I was sitting in the office of the only professor in Carnegie Mellon’s History Department with expertise in the area of history of education one mid-September day in ’93. It was my first semester in the doctoral program there, after transferring from Pitt to finish my PhD. I had already begun to question my decision to do my remaining studies there. My advisor Joe Trotter was “upset” that I’d taken and passed my doctoral written exams the spring before, when I was still technically a Pitt grad student, and had “run interference” to forbid me from publishing any new articles during the ’93-’94 school years. That was after my piece with my friend Marc had come out in Black Issues in Higher Education.
Steve Schlossman, the chair of the history department, was also upset, because I had decided not to take the American history proseminar, a course for first semester grad students. Apparently, even though I had taken the same course at Pitt two years before — and Carnegie Mellon had accepted all of my credits from my master’s program and first year as a doctoral student at Pitt — I had to take this course. I was read the riot act and told that I needed Carnegie Mellon’s “stamp of approval” before becoming a doctoral candidate. I was incensed, because this wasn’t what I’d been promised by my esteemed advisor and the graduate advisor, John Modell.
All this happened before I met Daniel P. Resnick in his office on Tuesday on a cool, but not too cool, and sunny late-summer day. His office was neat, relatively speaking, but spare and spartan in some ways, with books stacked in orderly fashion, and papers in numerous labeled folders. What I noticed the most was the smell, an old person’s not-fully-washed smell, of bagels and lox with some onion cream cheese.
Professor Resnick had gone to the restroom and left the door open for me to sit at a table next to his desk. He had already laid out my writing samples, the ones I’d put in his mailbox the week before. They included the Black Issues in Higher Education piece. After our exchange of greetings, Resnick sat down and said, “Considering your background, your writing is remarkable!” in a way that showed real surprise.
Before I could respond with a defense or process the obvious bigotry in that statement, Resnick then said, “There’s no way you could’ve written all this.” I responded, “Well, I did, and have the grades and degrees to prove it,” preferring not to accuse the only professor in the department with a specialty in the history of education of racism. “What-what I meant was, your papers are well-written…compared to most young scholars,” Resnick stammered. I accepted that response at face value, but kept what he had said before it in mind as I worked with him over the next three years.
Resnick, as it turned out, had lived for a year with his wife, the great Lauren Resnick, on the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border in 1960-61 (one of them was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I think), so after finding out where I grew up, he had put two and two together and come up with sixteen. I found him patronizing, and about as knowledgeable in the recent developments of educational history as I would be of underground house music in Chelsea right now. Resnick himself had plagiarized, not in terms of his own work, but from the race relations rule book. He had plagiarized in stereotypes, far worse than anything of which he’d accused me.
Was it worth having this man on my dissertation committee? Yes, because I graduated. But, in the final analysis, it would’ve made more sense to transfer to NYU or Stanford School of Education than to spend three minutes, much less three years, working with a man whose belief in my work was minimal at best.