“It Is Done” – 15 Years Later


Hands of God & Adam, fingers about to touch, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The next twenty-four hours will mark a decade and a half since my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter wrote today’s title quote in a God-like-pronouncement of an email to me regarding my final content-based revisions to my doctoral thesis. With those revisions following my committee meetings in October, I was now officially Dr. Collins. I knew that. I just didn’t feel it.

Working on a book-length research project with an abusive advisor and disinterested committee members at a school as conservative and isolating as Carnegie Mellon University left me exhausted. For I never felt I could ever be all of myself there. I made myself into the scholar I hoped that I wouldn’t become. At least, the twenty-one version of me that began graduate school back in ’91 held that hope. Five years later, I felt alienated from my own purpose and calling, and was more than unsure about becoming a full-time professor and historian. Especially given the wonderful examples of scholarly inhumanity and hypocrisy that Trotter, Dan Resnick and so many others had proven themselves to be (see “You’re Not Ready” post from November ’08 and “And Now, A Plagiarism Moment” post from September ’10).

I was burned out. I felt numb, with a boiling mantle of rage underneath the surface. If Trotter had said the

Arching fountain of a Pahoehoe (like my post-PhD rage) approximately 10 m high issuing from the western end of the 0740 vents, a series of spatter cones 170 m long, south of Pu‘u Kahaualea, September 10, 2007. (USGS via Wikipedia). In public domain.

wrong thing to me at the wrong time in ’96, I probably would’ve laid him out with a right hook to the jaw. And Resnick’s lucky that I didn’t own a car, because I might’ve run him down with it.

As it was, when Trotter attempted to meet with me a few weeks later to discuss “my future,” I refused. Especially given his suggestions for job applications. One, a one-year position at a University of Nebraska branch campus. The other, a CUNY school in Queens with a proposed position that wouldn’t begin until July ’98. I told him, “You don’t get to determine my future, certainly not without me.”

What should’ve been a period of rest and repair between Thanksgiving Week ’96 and graduation day in May ’97 was hardly that at all. It took me, really and truly, six months to recover from the dissertation process, and probably close to two years to not pass by or go on Carnegie Mellon’s campus without wanting to strangle my dissertation committee with piano wire. By then, I’d moved on to the rather mundane task of figuring out how to cobble together a career that wasn’t dependent on a full-time faculty position in academia.

And over the past fifteen years, I have pieced together several careers. As a part-time college professor, as a nonprofit program officer and as a consultant. It helped to have people like the late Barbara Lazarus and my dear friend Cath Lugg in my corner in those first years after I’d finished my doctorate. It helped that I expanded my career options from merely pursuing a history professorship wherever Joe Trotter’s winds could’ve taken me.

But it helped, most of all, for me to start trusting my instincts, my own heart, again. The irony of my complete disillusionment at the end of my degree-earning journey was that it left me with the time to contemplate whom I thought I really was, what I really wanted to do in life, and how I wanted to do it.

It was far from an immediate process of epiphanies and revelation. It took me nearly six years after finishing my dissertation to see myself as a writer, cutting through twenty years of denial and abuse in the process. It took me a little longer to see myself as a writer first and foremost, with all of my other professional hats second, third, and so forth. To understand that mine was a concern far greater than multiculturalism in education. My role as a writer and educator was also about aspirations, academic pathways to success, racial and ethnic equity in education, access to and success in college.

Barbara Sizemore, 1927-2004, circa mid-1990s. (http://sesp.northwestern.edu).

Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t looked back to wonder what could’ve been. If I were a White male with my credentials, I’d long ago been doing what I’ve been fighting to do as a writer and educator for years. If my advisors had been someone like a Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates. Or if I had attended an Ivy League school in undergrad. Or if I’d earned a master’s degree in journalism or communications, or a doctorate in a school of education or in psychology.

The late Barbara Sizemore once warned me about earning my doctorate in history some two decades ago. “You always have to do things the hard way, don’t you?,” she said to me with disapproval when she learned of my acceptance into Pitt’s history PhD program. I should’ve said, “Yes, I do.” Because the last fifteen years have been a hard road, as all roads to enlightenment are.

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