The Horror Hidden in PhD Preliminary Exams

I have never known as much terror and horror as I am experiencing currently, trying to prepare for my preliminary exams! I can’t sleep without getting awakened every 30 minutes by the nightmare of a particular man in a tight suit chasing me with a cutlass. And no, this cannot be attributed to eating too much before I sleep because I can’t eat either! How can I eat when I am reminded every hour that I could rather chew on a piece of article written by a scientist with no hint of my existence whatsoever?!

Whoever brought up the idea of preliminary examinations for PhD students must be very terrible! Why would anyone try to test already stressed out students on knowledge that they have been trying to acquire over more than a decade of their lives? How can anyone really get prepared for this? Why would they even add salt to injury by allowing professors to get away with the very popular saying that they don’t know the questions they are going to ask until about a week prior to the examination date? Why would you subject students to this highly anxiety-filled, stress-prone, highly susceptible to heart attack and nervous breakdown ordeal?

I never seem to see the face of the tight wearing suit man chasing me in my dreams these days! Probably because at the back of my mind, I know which member of my committee this man is, and I don’t want to be sure. What really have I done to deserve a chase? Everybody I know seems to think I am stressed out and looking sickly. I want to retort that I look sickly because I get to run a race for my dear life every time I am brave enough to attempt to close my eyes in the name of sleep!

In the very near future, if I survive this ordeal and become a lecturer, I am going to work tirelessly to ensure that no student goes through this. I see PhD students fighting for racism, gay rights and gender imbalances with no one fighting on our behalf! This is very unfair! Someone should be speaking on our behalf!

The Black Girl and Her White Family

Totally crushed and helpless, holding on to the hope of surviving in a foreign land

Nightmares painting images of failure and disappointment, I reached out

With fears tugging at my heart, I met her in person

She, a mother hen cautious of her nest and eggs, in need of trust and reliability

And then me, the one whose accent scribbled ‘Doubt’ boldly on her forehead

Every step towards her heavy with the weight of my skin color, I approached her


Sitting at the back of the restaurant alone, with books and food scattered on the table facing her

She looked up at me with the kindest of eyes and no hint of disapproval of my dark skin

I could swear I saw a smile threaten to escape her lips as I introduced myself

Feigning toughness, she enquired about my life, hoping to find truth

Genuinely interested, she kept her eyes trained on me, as if daring to look into my soul

I could imagine her devouring my words, attempting to pry me naked with her questions


The sun loses her fight to the clouds, rains come down and freeze to white sand

All these changes whirling around us, and yet, her love for the stranger is unwavering

An unlikely pair, yet, we are intertwined by emotions indescribable

Connected by our differences, friendship dissolves, making way for deeper bonds

No need to find reasons for, and answers to why

Black and white, the native and the immigrant, become family

Finding my Identity in America

Growing up in Ghana, I have always identified myself only as a Ghanaian, without any added adjectives. I was surrounded by people who looked just like me. Occasionally, I will see white visitors but only thought of them as either Americans or Europeans and nothing more. I don’t think I had the privilege of ever thinking of them as white people, I don’t recall a moment like that.
The most distinguishing attribute for individuals I met were more along ethnic lines. I belong to the Fante tribe and therefore speak the Fante language. Other people who lived in the country’s capital like me, belonged to different tribes like Ga, Ewe, Ashanti and the likes. Depending on how they pronounced certain English words, one could easily tell which tribe one belonged to. Having grown up around only black people, I have never really had to identify myself as a black woman.
But that reality changed for me when I got into the United States in 2012. Everyone who looked at me, reminded me that I was different, no one even had to speak, the stares and glances, spoke volumes. Unfortunately or fortunately for me, I came straight to Blacksburg as my final destination. I was in a predominantly white environment with a black skin and a different accent (which is actually a topic for another day). I found it odd that I was no longer a Fante from Ghana, or even a Ghanaian from Africa, but a black person, sometimes, I was referred to as an African.
I felt myself consistently obliged to introduce myself to everyone as a Ghanaian but somehow, those words fell on deaf ears or were simply swept under the carpet. I was constantly referred to as ‘the black friend’ from Africa by my colleagues who thought I was out of earshot. Even to my face, colleagues felt it necessary to introduce me as Iris from Africa, never Ghana. I remember getting very angry by this most of the time and asking why I just couldn’t be Iris because I referred to them only with their names and never with the American tag.
But I learned quickly that these colleagues of mine felt the need to qualify me as African because of my skin tone, not even because of my accent. I am sure it was not because of my accent because in that same year when I got to Blacksburg, there was another student who came from France that had an even more pronounced accent than mine. She was never introduced as Jeannie from France, just Jeannie. I reckoned that indeed she needed no other tag or qualification, because of her skin color.
Unconsciously, I began to refer to and see myself more as a black woman from Africa, than simply Iris from Ghana. These days, I think of myself as a black educated woman. I am looking forward to how I will identify myself after I have moved back to Ghana and I am surrounded again by people whose skin color is identical to mine…

My first encounter with an American police….

I have been in and out of America for 5 years now, started driving about 3 years ago and have never had an encounter with a policeman. I will describe myself as a very law abiding person and now with the recent trends in black men and policemen tragedies, I try to go at least 10miles below the speed limit….yes, I am one of those grandmothers on the road!

My vehicle registration expired last month and I was very oblivious to it and so, I found myself being followed by a policeman. I stopped while he parked very closely to my behind. What I was shocked at, was my reaction! I was terrified! I couldn’t talk without crying!! Because, I thought I was going to die!

I held on to the steering wheel so tightly. When the policeman asked for my license, I completely forgot where it was because I kept on looking at his hand movements to ensure that he was not reaching for his gun. Eventually, I remembered that my license was hanging on my key holder which was still in my ignition… After I had handed that over to him, he asked for my vehicle registration document and that is when I burst into tears.

I knew I was going to die for sure! My registration document was in my glove compartment and I took it as a ploy to get me killed. At that moment, I felt that this white policeman just needed an excuse to shoot me. I told him in between tears that my document was in there and so, he can just go ahead and shoot me, only after I have called my family in Ghana to come for my body because I preferred to be buried on African soil.

It is so easy for black people who are thriving in America to sweep issues of stereotyping and race under the carpet. It is very easy for white people to think that only a few white people are actually racists but the majority of them are not. It is so easy for Americans to think they are the epitome of the free world. Until, they spend a day in the shoes of the oppressed or under privileged…


For 3 weeks now, a Facebook pressure group that calls itself the PepperDemMinistries, founded by 7 young women in Ghana, has managed to get the whole of the country talking. The aim of this group is to use satire to flip the script and change toxic narratives that cage African women. All they do is use their individual timelines to post stories that highlight the slavery of African women by the society and culture. They put men in the place of women to provoke society and readers to see the absurdity in some of the expectations that our culture sets for women. Some of their posts include:

  • Never give room for your wife to look for love elsewhere. A wise husband works hard to make his wife fall in love with him daily.
  • Women are like babies, they need to be shown love & attention constantly. If you fail to do so, you’ll lose her to another man.
  • My friend called me now to tell me she dumped a guy she slept with on their first official date. She said she hates cheap guys.

What is interesting about this Facebook trend in Ghana, is the lethal reaction of people who find it difficult to accept that women in the country are oppressed by the society and that gender imbalances, occur every day. Some of these people have also formed their own groups where they have blatantly insulted these women and cyber bullied them with diverse attacks on their persons.

As I considered the trend from my room in Virginia, my thought process immediately veers off towards what happened in Charlottesville. A group of people choose a seemingly harmless approach to let their views known, then another group that opposes their views set out on a counter demonstration that ends violently.

This social media group did not choose as radical a method as walking on the streets and pulling down statutes of the many African leaders whose policies ensured that women are seen only as help mates to men and are therefore inferior. However, there have been instances where some have had rotten tomatoes hurled at them because someone identified them on the streets. Just like the white supremacists attacked people that expressed divergent views from theirs, these women are being attacked.

The ultimate take away from this incident and the Charlottesville incident is that the approach never matters. No matter how peaceful you demonstrate your views, if the other party insists on finding faults and behaving violently, human lives will be in danger. For me, the lines between passive aggression and active aggression are blurred, when it comes to sensitive issues like racism and gender inequalities. No matter how peaceful demonstrations against any of these highly sensitive subjects may set out to be, counter demonstrations are bound to end up violently.

My frustration with Microagressions…..

About microagressions, without a doubt my least personal favorite will be the question I get asked by my friends whenever they hear me speak on the phone with my family back home. Excitedly, they ask if African is what I just spoke. I often wonder what language is called African, given that in Ghana alone, there are about 75 different ethnic groups that speak more than 50 different languages. To the credit of my inquirers, there is certainly a language called Afrikaans, the ‘s’ is however not silent, making it different from the word African, which describes people originating from the continent called Africa.

I don’t know why I don’t like this innocent inquiry and would prefer it if I get asked what language I just spoke rather than the inquirer presuming that it is ‘the’ African language. I think it is because back home in Ghana, one gets asked which tribe he or she belongs to, only after their pronunciation of words in another language sounds off. I think getting asked that question makes me feel incapable of speaking my own language after I get asked all the time where I am from, because I have an accent when I speak English. If I can’t speak English very well, by American standards, and I am unable to speak my own language too, where exactly do I belong?

Talking about microaggressions in class took my mind to the consequent impact on the persons who are ‘microagressed’. In my opinion, I think what microagressions do to its victims is, put a lot of fear in them and make them lose their self-confidence.

I visited Pittsfield, Massachussettes two weeks ago and decided to take a walk. I had my ear piece on and strolled confidently along the pedestrian walkway towards oncoming traffic. I came to a complete standstill when I saw a driver show me her middle finger as she drove past me. My initial response was to jump into the bush because automatically, I thought I deserved the middle finger because I was in the streets. After jumping into the bush and getting scratched by thorns, I realized that I was perfectly right where I was and that I got that treatment because of no apparent reason.

Imagine what I did immediately. I walked back home cutting my walk short because I felt unsafe and insecure. I think of myself as a very strong minded person and however, I walked back, retreating from my intended course. I wonder how many black women shut themselves in their homes, unable to go out because they are afraid that they might get hurt by some random racist….

The musings of a feminist

“The fact that good pedagogy requires emotional intelligence has been demonstrated time and again by educational researchers. The effective exercise of our profession requires us to tap into our own and our students’ feelings”. This piece from Palmer resonated so much with me because I was reminded yet again why I want to be a lecturer.

I was in a science faculty in Ghana and the only female lecturer I had in my four years as an undergrad was a lady from the arts department who taught us communication skills, a mandatory course for all freshmen in the university. After my first year, I did not encounter any female lecturers. The common explanation for this, coined by students and even lecturers alike, was that science was a field mainly for men and that the few women who got into science lacked the tenacity for higher education in science, hence the low number of female science lecturers in the universities in Ghana.

According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, girls who had been randomly assigned to an all-girls classroom were more engaged in physics and less likely to agree with statements such as “physics is for boys.” On the other hand, girls who had been randomly assigned to coed physics class were more likely to agree that “physics is for boys.” I ask myself why this is so and I am tempted to believe that some emotional intelligence, like Palmer puts it, is acquired by the girls in the all-girls classroom through their interaction with each other.

What tipped the scales in favor of this perception, is an ongoing phenomenon in Ghana. For a while now, the issue of alleged sex for good grades has been rampant in university campuses in the west of Africa. Usually referred to as an “A for a lay”, students are propositioned frequently by their instructors to exchange sexual favors for good grades. For my friends who were not lucky enough to do so well in examinations, this was a very common situation that they always found themselves in. While for most of my friends, such situations mortified them, I had my career defining moment when one of my friends who had slept with two of the men on her defense committee, expressed her feelings about her proposition with me. In words that I will never forget, she told me that she felt empowered when lecturers propositioned her because although she could never get to their level educationally and they seemed so brilliantly superior, she was satisfied with the fact that during those short moments when she was in bed with them, she could feel her own power.

I remember as a 21 year old, full of pride and ego about my intellectual prowess, I asked her, but most importantly, I asked myself, why she was obliged to think that she could never get to their level educationally and she only felt her power in bed with them. I decided there and then to strive to be a lecturer in the university so that no other girl after I am a lecturer, will think this way ever again. I feel that it is the job of women to encourage women, like no man can. I want to be that lecturer that taps into both mine and the feelings of my students, especially female students, to propel them forward. At the risk of sounding too much of a feminist, I know that women can transfer emotional intelligence to other women more easily, than men can. And I am reminded that I can be that professor that my students can connect to emotionally, has that emotional intelligence, and therefore, give them a more total education than the current school system offers.

Parallel lines

I find Nicholas Carr’s article on whether Google is making us stupid, very interesting. Especially because, I recently had a conversation with my grandmother along parallel lines. Whiles my conversation with my grandmother is not on reading, I can actually draw some similarities with this article. My grandmother recently moved in with one of my aunties who had just had a baby and needed help looking after the baby since she has a 9 to 5 job. My grandmother is not happy at all in her new environment and I was a little perplexed since she loves babies and she has more people to talk to now than she did when she was living in her own home. Everyone is confused about her behavior and I got appointed to ask her about her strange behavior.

After much probing, she finally confessed that she wasn’t happy because the food tasted very differently! I was very surprised since she actually cooks the meals for the household herself. So I asked her if it was because she couldn’t get all the ingredients she needed for the food in that neighborhood, to which she replied that she did indeed get all the ingredients she needed. Frustratingly, I asked her what then was the problem and she replied in an equally frustrating tone that it was because she had to cook the meals on a gas stove!

Back in her home, she always cooked on a coal pot that used charcoal but in the city where my auntie lives, she had to cook on a gas stove. She went on to complain bitterly about how the gas stove heats up the food differently than how the coal pot does, resulting in the different taste of the food. As ridiculous as that sounded, I was reminded of how I thought my food tasted differently here than when I cooked in Ghana. I was using the same ingredients but they tasted differently and I remember telling my roommates how I thought certain foodstuff in the states tasted differently resulting in a slightly different taste of my food.

Looking back, and reflecting on the conversation with my grandmother as well as on the thoughts of Carr in his article, I am tempted to believe that my grandmother must be right. Perhaps, my food tasted differently now because I cooked on an electric stove here when I had always cooked on a gas stove in Ghana. I remember asking myself why my food always tasted different from my grandmother’s although I used the same procedure (mind you, I am a very methodological person). Maybe, it was because my grandmother always cooked on a coal pot and I cooked on a gas stove.

Just like Google is making it easier for us to find the information we need and actually reducing the amount of time we spend on researching, electric and gas stoves are making it easier for people to cook. But perhaps, this easy mode has a slightly different effect on our wiring or cognitive thinking and in mine and my grandmother’s case, on our taste buds. It will be very interesting to see how much research reveals in the future about how recent technologies and small changes in lifestyles, affect us….

Overly critical of ‘different’?

I am so glad that I ain’t the only one who had an issue with plagiarism in America. And I am exceedingly glad that Kinchloe is American. I vividly recollect the expression on a teaching assistant’s face in my first semester here as a Master’s student. She was trying to tell me that the essay she had reviewed was too good to be something I could come up with on my own. She told me that plagiarism was a serious offense in America and that she was doing me a favor by giving me half the marks for that work and to make this my final plagiarized work before she reports me. I just looked at her, unable to find meaning in what she had said and too surprised to form words to respond.

I had only just come to the country and I was trying to build my ego up after realizing that being the best student in my English class does not necessarily mean that Americans will hear me when I speak. I had become a shell of my usual chirpy self and couldn’t participate in class discussions. To me, that meant, I would have to do my assignments well which included making sure my essays were on point. So imagine my shock when the teaching assistant thought me incapable of writing that essay. Hey, did I say I was the best English student in my class?

This brings me to Kinchloe’s inference to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. I definitely identify with this sentence ‘In the same way that money is a form of “economic capital,” membership in the dominant culture affords individuals ways of knowing, acting, and being (cultural capital) that can be “cashed in” in order to get ahead in the lived world.’ When I was in my country, I will usually be the first to raise my hands to share my opinions. I don’t know whether this changed as I became older or it is because I am uncomfortable to share my opinion here in an accent. The former might be so if I behaved in a similar way when I go to my country but I don’t. I actually talk more then and act vastly different from when I am here. Not fully understanding the codes of the dominant cultural capital, definitely has an effect on how I talk and act here.

As teachers, I think it is important to key in on those that might be marginalized in any way, and try to be inclusive of them in the classroom. If care is not taken, this might lead to picking on these students. So, it takes considerable effort and creative thinking to do that. I hope I am able to achieve that feat with time.

Lessons from dancing

My friend, Audrey from South Carolina, seems to have this unshakeable belief about dancing and Africans. To her, dancing is in the genes of an African. Nobody can let her believe otherwise. Audrey has managed to convince herself, my roommates and perhaps, myself, that dancing is one of the evolved traits, characteristic of African descendants.

You see, Audrey has spent quite a substantial amount of money on herself, with the aim of being a good dancer. She has been in salsa classes since she was 2, joined a hip-hop dancing crew in high school and took African studies with emphasis on African dance as an undergrad. She goes to the YMCA to dance every second and last Saturday of the month and dances to every beat she hears, no matter the place, to the embarrassment of the people around.

However, no matter how often and hard Audrey tries to dance, she always comes across as clumsy and trying too hard. Once, she hit her foot against a table while trying out a simple dance move and had to see the doctor to ease her pain. A mutual friend of Audrey and I, recently confided in me about how uncomfortable she feels whenever she sees Audrey dancing at the YMCA.

One day, while dancing with Audrey, she threw her hands in the air despairingly, while muttering that I was so good at dancing because I was African. Like Audrey, I too, love to dance. I dance whenever I can, in the shower, in the kitchen and usually, in the living room with my friends and roommates cheering me on. But, there is a little difference between Audrey and I… people love to see me dance. My roommates think that unlike Audrey, I move with the rhythm of the song, I do not strive to dance, I just go with the flow and dance. I am my authentic self when I dance and that’s why people love to see me dance.

I so wish I had that kind of flair for teaching as I have for dancing. When it comes to teaching, I am a 100% Audrey. I love to teach and I want to be a teacher after school, but I come across as trying too hard and perhaps, clumsy. I cannot place a finger on the rhythm of my students and go with the flow. I always overthink and end up in pain, just like Audrey. Had it not been for the fact that most of my teachers, growing up in Africa, were amazing, I would be tempted to throw my hands in the air like Audrey, and say lamely that I am bad at teaching because I am African.

I know that teaching is not a genetic trait but when I see some people teach with very natural flairs, I begin to question my quest to be a good teacher and wonder if I have the teaching genetic traits…..