The Girl Who Dared to Dream: My Ph.D. Journey

EHTP was the place to be!

In 1995 EHTP was the place to be!

Immediately after earning my M.F.A. in Art and Technology Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I decided that I wanted to go all the way and get my Ph.D. The year was 1995. I loved working as an education coordinator in East Harlem but I felt I owed it to myself to go further in my education. I had already risked a lot and survived Pott’s disease (while in grad school). I was a bright, artistic kid, so I figured why not see how far this high capacity for thought and reason and talent could take me. I applied in the Instructional Technology Ph.D. program (now Educational Communication and Technology) at New York University. I almost got in. Almost.

The journey actually started in NYC.

The journey actually started at NYU.

I took the G.R.E., completed my application and met with the department chair who told me that I was qualified. However, I was the youngest applicant and (he said) I needed more life experience. I filed away my ‘almost’ acceptance letter and started reading self-help books about sustaining one’s goals/dreams. In other words, I didn’t give up. I moved to Massachusetts, launched a few community technology projects including Boston Neighborhood Network TV’s Multimedia Center in Roxbury. In 2003, I became adjunct faculty at UMass Boston and later at MassArt. In 2007, I visited the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) at the University of Washington. I got some good advice but the program wasn’t the right fit for me. Over a decade after NYU I was still working with nonprofits, trying to bridge the digital divide through youth programming, workforce development and multimedia production. I needed to find a program that would allow me to continue this work.

My first community technology center at South Jamaica (Queens, NY) housing project.

My first community technology center at South Jamaica (Queens, NY) housing project.

Workforce readiness: the latest version of the BNN-TV Multimedia Center.

Workforce readiness training at the BNN-TV Multimedia Center.

DXARTS immersive audiovisual media studio.

DXARTS immersive audiovisual media studio (sans community).

For me the challenge was finding a Ph.D. program that supported reflection and action (praxis) and experiential learning. According to Paulo Freire, through praxis, the historically marginalized and oppressed can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition, and, with their allies, struggle for liberation. I realized that I wasn’t just trying to get a doctorate. I was trying to make a bigger difference in the world (not more important, just bigger). In 2010, I was accepted into the Digital Media Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech. I tackled the coursework and did very well. My essay Urban Metaphysics: Creating Game Layers on Top of the World was published by UCLA Mediascape and presented at ISEA2011 in Istanbul, Turkey. In 2012, I received a travel grant and an Ivan Allen Jr. Legacy Award from my school for showing moral courage in my work. I received a visiting artist grant to conduct a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) workshop as part of STEMarts and ISEA2012 in Albuquerque, NM.

Planning week at Explora museum, August 2012.

Planning week at Explora museum, August 2012.

The first interactive AROS mural at Wells Park, Albuquerque, NM.

The first interactive AROS mural at Wells Park, Albuquerque, NM.

Also in 2012, I attended a lecture by Sanford Biggers‘ at Emory University. When I heard Sanford talking about break-dancing, rap music and geometry I introduced him to my thesis advisor/mentor Ron Eglash of African Fractals fame. This led to my coverage of three of Sanford’s exhibitions, including The Cartographer’s Conundrum (Mass MoCA) for the Art21 blog. Ron told me that in 2004 he wrote A Geometrical Bridge Across the Middle Passage: Mathematics the in Art of John Biggers and Sanford based his Mass MoCA installation on one of John Biggers’ amazing murals. After that it just clicked for me.

My Art21 blog feature.

My Art21 blog feature.

During a visit to Sanford Biggers’ studio in Harlem, NY I asked him if he would be interested in visiting Georgia Tech to talk about how his artwork intersects with STEAM and he immediately replied that he was. I mentioned this and the ISEA2012 workshop to a Georgia Tech administrator and he offered Sanford a visiting artist residency in 2014. This residency will include a collaborative STEAM project with Drew Charter School. These activities are outlined in my thesis proposal which was successfully defended last May. This summer me and my advisor, Celia Pearce, became the recipients of a National Science Foundation grant for Advancing STEM Through Culturally Situated Arts-Based Learning. I was also offered a summer internship at the Smithsonian to research STEAM education.

DCS Director of Teaching and Learning with Jack Rogers of the Office of the Arts and Sanford.

DCS Director of Teaching and Learning with Jack Rogers of the Office of the Arts and Sanford.

Left: Sanford Biggers. "Untitled," 2012. Courtesy the artist; Right: Culturally Situated Design Tool based on Sanford's art.

Left: Sanford Biggers. “Untitled,” 2012. Courtesy the artist; Right: Culturally Situated Design Tool based on Sanford’s art.

Mock-up for 2014 project with Drew Charter School: 36 ipads + 36 students = interactive quilt.

Mock-up for 2014 project with Drew Charter School: 36 ipads + 36 students = interactive quilt.

This brings me to the start of my fourth year at Georgia Tech. I’m now ABD (All But Dissertation) and I am planning the NSF-sponsored STEAM workshop to bring together research scientists, STEM experts and more contemporary artists to brainstorm about how their disciplines intersect. The goal is to create a research agenda to engage more students in underrepresented ethnic groups in STEAM. Another workshop will take place at Drew Charter School in Atlanta, GA where students will experience Sanford Biggers’ art, use specially created math simulation software based on Sanford’s quilt designs, and produce their own public art project.

In the meantime, I’m writing, writing writing…  with two more writing projects in the queue, including my dissertation which will continue through 2014. The recent projects mentioned above support my research. On top of all of this I have presentations at the National Arts Marketing Project conference in Portland, OR and at the National Black Arts Festival convening in ATL this semester and a possible panel at the Studio Museum in Harlem early next semester. The journey continues…

  1. #1 by kwamelaing@yahoo.com on September 3, 2013 - 3:00 am

    Very impressive reflection! Love this Nettrice. Thanks for sharing–Tony Laing

    • #2 by nettrice on September 3, 2013 - 3:06 am

      Thanks Tony!

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