre-COVID world, but by the time it was listed for registration, we had been living through the pandemic for almost a year. The idea for the course prior to COVID relied on facilitating what I imagined to be lively class discussions in a physical space, leaning into the affective dimension of teaching at which I excelled. Suddenly, I was faced with what appeared to be an impossible task: creating a class based in Black feminist principles of care and community entirely digitally and asynchronously. I would have to record lectures—a concept I dreaded—and find alternative ways to get students talking amongst themselves.
I anticipated this new format would deter students. I needn’t have: the course filled to capacity within twenty minutes on the first day of open registration.
The emails I received over the course of the next week after the class filled up shared a number of similarities: students who requested overrides into the class included a line or two about why such a class was important to them. Black students, particularly young Black women, expressed a desire to take a course where the content reflected them as they were—young, largely digital humans who loved magic though they were likely often told that it wasn’t for them. A number of them mentioned that they were going into their last semester and it was their last opportunity for such a course at our institution. These particular comments troubled me. The average student spends four years as an undergraduate—that’s eight semesters and roughly four to six courses a semester. The average student has thirty-two to forty-eight chances to take a class that centers them, and yet many of my students had gotten down to the wire and had not found a single one in which they felt represented.
It wasn’t a lack of demand, or that they weren’t looking for these classes; it was that they were actively seeking and coming up empty. In fact, each semester a small collective of students gather up all the courses at the College about race, bolding those taught by Black faculty, organize them by field, and make infographics with the list of classes that are then circulated across social media (see images 1 & 2). 
The approximately 7% of Black William & Mary undergraduates have an effective whisper network—like many Black student populations at Predominately White Institutions—through which they share information, offer support and pull each other through the university.  The issue was that of those particular courses, very few centered Black women—girls, in particular—and even fewer were taught by Black women. Often, those courses which are taught by Black women and which center Black girls are confined to historical depictions. The students in my inbox at the start of the semester were eager for ways to understand how they got here, investigate who they are today, and imagine what the future might hold for them.
Their eagerness was infectious and it fueled my own excitement, but it also nagged at the back of my mind; it indicated a lack. With every enthusiastic student I responded to, I remembered how little of their education centered them at this particular institution. Coming into the semester, I drew upon prior knowledge from two years as the graduate assistant for The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation—I knew that out of William & Mary’s 328 year history, Black students had only been in residence for just over fifty of them.  Dr. Jacquelyn McLendon’s history of Black folks as workers, faculty, and students at the College and as well as community members gave me context for how this intellectual desert had been created. It both made me sad, and fiercely determined: even if my course was ephemeral, confined to the digital and one moment in time, I would give it everything I had because young Black students deserve courses where they are centered, honored, and valued. I hadn’t yet found the place of Black girls in American Studies, but I resolved to bring these twenty-one students into a digital space and we would craft our spot together.
My syllabus asked students to be able to think through the various interconnected terms for the magical stories I introduced them to: Afrofuturism, speculative fiction, and the dark fantastic, to name a few. From there, I asked them to investigate what we can know about Black girls based on their place in these narratives, in particular paying close attention to when Black women have artistic control over the media object and when they do not. Together, we explored John Jennings and Damian Duffy’s graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Tracy Deonn’s YA fantasy debut, Legendborn; Micah Ariel Watson’s webseries, Black Enough; and Janelle Monae’s (e)motion picture, Dirty Computer, to name a few. We used work of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Deborah Whaley, and Jessica Marie Johnson to supplement our investigations, diving deep into the fantastic, illustrated, and digital theoretical worlds these scholars depict for us.
We did this work on a rhythm that became second nature to me after a few weeks. On Monday mornings, I would post fifteen to twenty minute recorded lectures with a lecture outline on our week’s readings to our content management system; on Wednesdays, I offered office hours; and on Fridays, the students signed up to post to our class Tumblr blog would submit their work by noon and we would have weekly, optional, hour-long Fireside Chats soon after. The Fireside Chats operated as an optional discussion section which students could drop in as they chose. It was an offering for students who wanted a deeper, communal relationship to the texts, their classmates, and me as a professor. They were not mandatory, but I did incentivize them by inviting guest speakers to visit, particularly people whose work we engaged, like Micah Watson and Tracy Deonn. For additional engagement, I did require students to respond to at least five of their classmates’ blog posts over the course of the semester. Both proved to be effective ways to engage students and offer them the agency to decide how, and to what degree, they would engage in return.
Based on blog post assignments, office hour chats, and our Fireside Chat hours, I knew that my students were engaging rigorously with the materials, but it wasn’t until I began to receive final projects that I realized how invested they were. Like much of the course, the potential to create whatever they wanted for a final project was boundless. The only real requirement was that students meet with me at least once around mid-semester to discuss what they were considering creating for their final project so that we could craft expectations of the project on an individualized, case-by-case basis together. (And to rein them in, if necessary. William & Mary students by nature tend to be overachievers.) Despite knowing what I would receive on the last day of classes, my students astonished me. Though I offered the option to write a research paper, not a single person submitted one; instead, an exciting mix of podcasts, video essays, visual art and short fiction, as well as a song, a Twine game, and a syllabus geared toward a high school elective on the adultification of Black girls graced my inbox. The formats varied but they all had one thing in common: a clear understanding of the major themes of the course and an ability to translate it into a product that reflected their personal strengths as scholars and creators.
Perhaps that much freedom is daunting, for instructors and for students. But it is not only a personally rewarding experience for everyone involved, it accomplishes a few key goals of mine, which may overlap with that of American Studies as a field. This is a student-centered approach to teaching that operates under the belief, and trust, that if students are supported in reclaiming their intellectual agency, they will perform in a way which will exceed your expectations. This requires crafting an environment in which students, especially young Black women, are valued and encouraged. My job as a professor was to lead my students to this digital playground where Black scholars and creators were the core, and let them run free. It was, and is, a joyful experience to watch students marvel at the feeling of seeing themselves in scholarship, not only as objects of study but written by Black folks who some of them aspire to be like one day.
This framing shows Black girls that there is a place for them in American Studies pedagogy and scholarship, that the best of American Studies’ forward-thinking and boundary-pushing work is not reserved just for white scholars. It also tells us that as we pull from various disciplines to build our own set of Black girlhood studies within the field, it should be our mission to engage the audiences we write about through our teaching. It is not, nor has it ever been, simply about representation; how do we enable our students to feel valued and capable of critical thinking? It is not simply about creating the space; it’s about what we do in them.