Running Interference


 

Joe Trotter, circa 2008.

Today is the forty-third anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. But for the past fifteen years, April 4th has also had the dubious distinction of reminding me of a big argument between me and Joe Trotter. He was my doctoral thesis advisor at Carnegie Mellon and, until that day, someone I considered a mentor in my becoming an academic historian.

 

Below is an excerpt from my book Fear of a “Black” America (with some minor additions) in which I recount what happened that day:

“‘I’m looking out for your best interests’ was what my dissertation advisor typically said in discussing my future with me. As far as Trotter was concerned, he was in charge of the rest of my academic career, determining everything from whether I would finish my doctorate to where I would live and work after I graduated. But as I’d already discovered in the months leading to this moment, he was not nurturing my career at all. Virtually all of my achievements as a graduate student occurred despite my advisor rather than because of him.

This was because my advisor discouraged my attempts to publish, to obtain grants for my research, to participate in major conferences, and to apply for jobs when it was apparent I had nearly completed my doctoral thesis. My advisor would frequently say ‘You’re not ready’ to take on a particular project or to apply for a grant or job to hinder my efforts. Yet Trotter never pointed out what he thought I needed to do to be “ready.”

One of our last official meetings as advisor and student covered this particular issue. Six chapters into an eight-chapter dissertation, I was still being told that I was ‘not ready’ to apply for jobs or to attend major conferences. Trotter had in fact contradicted some of what he had said about my work in a previous meeting. So when he declared for the eighteenth time in this particular meeting that he was not giving me his support because he was ‘looking out for my best interests,’ I sarcastically replied ‘Yeah, right!’ I decided that I could not abide the hypocrisy of an advisor who cared little for my future while at the same time professing to care very deeply.”

There was an eerie silence. Trotter actually didn’t know what to say. Neither did I. Mostly because I wanted to strangle him with his own blue neck tie. So I did something less dramatic far more legal. I said, “I don’t have anything else to say to you,” picked up my stuff, walked out his heavy dark wood door, and slammed it as hard as I could. “Stupid ass,” I said under my breath as I walked out of Baker Hall that day. I was talking about myself as much as I was talking about Trotter.

For any academic scholar who reads this, they’ll likely conclude that I committed academic suicide by exhibiting such defiance to my advisor that day. Not true — I have a doctorate and years teaching in academia to prove otherwise. Not having the support of an advisor — whether that support’s official or in the reality of a friendship or a mentorship — does make building a career harder. But given what I’d learned about Trotter’s lack of support for a Spencer Fellowship that I ended up receiving as an award anyway, despite him, I knew that even if everything had been okay, it wouldn’t have been after graduation.

The reality is that my former advisor and thousands like him commit a form of academic suicide every day by refusing to promote at least one student’s career development. Besides having one’s work published and obtaining grants, developing new talent is key to creating a legacy as a successful professor. It’s why I can go to any history conference and hear stories about David Montgomery, or to an education conference and hear folks discuss their wonderful mentoring relationships with Michael Nettles. Or why so many responded across all of the social networks after learning that Manning Marable had passed away on Friday, April 1st.

I’m not holding these examples up because these professors were saints. Hardly. Just pointing out the fact that when a professor maliciously and deliberately attempts to hold back students otherwise deserving of moving on out of jealousy or some other reason, it puts a pox on their house as well.

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