This PhD student is making her dreams become a reality

Tanya Boucicaut. Photo provided

As an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Tanya Boucicaut isn’t interested in just teaching her students.

“I am the type of professor,” she said, “who dreams with her students.”

That is why her pursuit of a PhD in writing and rhetoric at George Mason University is so important to her. It is, after all, part of a dream for herself.

“I wanted something that would pique my curiosity, and a program that would help me beyond teaching,” Boucicaut said. “I believe I can do anything after this. It starts with Mason and me being my authentic self.”

For Boucicaut, being her authentic self includes gaining professional growth that will help her in the classroom, where she teaches first-year seminar classes that are similar to introductory English courses at Mason, and also propel her into the entertainment industry, where she said she wants to tell the untold stories within communities.

Consider her proposed dissertation.

Boucicaut wants to explore the nexus between hip-hop culture and Black Church culture in her native Virginia Beach, and she wants to do it in a documentary that looks at two major music festivals: the 1989 Greekfest, which attracted thousands of students from historically Black colleges and universities, and the 2019 Something in the Water Festival.

The Greekfest was marred by rioting and, according to media reports, inappropriate and excessive force by police. The Something in the Water Festival, which attracted a similarly diverse crowd and included a pop-up church, was peaceful and lauded by city leaders.

By doing her own research and interviews, Boucicaut said, she hopes to “interrogate the rhetoric surrounding the Black community,” and not accept at face value what the media has reported.

“The relationship between the church and hip-hop in many ways is unspoken,” Boucicaut said. “When you look at both entities, they are rooted in protest. They are rooted in identity affirmation. What I want to argue is the element of the church made that festival different.”

Boucicaut recently created a TED-Ed lesson about Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Last summer, she was a Television Academy Foundation development intern with The Jim Henson Company.

She also co-edited an issue of the Journal of American Folklore titled “African American Expressive Culture, Protest, Imagination and Dreams of Blackness.”

“Tanya brought incredible imagination and creativity in soliciting submissions and working with a wonderfully diverse group of Black contributors,” said Lisa Gilman, a professor of English and Folklore at Mason, and the journal’s editor-in-chief. “This issue would not have happened without her initiative and energy.”

Boucicaut’s ties to Mason run deep.

In addition to her experience at the Journal of American Folklore, which is currently edited by Mason faculty, Boucicaut was encouraged to apply to the Television Academy Foundation internship by Kevin Clark, professor emeritus in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development.

On a more granular level, “I didn’t feel the Mason [PhD] program was a professor farm or factory,” Boucicaut said. “My program really helped me think about digital rhetoric. What does that mean to talk to larger audiences? What is the role of social media? How can digital spaces be just as academic, and how can it be as rigorous as what we’ve seen before in written spaces?”

“As a professor, I’m still teaching,” she added, “but look where my dreams are taking me.”