Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.

Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.

None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.

The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.

My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.

I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.

That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.


Before and After Spencer

April 14, 2015

Seattle Seahawks' Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

Seattle Seahawks’ Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

This week marks twenty years since the now-retired Catherine Lacey called me up on a Friday morning while I was brushing my teeth to tell me that I’d been selected to be a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for the 1995-96 year.  I’d hoped and prayed for that day for more than twenty months, after my fellowship and teaching plans for the summer of ’93 fell through. But I’ve talked about Catherine Lacey and some of my Spencer experiences already, as well as about the reaction of Joe Trotter and some of my Carnegie Mellon grad school mates to this news.

This post is about the days before I received Lacey’s call, before I knew that I would be on the fast track to a doctorate. Because before I’d been selected for the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the selection committee had rejected me, with a 6-1-1 vote (that’s six in favor, one not in favor, and one abstaining). I knew this because Catherine had sent me a rejection letter with a handwritten note at the bottom of it, one that I received after two months away in DC doing my dissertation research. My suspicion was that most of the Fellows had received an 8-0 or 7-1 selection vote.

That was all on March 31, ’95. Catherine’s note, though, was encouraging. She said to “stay tuned,” that she was “looking into other alternatives.” So there was still a chance that I’d get the fellowship. Still, I didn’t want to do what I did two years earlier, when assumptions and hope led me to six weeks of joblessness and an eviction notice.

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago - The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago – The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

So I did what I’ve done best throughout my work experiences. I scrambled to make sure I had work during the summer and upcoming school year. I didn’t want to be stuck borrowing more in student loans or teaching more of Peter Stearns’ version of World History courses — really, World Stereotypes — for entitled CMU freshmen.

I talked with both then associate provost (and also an eventual) mentor) Barbara Lazarus and fellow but further along grad student in John Hinshaw about me taking his job as a part-time assistant to Barbara. John really wanted to finish his dissertation and move on (who could blame him, given that Trotter was his advisor as well), and Barbara would’ve liked me for the job. So I gave them both a tentative yes, knowing that the job was contingent on John’s timetable for leaving it and finding an academic job elsewhere, all while completing his dissertation.

The thought occurred to me, though, that I may need more than a 15-20-hour-per-week job to get through the dissertation stage. Especially if I was to avoid teaching for the mercurial Stearns again. So I scheduled a meeting with Trotter to see if he any research project he needed help with.

We met at 2 pm on Thursday, April 13. Trotter was as excited about us meeting as he had been when I first decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to work with him as my advisor two and a half years earlier. He had at least three migration studies projects with which he wanted my labor. All the projects were about extending his grand proletarianization thesis. All would be dreadfully boring drudgery compared to my dissertation, but would keep me in additional pay checks for a year or two. I faked a smile, and tentatively said yes to Trotter as well.

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Eighteen hours later came Catherine’s call about me being offered the Spencer Fellowship! I took it as a sign from God, that at the very least, I’d finish my dissertation and my doctorate without the need for working on it an extra two or three years. Unfortunately, neither John Hinshaw nor Joe Trotter saw my great fortune the way I did. When John found out, which was a week later, he didn’t talk to me for nearly three years. And from reading my previous blog posts, you all already know how my work with Trotter devolved after the Spencer award announcement.

The one thing that fellowship did for me as a person — and not just as an academician, researcher or education — was to give me the space to question academia and my role in it. Even two decades later, I’m still ambivalent about the academic method of obtaining tenure, of the publish-or-perish paradigm, of the hypocrisy that exists in such a cloistered world. Even as I still hold a job and play a role in this world.

What I’ve come to learn is that hypocrisy is everywhere, in the nonprofit world, in romance, and in academia, too. We could all start with, “Did you hear the one joke about how merit and hard work alone can lead to a prosperous life?” That’s the hypocrisy that I had to learn to see in academia, and began to, thanks to the space that the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship gave me that year. More on that later.


The Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 4: Fear of a “Black” America

September 26, 2013

FearBookCover3copy

Given that Fear of a “Black” America was my first book, but one based on my doctoral dissertation, and that Boy @ The Window is a memoir, the road from one to the other may not be that obvious with an initial glance. But despite the intellectual, semi-scholarly nature of my book on Blacks and multiculturalism, there are parallel themes that run between Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window. Perhaps none are more important, though, than the challenge of authenticity, of fitting in, of being able to mesh the complicated onion that I’ve found myself to be over the years.

I think that was why I decided in November ’98 to turn my dissertation “A Substance of Things Hoped For” into a more readable book. Yes, after all that work to write a 505-page thesis, it would’ve been a shame to just let it sit on my then girlfriend’s coffee table, to be used either as a door stop or a base for her doing her nails. Yes, I still had something to prove to academia. That my scholarship as a historian and educator on the issue of multiculturalism was sound. That the conventional academic wisdom around Blacks, people of color and multiculturalism was paternalistic fear-mongering.

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

And in thinking that last part through, I came up with my Public Enemy-inspired title and thread for the first book. It was about fear in many forms. Elite White fears of a majority-people-of-color US within their own lifetimes. Conservative fears of a K-16 education system that included the cultural and historical perspectives of peoples of color, of the poor, of women, of the LGBT, of so many others they’d rather discard. General American skepticism that any Blacks had ever given any thought at all to cultural pluralism, intercultural education, or multiculturalism/multicultural education, at least before White theorists had thought through these ideas first.

Afrocentrists and nationalists who thought of multiculturalism as soft and utterly unrepresentative of the Black experience — or, at least, what they considered an authentic version thereof? That was as difficult a challenge as any I faced in writing both my dissertation and Fear of a “Black” America. So much so that I made a few interesting decisions along the way. I sought out an agent — yes, a literary agent — for the first book, and found one, too (things were so much easier in ’99). I wanted the book to have an impact beyond academia.

In the writing process, I decided to weave the theme of fear, skepticism, willful and inadvertent misunderstandings throughout the 200-page book. All while covering Black intellectual thought about what we now call Afrocentricity and multiculturalism, Black activism and activities around education and Negro History Week, and the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. All to show that multiculturalism was/is a part of America’s evolution, even if some folks are gnashing their teeth and wearing sackcloth and ashes along the way.

One thing was missing, though, from my six chapters. Me, in a word. Yes, my argument was crystal clear, my evidence was sound, my notes and analysis lined up well enough by the summer of ’00. Yet, as my one-time agent noted, “there’s not enough of you in this manuscript.”  Bottom line: folks weren’t going to buy the book unless I made it more compelling, which meant putting something of me or about me in it.

So I did. I wrote mostly about my experiences in academia and how they paralleled with some of the critical issues in Fear of a “Black” America. I talked about my Duquesne University students in the College of Education in ’98 and ’99, most of whom were cultural conservatives. I brought up conversations I had with professors skeptical about my scholarship, like Richard Altenbaugh in March ’98 or my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter in April ’96. I also wrote about my conversation with Estelle Abel over my lack of authenticity as a young Black man in June ’87, having thought about it for the first time in thirteen years. I wasn’t sure if that made Fear of a “Black” America any better, but it made me feel better about my first book.

By the time I’d given my agent the final draft of Fear of a “Black” America in October ’00, I was ready — maybe for the first time in years — to take a look at my life before Pitt, grad school, Spencer Fellowship and becoming Dr. Collins. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open up the emotional side of that Pandora’s box just yet. But in some ways, I really needed to, precisely because of my experiences with people in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. And precisely because of my occasional moments of rage and overreaction, if only because Fear of a Black “America” helped me tap into emotions I didn’t know I had.


On Academic Entourages & Standing Apart From Them

September 11, 2013

Lil Wayne entourage, Hartford, CT, July 2011. (http://4umf.com/).

Lil Wayne entourage, Hartford, CT, July 2011. (http://4umf.com/).

This week for many is about anniversary number twelve of the 9/11 attacks, which if I hadn’t lived through them, would sound like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. But because I’ve been counting my days for years, this week also represents two decades since I realized that radical “Islamic” terrorists, pro athletes and popular music artists aren’t the only ones with followers. I learned for the first time that even in the world of academia, paragons and those who allege themselves as such also have their entourages of true believers and sycophants. It was a realization that bothered the loner and the aspiring academic historian in me.

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins)

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

It all occurred in the aftermath of my first major publication, co-written with my friend Marc and published in Black Issues In Higher Education in August ’93. “Afrocentricity: The Fight for Control of African-American Thought” was our 1,200 word contribution to the debate over multicultural education and Afrocentricity in both higher education and in Black culture more generally. It was a publication that came as a surprise, because the editors at Black Issues In Higher Education (the same folks who ran Emerge Magazine, by the way) hadn’t contacted us about receiving our pitch and article, about accepting it for publication, or about when they intended to publish. And even though our article was literally in the centerfold of their August 12, ’93 issue, the folks at Black Issues in Higher Education never paid us for the publication of our work.

The reason why because clearer in their September 9 and September 23 issues. In the “Letters to the Editor” section, the editors published a dozen letters, ten of which were critical of our work. These weren’t scholarly or even logical critiques — we were wrong because we weren’t members of the Church of Afrocentric Babble, plain and simple. These were “How dare you!” or “Shame on you!” letters, not ones based on what we’d actually written.

What became obvious  to me was that Molefi Asante’s former and current students had written most of the letters. Not exactly an unbiased set of sources, as in the circle of Afrocentricity in the early ’90s, there were few people more prominent than Asante (he was the Father of Afrocentricity, after all). Once I realized this, I found myself disappointed. With Black Issues in Higher Education, with Black folks in academia — particularly at Temple University — and with academia itself. Me and Marc weren’t being challenged on our ideas, but on the idea that two alleged neophytes had the balls to challenge the orthodoxy of the early ’90s in African American studies and in high-brow Black cultural circles.

Marc pushed for a response from one of the editors about their unprofessionalism (and to find out why we weren’t being paid for our piece), which led to a conversation with one of the big-wigs. He apparently said to Marc, “We published it [the “Afrocentricity” piece] to teach you a lesson.” When Marc told me, I said, “Well, I guess we’re not gonna get paid.” (Turned out this was standard practice for the likes of Black Issues in Higher EducationEmerge, and for freelancers at BET as well). Marc, pissed and disillusioned, said, “We were just trying to help.”

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 23, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 23, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

It was the last one of many factors that pushed me to write my dissertation and my first book Fear of a “Black” America (2004) on the relationship between education, multiculturalism, and Black identity. I wanted to show that Afrocentricity wasn’t the only strain of thought that ran through the heads of Black scholars and found its way into small “c” curriculum and cultural events in Black communities. In doing so, I certainly stood apart, but I also stood alone a lot, too.

In recent years, I’ve seen numerous entourages eviscerate lone wolfs. On Twitter, in our 24/7 media coverage of the mundane and insignificant yet insane, and at academic conferences. As recently as a couple of months ago, I saw a version of this on Facebook in response to a post I wrote about Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy (2013). The entourage makes it difficult for an up-and-comer to get off to an honest start, for conformity with only subatomic levels of independent thought seems to be the norm.

Somewhere between now and when my son (knock on wood) reaches my age of forty-three, maybe some of what I’ve written over the past twenty years will break through the ice of entourages, mad-dog and otherwise. Still, it is a damnable thing when groups get together to stomp out different voices (literally and figuratively), because that’s seems to be the only way to keep the band together.


Chronicle of Higher Education – Shame On You!

May 3, 2012

Naomi Schaefer Riley, Chronicle of Higher Education blogger, September 25, 2011. (http://c-span.org). In public domain.

On April 30, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm digital platform, wrote the disrespectful and snarky/offensive post “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.

It was disrespectful, snarky and offensive because Riley used the post to go after Northwestern University graduate students who had literally just finished their doctoral theses. Not to mention the fact that Riley hadn’t actually read the dissertations she discussed in her post. For example, Riley called Ruth Hayes and her dissertation “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth” on the carpet. All because Hayes wrote that she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery” in her abstract. “How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in ‘natural birth literature,’ whatever the heck that is?,” was Riley’s disrespectful and idiotic response. Riley based her response on a title and one sentence from a dissertation.

Riley wrote about two other dissertations, one about the origins of the subprime lending crisis for Blacks — going back to policies enacted by the federal government in the 1960s — the other about the history of Black Republicanism. She not only concluded based solely on the titles and a couple of statements that this was “a  collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.” Riley also decided the fate of Black Studies as a discipline, saying that these three doctoral thesis made the “case for eliminating the discipline,” at least in her snarky and offended mind.

If this was Riley’s one and only post, I’d simply accuse her of being an ill-informed ex-Wall Street Journal journalist who obviously has a limited understanding of the history of research in the humanities and social sciences fields of academia. One of marginalization and exclusion of the experiences of all Americans who aren’t White, male, rich and powerful. One in which remains the automatic assumption in many circles that any research done by Blacks on race, women on sexism, and gays and lesbians on homophobia is less valuable or unscholarly. I’ve known more than my share of colleagues who have experienced disdain, even occasional ostracism, because of their work, in the so-called liberal environment that is academia.

Riley, however, has posted multiple times about Blacks in academia blaming all of their ills on the “white man,” as she would put it. She’s complained about the validity of women’s studies and about the usefulness of so-called liberal research in her posts as well. It proves that Riley has as much understanding about research and academia as I do about embroidery. And I’ve at least had a couple of embroidery classes.

But Riley, for all of her snarky arrogance and willful ignorance — the very thing that defines her posts — isn’t the most significant culprit on this. The Chronicle of Higher Education is ultimately to blame. After years of writing the same turgid stories over and over again about the “two-body problem,” faculty compensation and university endowments, The Chronicle in the past year or so has attempted a turn toward the provocative. Instead of real attempts to reach out to educators, education reformers and other practitioners who aren’t tenured/tenure-track faculty and graduate students aspiring to such, they have settled on bringing in a group of bloggers whose sole job is to stir the pot.

There are big issues in higher education begging for coverage. The issue of the effectiveness of online higher education. The corruption that runs rampant at for-profit institutions and the public institutions that adopt for-profit practices. The over-reliance on data sets to determine higher education (as well as K-12) policies. The dominance of private foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in determining how twenty-first century education reform will look — to the detriment of perhaps millions of children and college students.

No, these articles and discussions are rare in the world of The Chronicle. Instead, they had the wonderful idea of letting tenured faculty and inane journalists blog on issues that could possibly cause controversy, stir up discussions, even lead to an uptick in viewers of the Chronicle.com website. But The Chronicle isn’t Charlie Sheen or Kim Kardashian, where any publicity is good publicity. Especially when a journalist in the case of Riley didn’t do their due diligence before foaming at the mouth.

The most offensive thing about all of this is that The Chronicle, as the arrogant institution they are, will continue to allow the likes of Riley a platform, under the cloak of journalistic freedom. That is a shame, and a pitiful one at that.


Paula Baker and the 4.0 Aftermath

February 1, 2012

Paula Baker speaking (screen shot) in response to Donald Crichlow's book, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism at The New School, New York City, March 1, 2006. (http://fora.tv/2006/03/01/Women_and_Grassroots_Conservatism).

Of all the professors I worked with in grad school, there wasn’t a tougher one on me than Paula Baker. Or a better one. She wanted and expected more out of me than even my advisors, Larry Glasco and Joe Trotter. If it weren’t for her, I probably would’ve been content with earning all of my degrees at the University of Pittsburgh. But if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have discovered my ambivalence about academia in the first place.

I took an upper level history course in US history since 1945 and an independent study with Paula the semester after earning straight-As, the one that made my master’s program a seven-and-a-half month one instead of two years (see “The 4.0 Of It All” from December 2011). It was her second semester as an assistant professor in our department, and given the demographics of the ol’ White boys club, I thought it a good idea to take a professor whose graduate studies were still going on while I was in high school. That, and learning of Paula rare feat (at least for ’84) of publishing an article in the Journal of American History while still a grad student herself at Rutgers University, appealed to the competitor in me.

Paula Baker, University of Virginia, Miller Center, December 2006. (http://millercenter.org).

I sat down for my first meeting with Paula in her small, windowless office (except for a glass partition that she had covered up so students couldn’t look in), just across from the grad student cubicles on the third floor of Forbes Quad. She said, “What are you doing here?” I didn’t understand her question at first. What I soon realized was that Paula was asking me the kinds of questions I should’ve asked myself two years earlier, when I first started applying to grad schools. She said that there were better options for a doctorate in American and African American history than Pitt, including the University of Michigan and UCLA.

There were two things that made Paula, though. One, she regularly broke the law while anyone was in her office, including pre-asthmatic me. Paula smoked as if her life depended on it. For me, it was the first time I thought that I might end up dead before I turned thirty for second-hand smoke and lung cancer. Mind you, my mother, my father and my idiot ex-stepfather all smoked, but not in a space unfit for a sardine.

Two, and more important in my second semester of grad school, was her uncompromising perfectionism when it came to my research and writing. Obviously my writing was already good. But it wasn’t scholarly, at least not as scholarly as it needed to be. In writing my paper on the influence of Marxist ideology (perceived and actual) on the early Civil Rights Movement, I must’ve done at least seven drafts for Paula.

She probably used up about three ball point pens editing my drafts, crossing out whole paragraphs at a time, demanding that I raise my level of analysis ever higher. And when it was all said and done, Paula assigned me a grade of B+ in my independent study with her, the lowest grade I’d receive in three years of master’s and doctoral work. Still, she turned me on to Adolph Reed, Jr. and Theda Skocpol.

What Paula didn’t know was that by the middle of February ’92, I was mentally exhausted, mostly from the previous semester’s work and the lack of a holiday break. I wasn’t at my best in her class and in her office. Somewhere in the midst of struggling to stay on task, I learned how to read for arguments, how to use book reviews to supplement my lack of historiographical knowledge, and to expand my thinking to include other fields, like philosophy and sociology.

I also learned that I really didn’t like writing in scholarly-speak. It felt fake, as if I had to learn French and German and high English in order to make an argument that would make old White farts stand at attention. I didn’t blame Paula for this. I fully understood what she was doing and why she was doing it. But I also knew that this wasn’t me, the scholarly world wasn’t quite an exact fit for me. C’est la vie!

After April ’92, I took one other independent study with Paula, the following year, to get ready for the comprehensive exams for my doctorate. I took it as a non-graded course, as I knew I was about to transfer to Carnegie Mellon. She eventually left Pitt — not exactly a surprise.

I bumped into her once in ’01 right outside Union Station in DC, while she was a fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and I was in my assistant director job with the New Voices Fellowship Program. Paula didn’t seem happy to see me, but then again, sarcasm and irony always seemed to be the key to getting her smile. Like the irony of me not using my degree in academia.


“It Is Done” – 15 Years Later

November 21, 2011

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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