Can You Hear Me Now?

By Nicole Higgins, Ph.D. Student in English, and
Allison Raven, Ph.D. Student in History
Left of Black Story+ team

From left: Ph.D. students Allison Raven and Nicole Higgins served as co-mentors for undergraduates Malcolm Brown and Ce-Ondra Ellison on a Story+ project that created digital classroom experiences to supplement the Left of Black webcast. (Photo by Catherine Angst)

Story+, a six-week program that exposes Duke undergraduates to project-based, collaborative humanities research, is designed to be experimental and experiential. But neither of us knew when signing on to the project that we would be part of a second experiment as a project team with two graduate student mentors. Having two graduate mentors easily could have been a disaster (particularly on a team with only two undergraduates!), but fortunately, we had enough similarities and complementary differences for our partnership to flourish.

Our first mentor meeting went something like a grade norming session: Over coffees at Cocoa Cinnamon, we laid our backgrounds and values on the table. We knew, vaguely, we’d be working together to guide two undergraduate students through the creation of teaching resources to supplement content from the Left of Black webcast. The show, which features interviews with scholars and artists whose work drives important conversations within the field of Black Studies, has released a new episode each week for over eight years. Having done the math, we felt confident in our sense of the project’s scope. Because we were both educators in our lives prior to Duke, we were excited to work on a Story+ project that centered the classroom even as it made use of digital archives.

We sketched out a rough six-week schedule that day, looking especially forward to the week when we would teach our team members how to write lesson plans. Imagine our surprise, then, when we learned days later that those objective-driven, Common Core-aligned blueprints would comprise only one part of a much grander vision. Our project lead and Left of Black host, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, wanted the team to create digital experiences that could be used by K-12 teachers to make classroom instruction more engaging and compelling to students, and by students and interested others to explore on their own topics like the historical significance of Black barbershops.

But what was a digital experience?! Were we supposed to be prioritizing pedagogical impact, or striving to create the most entertaining material possible? Could we achieve both and still operate within the boundaries of copyright law? Working through these questions created our first major obstacle as a team: communication. In the conversations about what to prioritize, we had a particularly tense team meeting where everyone left frustrated and feeling unheard. Though we’d set norms for communication frequency in the opening bootcamp, we neglected to set norms for ways to speak to one another. It was one of our amazingly reflective undergraduates who reached out through the tension and said, “I think we need to have a conversation about how we’d like to receive feedback.”

The emergence of this new challenge, which only compounded the confusion about our goals, could have damaged our project. But we believe this moment was the beginning of everything right with our team and restored our hope in a process that had been feeling increasingly nebulous. One of the norms we’d articulated just weeks earlier was to speak up if something wasn’t working, and here was our mentee, leading by example. We strove to be intentional about receiving concerns with grace and adapting as necessary—so as to ensure that each team member felt heard and valued.

The next day’s conversation smoothed out our miscommunication and clarified the needs of each individual on the team. In remembering our own and each others’ humanity and care—foundational elements so often minimized in academic and professional spaces—we were able to shift into individual and collective practices that organically moved both the work and our team dynamics forward.

We spent weeks as the only four members of Story+ in Smith Warehouse, which allowed us to bond far past the point of just tolerating one another. While academia frequently prioritizes mentor-mentee relationships that presuppose a pretty clear hierarchy, we loved getting the opportunity through Story+ to spend time building more horizontal relationships, both with one another and with our undergraduates.

In the spirit of our love of collaboration, we have compiled a few of our favorite things about Story+ and our tips for strong collaboration!


5 Favorite Moments of Story+

Getting to spend time working as a team! After spending the first year of our respective Ph.D. programs in the infamous academia silos, we loved having so much regular time in a team and in collaboration. Also, what a dream it was to have a captive audience to answer all our questions about being a Duke undergraduate (e.g., do you really camp out for MONTHS?!).

Witnessing the birth of digital products that neither of us could have dreamed of creating! Our wonderful undergraduate team members, Ce’Ondra Ellison and Malcolm Brown, transformed existing Left of Black videos into short classroom-friendly clips under the guidance of Catherine Angst and Eric Barstow. Being not particularly technologically savvy, we were continually impressed by their abilities.

Project lead check-ins. Given the shape-shifting nature of our goal, the first few meetings with the team that has managed the show’s production since its beginning were wracked with nerves, but the team’s openness to our ideas and trust in our skills was affirmational and encouraging. We left each meeting with pages of generous feedback and renewed energy to pour back into our work.

Breaking bread with leaders of SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has a long-standing partnership with Duke University that Allison worked on during the spring semester. After completing a video that touched on SNCC themes, our team was able to attend a dinner honoring SNCC leaders, including Bob and Janet Moses, Courtland Cox, and Jennifer Lawson. The honor of getting to share our video with them and have individual conversations is difficult to express.

Winning the Story+ social media challenge! Ce’Ondra and Malcolm worked hard to add clips to the Story+ Instagram throughout the summer to preview our work, and it was so gratifying to see their work recognized with the Left of Black team winning the social media challenge at the final symposium.


5 Tips for Successful Collaboration

Spend time getting to know your team as people. Ask them for their astrological birth charts! We kid about pressing for this level of insight (maybe!), but we did spend a good chunk of time discussing topics seemingly unrelated to the work at hand: behaviors that grind our gears, our dream weekend activities, favorite travel destinations, least favorite reality TV stars, and how we envision our lives beyond Duke. Starting each day with a little light chatter allowed parts of ourselves we may not have even recognized as vital to the thing we were making to emerge and surprise us, emboldening us also to share our most productive ideas for the project.

Establish clear norms for communication—not just in terms of frequency, but for how to communicate with one another. After our team hit a major communication snafu in our first full week, we stepped back and spent time setting full-group norms. We recognized differences between theoretical preferences in communication and real ones. We exchanged phone numbers at the outset of the project and used Slack throughout to keep everyone looped in on daily goals and progress, but our most effective troubleshooting occurred face-to-face, bolstered by the norms and values we had committed, in colorful ink, to giant Post-its that wallpapered our workspace.

Your passion is important, but don’t let it drown you. We were warned in Story+ bootcamp not to become overwhelmed by the amount of material we’d encounter in the coming weeks. Our team was excited to dive in to the 250-plus episodes of Left of Black and geek out over subjects and scholars near and dear to our hearts. But with only six weeks, there was no way we could watch—let alone edit and build usable content around—that many hours of footage. We had to make a lot of cuts we weren’t thrilled about (Nicole still dreams of the little poetry lesson that could). Early in the project, we circulated a survey (thanks, Camille Jackson!) that revealed that, more than anything, teachers were looking for resources for teaching history, so we prioritized that need throughout the process.

There are no small parts …. To riff off the theater cliché, we’d say, too, that there are no small actors. Because everyone and everything matters, this meant not only acknowledging and accepting roles that emerged organically out of our individual strengths, but also recognizing and being supportive whenever one of us stepped up to learn a new program or exercise a skill beyond our comfort zone. It also meant spending time on “small” details like developing a style guide to ensure cohesion and consistency with broader Left of Black messaging.

Take a lot of deep breaths. As mentioned, we faced a number of surprises throughout the summer: the surprise of having two graduate students on the project, the addition of digital experiences, an archive that needed cataloguing and examining, surprise skills and availability of undergraduates—and that’s not even all! Having patience and always taking a few breaths before responding was hugely beneficial.

Success in a collaborative research team is not guaranteed. There were many points that could have been negatively transformational for our project, but prioritizing communication and care allowed our team to achieve some pretty lofty goals! Far beyond any lessons we could have planned for, we are grateful to Story+ for the insight we gained into ourselves as team members and managers, for new-to-us tech skills, and for the opportunity to join Left of Black in expanding access to crucial cultural narratives beyond institutional boundaries.