Meredith D. Clark on Adapting Plans to Where You’re At
About the episode
Even our best-laid plans go awry sometimes and require us to adjust on the fly.
Whether it’s throwing out our timeline for publication or experimenting with a new teaching technique, adapting our plans to meet the changing world is a crucial part of any interdisciplinary project.
But how can we make sure our plan adjustments serve our collective political and ethical goals?
To help us think through this question, in episode 126 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews journalist, media scholar, and fellow planning enthusiast Meredith D. Clark, whose research examines the role Black Twitter plays in social and political resistance.
In the conversation, Meredith and Cathy discuss how Meredith developed a new way of planning during the pandemic and the tools that she uses to create consistency and support mental health.
They also dive into why being open to failure and experimentation is crucial to a successful career shift and why building a world in which everyone has enough is how Meredith imagine otherwise.
Guest: Meredith D. Clark
Meredith D. Clark is a journalist and assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the intersection of race, media, and power, specifically the relationships between Black communities and the news on social media.
Meredith’s academic analysis of Black Twitter landed her on the Root 100 list of most influential African Americans in 2015. Now evolved into a theoretical framework of Black digital resistance, her book is under contract with Oxford University Press.
Meredith is a frequent presenter at SXSW and her research appears in Social Movement Studies Electronic News, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, the Journal of Social Media in Society, and New Media & Society.
Meredith is also the academic lead for the Mellon Foundation-funded Documenting the Now II, a faculty fellow with Data & Society, a faculty affiliate with the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, and an advisory board member for Project Information Literacy and NYU’s Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies.
- New planning strategies for the pandemic
- Tools to create consistency and support mental health
- Experiementation and productive failure during career shifts
- Providing for one another as socially sustainable planning
“I have learned to adapt my planning to where I am, to what demands I have on my time, and how I am able to make use of the resources available to me.“
— Meredith D. Clark, Imagine Otherwise
Click to read the transcript
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:
Even our best laid plans go awry sometimes and require us to adjust on the fly.
Whether it’s throwing out our timeline for publication or experimenting with a new teaching technique, adapting our plans to meet the changing world is a crucial part of any interdisciplinary project. But how can we make sure that our plan adjustments serve our collective political and ethical goals?
To help us think through this question, in this episode I interview journalist, media scholar, and fellow planning enthusiast Meredith D. Clark.
Cathy Hannabach [00:54]:
Meredith’s research examines the role that Black Twitter plays in social and political resistance.
In our conversation, Meredith and I discuss how she developed a new way of planning during the pandemic and the tools that she uses to create consistency and support mental health. We also dive into why being open to failure and experimentation is crucial to a successful career shift and why building a world in which everyone has enough is how Meredith imagines otherwise.
[to Meredith] Thanks so much for being with us, Meredith.
Meredith D. Clark [01:27]:
Thank you for having me.
Cathy Hannabach [01:29]:
This month at Ideas on Fire, we are doing a deep dive into one of my favorite nerdy topics, which is planning. I am absolutely a big planning nerd and I know you are too, which is why I was so excited to have you on the show. But I’m finding that the pandemic and many other recent events have really done a number on our normal planning routines. I know they’ve certainly done a number on mine.
Cathy Hannabach [01:51]:
So I’m curious, to kick us off in our conversation today, how are you approaching planning this year in particular—whether that’s in your classroom, your scholarship, or any other areas of your life?
Meredith D. Clark [02:03]:
Wow. I have to say the panopticon. Everyone’s got their own keyword for pandemic. Mine is panopticon. The panopticon [pandemic] has really turned my planning routine on its head. I am a person who is used to planning out at least a few months in advance, sometimes even up to a year or two in advance, and I had to learn during the panopticon [pandemic] to take it one day at a time.
Meredith D. Clark [02:33]:
So while I still have big vision and goals, the way that I am breaking down my planning right now is by seizing upon this tip that I read somewhere on Medium: to set goals that you can fulfill within one week.
So step-by-step, I look at what the week has in store, what I’ve already scheduled out in terms of external commitments and that sort of thing, the things that I want to do for myself to stay healthy—the exercise, the time to connect with my partner, and the alone time, which is essential for me.
Meredith D. Clark [03:12]:
And then I fill in the work that needs to be done. The goals that I set at the beginning of the week are things that I really try to narrow down to something that I can get finished in four to five days.
Cathy Hannabach [03:26]:
I like that. I am also, like you, normally where I have a much longer horizon of time, and I’m used to thinking in those terms. Considering those horizons have been obliterated and are changing every five seconds, the biggest struggle for me is figuring out how to plan on a smaller scale. I think this is a really fascinating approach that I’m going to actually try starting next week. Thank you for that.
Meredith D. Clark [03:54]:
You just have easy wins really quickly.
Cathy Hannabach [03:56]:
Exactly. And then that builds your confidence and you feel excited to tackle stuff.
Meredith D. Clark [04:01]:
Cathy Hannabach [04:02]:
What are some of your favorite planning apps, tools, or systems that you use to create those weekly goals and tasks and to organize all of the different projects?
Meredith D. Clark [04:13]:
Oh man. I’m a planner junkie so at any given time, I have I would say three or four different planners that I might be using in different ways. I try to remain faithful to them, but I’m kind of a promiscuous planner user, if that’s a thing.
Cathy Hannabach [04:29]:
That’s totally a thing.
Meredith D. Clark [04:32]:
I have a Day Designer Planner. I’m not being paid for any of this. I should put that caveat in there. But I have a Day Designer planner that I love, and I use the actual inserts rather than the planner itself, because it’s super heavy. I’m a woman of a certain age. I’m over 40. I don’t want to carry something heavy around all day. But the planner inserts allow me to use a beautiful leather Filofax cover that I have. It’s in my favorite color—purple—and it just brings me joy every time I pull it out. I use that.
Meredith D. Clark [05:10]:
I buy notepads at Target that have three major goals, a to-do list, what the day is, and gratitude. I use that in either of my offices, either at work or at home.
Sometimes I use something like a Full Focus Planner or a BestSelf planner, but I find that I tend to shy away from stuff that has the dates already fixed and set, because not every day is going to be the same for me. Not only is the panopticon pandemic going on right now, but I’m also on sabbatical this year, so my structure is completely different. There almost is no structure unless I create it.
Meredith D. Clark [05:55]:
I want to have that kind of fluidity.
As far as apps and digital tools, I have tried some of everything. I’ve tried Trello. I got freaked out by Asana. I would say I most faithfully rely on the Google monster. I use Google Keep to make really quick notes. I set some of those notes like if there’s a habit that I’m trying to build. Right now I’m trying to be a little bit more disciplined about my weekends, both resting and preparing for the week ahead. So in Google Keep I have these two notes, one for Saturday, one for Sunday.
Meredith D. Clark [06:36]:
Each one has a big three on it, the three things that I need to get done on each of these days. I set a reminder, a recurrent reminder, so that they go off at the beginning of the day each Saturday and each Sunday, so that I’m reminded, okay, on Saturday, I want to read for the week ahead. I want to touch base with my best friend/play sister, and I want to go out and take a long walk with my dog. On Sunday, I want to pay attention to my bills and plan out my week and think about what I’m going to eat for the week ahead.
Meredith D. Clark [07:14]:
Those are just basic things. I also rely, of course, on Google Calendar. If I’m going to get something done, it has to be in my calendar and it has to have a reminder.
Then the last thing I will mention is I use stickers. Stickers are an incredible motivator for me, especially when I’m using my paper planner. I give myself stickers to encourage myself in the morning. When I’m sitting down to look at what is ahead for me that day, I use stickers to jazz up really boring things like doctor’s appointments and that sort of stuff.
Meredith D. Clark [07:52]:
I use stickers to track how many times I’ve performed a specific action that I’m trying to build into my daily habit. So if I’ve had three liters of water in a particular day, I might use a sticker to signal that to myself. And when I go through and look through my calendars, as I’m trying to find stuff in the past, it gives me a smile to see them there. I guess I’m kind of a big kid in that way.
Cathy Hannabach [08:20]:
I know a lot of people really do well if there’s some creative aspect to their planning apps or paper versions, the ability to color code things or use stickers or use visuals or make it aesthetically interesting to them in some way.
I know that’s a really big motivation for me. I’m a color coder; I like to do that. It’s interesting that a lot of people find a creative outlet in some of these boring-sounding organization apps.
Meredith D. Clark [08:52]:
Yeah. The people who do bullet journaling, right?
Cathy Hannabach [08:55]:
Meredith D. Clark [08:56]:
I’ve seen some amazing spreads with bullet journals, and I could work myself into a whole different set of problems if I were to try and replicate them. But for some people, that is this amazing creative outlet where you have these spreads that the month is not just a month. It’s the opportunity to seize upon a theme and to illustrate that theme and to create the world that you want to inhabit when you think about a temporal dimension. I absolutely love that for other people, but I know it’s not for me. But it looks great. It’s pretty to look at.
Cathy Hannabach [09:34]:
Do you find yourself having conversations with people to learn about their organizational strategies or researching new tools if you hear about something new? How do you find out about and figure out whether a new organization tool or app or system might be something that you want to adopt?
Meredith D. Clark [09:53]:
Oh, well, it depends. Yes, I am always interested in other people’s systems. That is a personal interest of mine. I would almost call it a hobby. I am the person that features like the Sunday Routine in the New York Times is written for, because I want to know what everyone’s day looks like.
I remember features in certain fashion magazines about what’s in my bag or what’s in my purse, and they’d have a celebrity or a writer or whoever essentially turn out their purse.
Meredith D. Clark [10:28]:
Of course, it’s a big ad for a number of different companies, but it’s kind of cool to see the internal workings of a person’s day-to-day. I really love that because it’s a step into their world. Of course it’s one that’s curated for a certain audience, but there’s still something intimate about offering an ability to connect that I really, really like. And I do ask people about those sorts of things.
The part about when do I think of adopting a new technology or a new approach, it really depends on two things.
Meredith D. Clark [11:12]:
It depends on, one, my capacity to learn something new and also whether things that I’m doing, if I have come to the realization, whether they are working for me. If I have finally come to the realization that something isn’t working for me, I will say, for instance, a lot of people do like a semester plan and that really works for them. I have found that I will do a semester plan and it will be really detailed, and I’ll put it into place in all of my different planning mechanisms.
Meredith D. Clark [11:51]:
But by, let’s say, mid semester, I’ve learned that I shot for way too much and I’m not looking at the plan anymore. When I get to that point, then I am more open to hearing about what other people are doing and what’s working for them.
I have to have the capacity though, to be able to sit down and learn how a thing works. I’m a person who will read the manual. I’m a Capricorn, so I’m very much about rules and order and all that good stuff. And I need time to make that happen. I can’t just join something and take off with it.
Meredith D. Clark [12:37]:
I have to have time to figure out how to make things integrate with my life and my needs, rather than adopting it because it’s something that someone recommended or it’s really popular. That’s why I missed…Since I study social media, that’s why I missed Snapchat. I did not have time to sit down and figure that out, which is different than planning, but that’s really my rhythm.
Ultimately, does whatever it is I am seeking to use for organizational and for planning purposes, does it work for a need I have right now?
Meredith D. Clark [13:15]:
That is the big question for me. If it doesn’t, then I preserve my time. Time is precious. It’s nonrenewable, and I don’t worry about it.
Cathy Hannabach [13:24]:
I’m curious if those weekly goals that you were mentioning earlier that you put in your calendar, that you can track and congratulate yourself on achieving, do you connect those, in our current moment at least, to those broader timelines? Or have you found that that’s not super helpful in our current moment?
Meredith D. Clark [13:48]:
I definitely connect them to the broader timelines. Even though what we are living through right now is so unpredictable and a reminder of how little control we have over anything in life, there are still certain things that I want for myself. And some of those things take years. Some of those things, like my book project and I’m also working on this public-facing project about diversity in journalism, some of those things I’ve been working on for five, six years and more.
Meredith D. Clark [14:26]:
If I lose sight of them because they have such a long and distant horizon, then I won’t get anything done with them. I definitely think about what it is I want to achieve, what it is I want to attain, what service I’m trying to render, and make that a part of my weekly planning process.
With the diversity program, for instance, I am thinking about what I want the news industry to look like when I’m gone. I hope to be old and die in bed, go to sleep one night in my nineties and not wake up.
Meredith D. Clark [15:17]:
But I want to envision what the world of news media can look like then, and then tie it to what things I can do right now, today, today, tomorrow, and maybe the day after that to come up with my weekly goals.
Cathy Hannabach [15:35]:
You mentioned your book and I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk about this. First of all, it’s so smart, and I’m so excited to see it out in the world.
Meredith D. Clark [15:43]:
Cathy Hannabach [15:45]:
For our listeners who aren’t familiar with it, can you give us a little bit of intro into what is that book all about? And then I’d love to dive into some of the process of writing it.
Meredith D. Clark [15:55]:
Absolutely. My book is about Black Twitter, writ large, from my background as a journalist. It is my take on what happens when one group of people is ignored, denied literacy, and maligned in US news media. What happens when that group of people, that is very diverse and very complex, gains access to this new media technology that allows us to speak to one another at scale in real time?
Meredith D. Clark [16:33]:
I argue that Black Twitter is essentially the product of Black communication practice over centuries of time, preceding social media with print media and with radio, but it is also the product of a news media that was built via white supremacist structures. I mean, when you think about how the first journalism school in this country was founded at a time when it was still illegal for Black people to read, then you know…
Meredith D. Clark [17:09]:
Or rather, I should say, when you think about how the first journalism school in this country being founded at a time when Black people were not allowed to seek education in public universities that were not HBCUs, then you know there’s an argument to be made that the journalism that comes out of those kinds of systems is not designed to include us. I really do see what has happened with the formation of Black Twitter as being an outcome of those two realities.
Cathy Hannabach [17:46]:
I’m curious how your organizational systems that we were talking about shaped your actual writing process. I know part of what this book is about, reflects, and comes out of is your shift from journalist to professor. I’m curious how those things interact, the kind of tools and systems and apps and organization of long-term big scale projects like this. How did that play out on the day-to-day while you were also making this career shift?
Meredith D. Clark [18:18]:
Mm-hmm [affirmative]. I had to fail a lot. I had to fail as a graduate student. I have had to fail as a pre-tenure professor. I had to fail as a professional who was moving from one domain to another, even though there’s a lot of similarity between the work that I did as a journalist and the work that I now do as an ethnographer.
Meredith D. Clark [18:47]:
Where planning came into that, first, my approach to planning around planning a story or even recognizing a trend was foundational to me realizing that Black Twitter was something that was worthy of study back in 2010 when I first started thinking about this as something that I wanted to dedicate time to in class. Then it eventually became my dissertation.
Meredith D. Clark [19:23]:
It was being able to recognize a story, even when that story wasn’t fully developed. In this case, the story was how Black people use Twitter—literally, that was a story that was published in Slate magazine in August 2010 online. Being able to see that there were much bigger themes connected to that story than what the author had realized or paid attention to, and to hold onto that and to plan my courses around that, and then to plan the work that I did in graduate school in a way that it fed into the interest I had in this one topic.
Meredith D. Clark [20:12]:
To break that down, I left my job as a journalist for the first time in 2010 to go to grad school. I took this story with me. It was one of the last ones that I read before I started my program. We were able to choose courses, of course, outside of our school.
I went to the now-named Hussman School of Journalism at UNC [University of North Carolina] Chapel Hill, and I found two courses, both of them about ethnography. One of them, Ethnography in Black Communities, was taught by Dr. Karla Slocum and the other one, The Art of Ethnography, was taught by Glenn Hinson. Both of them were in anthropology.
Meredith D. Clark [20:51]:
I used those courses. I realized those courses had papers and exercises that we had to do, to do some practical work in ethnography. I used those to shape the way that I wanted to study Black Twitter. Each of the assignments in that course, even though my professors at the time, bless them, had no idea what Black Twitter was, they allowed me to use those courses to explore that interest and to do it in a way that was scholarly and rigorous. I took that same approach to writing the book.
Meredith D. Clark [21:34]:
When I say I failed a lot, I mean that moving from the dissertation to the book for me has been a process that has been about six to seven years long. I wrote one almost full version of this book before the version that I’m working on right now, that I’m finishing right now.
When I moved to the University of Virginia from the University of North Texas in 2017, I had to learn how to plan my classes in a way that it would inform my work so that I did not have to split my time and attention in so many different ways. I’m a person who struggles with mental health issues.
Meredith D. Clark [22:22]:
I struggle with anxiety. I struggle with depression. I speak about it openly, and I talk about how it affects my day-to-day. So I’m a person who cannot afford to have my attention split in a number of different directions at all times, because I need to be able to have some sort of consistency when things get difficult in managing the depression and the anxiety. I learned to use my courses to help me with my writing.
Meredith D. Clark [22:56]:
I sat down and I created my syllabus. I thought about the areas that I needed to help my students move through an understanding of the history, the communication history, of Black folks in this country, what it meant for us to be in this digital age, what things were happening in these spaces, and where we are now. That gave me a way of seeing the book from beginning to end.
Then with the exercises that I planned for my class, they have a weekly exercise called Question and Quotes, which I took from Dr. Aja Martinez, I’m sorry, Aja Martinez.
Meredith D. Clark [23:45]:
I took this exercise where the students have to write a 600-word essay that reflects on two of the texts that we use each week. We have several, anywhere from two to five or six in a single week. One of them always scholarly. The rest of them are generally popular press media, podcasts, and news articles, that sort of thing. I challenged myself to write along with my students. So while not everyone in my class writes a Q and Q, writes a reflection, I did too.
Meredith D. Clark [24:20]:
That 600 words per week that touched on the two or three or five readings that we had meant that I had another chunk of that book written. It took me a year and a half to figure that out. But once I got it, I was able to make substantial progress with moving the book forward.
That is how I have learned to adapt my planning to where I am, to what demands I have on my time, and how I am able to make use of the resources available to me.
Cathy Hannabach [25:00]:
This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, which really gets at that big why behind all of these kinds of plans and projects that you’re involved with. That’s your version of a better world, the better world that you’re working toward when you design assignments like this, when you work on your scholarship, when you teach students and engage in the work that they want to do in the world. What kind of world are you working toward? What kind of world do you want?
Meredith D. Clark [25:28]:
I am working toward a world in which everyone realizes and truly has enough. That given the resources that we have on this plane, in this time, in these bodies, in these spaces, we realize there’s enough for everyone.
There is nothing that makes me angrier than realizing how much wealth accumulation happens in different places, even in my own life, when there are so many going without the basics.
Meredith D. Clark [26:10]:
I’m working towards a world in which we see that there is enough for all of us, there’s more than enough to share, there is beauty and community and sanctity in providing for one another. That that can happen now. Not in our children’s generation, in our grandchildren’s generation, but right now, today. That’s the world I’m working for.
Cathy Hannabach [26:41]:
Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine otherwise.
Meredith D. Clark [26:47]:
Thank you so much for having me, Cathy.
Cathy Hannabach [26:54]:
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.
Share this episode: