“Graduate school is its own special world. Writing the dissertation is both a challenge and a blessing—you have to be in charge of your own progress. The day to day is up to you. Once I really get it down pat it will be a skill I’ll always use. It’s also really incredible to be around all of the other graduate students, faculty, and staff. Grad school puts you in a manufactured community of such talented people. I get a lot of energy from that.”
All of this Bonnie knows now, after four years in Ann Arbor. She considers choosing to come to U-M a good and easy choice: “I knew that if Michigan gave me an offer that I would go to grad school–this is the place to do it. I came to Michigan because they had one of the best American Culture programs in the country. They had a lot of people that I could work with, a lot of overlap. That’s actually been really wonderful for my dissertation – I had a lot of options of people I could work with really well.”
Bonnie’s dissertation centers around lesbian communities and writers in the southeast, looking specifically at the works of Fannie Flagg, Alice Walker, and Dorothy Allison and the movies and TV shows that have been made from their books. She says, “I’m focused on understanding a lesbian identity in a place that is just steeped in imagination. I want to look at how are these women construct their own identities and use the lens of the south as a two way mirror.”
She’s researching these works to look at the 90s because in pop culture and other mediums there were more and more people coming out, particularly on TV. She describes, “There is a particular element of lesbian culture that is deeply invested in literary tradition, and all of a sudden in the 90s we see these traditions are taken into a different world and being consumed by mass audiences. How does this affect the various communities involved in this recalibration? I found there are a lot of cultural clashes in the 90s around this issue. For example, when Ellen came out in real life and on her TV show, the Birmingham, Alabama station banned the show, and there was a huge protest because of the ban. The conflict can show layers of engagement and reaction to this huge cultural change. People consumed images of the south and other popular venues as a place of tradition and family values. They also remembered it as a singular place of bigotry and deeply entrenched racism. This time and place gives me a really great intersection to really examine these cultural trends.”
While many graduate students serve as Graduate Student Instructors during their years on campus, few find it as transformative as Bonnie did: “The most rewarding part of my time here has been teaching Freshman Writing in the English department – I got so much fuel and joy from that. It’s a special environment, and you’re teaching them a skill, guiding them through the process of being a freshman and being on the cusp of adulthood. You get to help them explore that in their writing and in their lives. It also allowed me to develop my identity as a writer which resonates strongly with me more so as a researcher. I’m grateful for this bonus and surprise opportunity to be trusted as a teacher and leader of others. It is humbling and such an honor.”
With one more year before completing her doctorate, Bonnie’s career options are open. “It is important for me to tell a story in my dissertation, but what has really energized me is working with students. I see myself working with undergraduates in some capacity. I want that to be my priority in whatever job I pursue. Whatever I do is always going to be infused with my background in culture, gender, and race.”
She decompresses from the rigors of academia often outside. The hikes she takes in southeastern Michigan have a different temperature range than those in her native Alabama, but she has fallen in love with snow hiking the many parks circling Ann Arbor. “I get so much peace there,” she says of her time outside. She also writes ‘fiction-ish’ things, short stories or what may become pieces of a novel, a nice break from writing her dissertation.
Bonnie feels like she’s been well cared for here at U-M as a grad student: “Rackham has been really fabulous. Rackham is not only invested in engaging with grad students but they do it in really smart, easy ways that are useful to me. Things like the What Now? program and the Winter Welcome event where we took head shot photos and got business cards – this is what grad students need. I feel like Rackham is there working to serve us. They are listening.”