In Denigration of the Black and Accomplished

January 20, 2014

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (http://msn.foxsports.com).

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (http://msn.foxsports.com).

I plan half of my blog posts in advance. At the beginning of every year, I make up a list of topics that I intend to cover, listed by month, and then go through that list. For the other half, I take advantage of relevant news stories or sudden life experiences that also seem relevant. Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 9.25.25 AM

Today’s post is a combination of planning and the impromptu. I’d already planned to write about the tightrope of being Black and accomplished — actually, more like the noose of it. But thanks to @profragsdale’s tweet, aka, Rhonda Ragsdale, an Associate Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris (Houston, Texas) and a PhD candidate at Rice University, I started on this topic a day early. Her tweet was the kick-off to eight hours of tweets about the cold and often cold-shoulder reception women — and Black male and LGBT — faculty and grad students receive when bringing up, discussing or even promoting themselves and their accomplishments.

Only to see more of these tweets and thoughts confirmed in another arena. The response of the racist, George-Zimmerman-set to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews on FOX within a couple of moments after he made the play to seal the game for his Seattle Seahawks to go play in Super Bowl XLVIII. You, Black man, can’t have a flash of anger and moment of passion on TV after playing in the NFC Championship Game, for then your accomplishments will be used against you. (Sarcasm aside, Sherman’s taunting will likely result in a fine, but that’s the NFL).

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (http://bomag.com).

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (http://bomag.com).

My post is much, much closer to home. I had the blessing and the curse of having two Black males as my official advisors while in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, Larry Glasco for two years at Pitt, and Joe Trotter for four years at CMU. My gripes and complaints about their neglect, selective attentions to my development, and, in Trotter’s case, harassment and psychological torture I’ve already documented well here. What I haven’t discussed is that they were part of a cycle of academic abuse that they passed down to my generation of grad students, and likely some of my colleagues are passing on to their grad students as I write today.

My best example of how denigration in academia works was a conversation I had with Dick Oestreicher, a Pitt professor for my grad seminar in American Working-Class History in Fall ’92. I was in Trotter’s African American History seminar at CMU at the same time. Oestreicher asked me what else I was taking that semester, I guess because I’d proven resistant to the idea that social class had primacy over all forms of inequality, even in the US (a neo-Marxist to the core, I guessed).

When I told him I was in Trotter’s seminar, Oestreicher said, “Oh, I’ve heard of him,” with the disdain a fashion designer usually reserved for suits off Sears’ rack. You’ve “heard of him?” Really? Trotter, an award-winner scholar and author with a groundbreaking book on Black migration, urbanization and class formation in Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1985; 2007), and you’ve heard of him? A colleague only three blocks and one bridge away, and you’ve heard of him? Even now, the only word I have to that is, “Wow!”

If Oestreicher was the only one to do that, and only to Trotter, then my observations here would be suspect. But I witnessed this same kind of thing from other White history professors at Pitt and CMU toward Trotter and Glasco during my grad school years. Heck, one of the reasons I left for CMU in the first place was because I knew several of the most powerful professors in the Pitt history department didn’t respect Glasco’s work, and by extension, my own progress and work.

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Maybe that was part of the reason why Trotter would constantly “run interference” on my behalf, to protect my “interests” during my four years there. Because, despite all the long hours, the sweat, tears and blood, there were folks at CMU who just saw him as a mere Black man, not a colleague or scholar every bit their equal. Given the books, the articles, the grants and so many other accomplishments, Trotter was easily the most productive professor in the department.

None of this justified how Trotter treated me when I was his student. I was semi-aware of the racial politics of accomplishment denial that folks around us practiced. I often chalked it up to jealousy or stress, thinking that the quality of my work or — to use Trotter’s terminology — my scholarship would show the academic world my worth. What White disdain toward Glasco and Trotter — and Trotter’s harassment of me — taught me, though, is that I’d have to be White in order for my accomplishments to seriously matter in academia, and I wasn’t planning on being White in my lifetime. And, that intellectual Whiteness can be nurtured and grown into Black professors.

In the years since finishing my own PhD, I’ve faced my own dilemmas around my achievements. I’ve at times attempted to fit in by downplaying my publications, by not bringing up my degrees, by not talking about my fellowship awards. What have I learned? To deny myself of my own accomplishments is like making a fine wine but not even daring to take a sip. White accomplishment deniers be damned.


Transfer Anniversary

March 21, 2013

Viewing Pitt's Cathedral of Learning from Carnegie Mellon's mall (with Hamerschlag Hall in foreground), March 29, 2003. (http://post-gazette.com)

Viewing Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning from Carnegie Mellon’s mall (with Hamerschlag Hall in foreground), March 29, 2003. (http://post-gazette.com)

March ’93 was an interesting month for me, to say the least. Just about the biggest thing happening for me that month was my transfer from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon (or CMU) to finish my doctorate. After nearly two years of grad school in the History Department, I knew I needed to leave. Especially with Larry Glasco as my well-meaning but sometimes absentee advisor and with a bunch of professors who never hid their disdain for me as a masters and then a doctoral student. I’d also been at Pitt for six years between undergrad and grad school, most of those focused on history, Black Studies, or education foundations and policy as areas of research.

I knew that Carnegie Mellon wasn’t an ideal situation. I was sure that had I desired, I could’ve applied to and been accepted by doctoral programs as far and wide as NYU, University of Maryland, University of Michigan and other places. All were places where history didn’t simply consist of working-class historians who believed in the supremacy of class and neo-Marxism above all else – race and racism be damned! What I didn’t know, though, was whether those departments would accept my doctoral credits, cutting my coursework time in half. What I couldn’t be sure about was whether I’d be able to move toward PhD comprehensives and my dissertation proposal within a year of enrollment.

See, these were the things that Joe Trotter, my eventual advisor and John Modell, the graduate coordinator for the department, had promised me as part of my deal for transferring across the bridge to CMU. Those promises, along with the idea of working with an enthusiastic professor whose research didn’t seem out-of-date in a department that seemed to fast-track its students toward doctoral completion. That really appealed to me at the time.

Pitt and Carnegie Mellon (with Forbes Quad & Baker Hall included) as seen from Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2013. (http://milliverstravels.com).

Pitt and Carnegie Mellon (with Forbes Quad & Baker Hall included) as seen from Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2013. (http://milliverstravels.com).

When I finally broke it to Larry at the beginning of March that I’d made this decision, he didn’t exactly try to convince me to stay. I think he knew why. An audit of the program in ’98 confirmed officially what I had learned anecdotally over my six years at Pitt. That there were students in the program who’d been ABD (All But Dissertation) since Nixon and Watergate. That fully half of my cohort from ’91 hadn’t even completed their master’s degrees, and only three of us (counting myself) out of twenty-one would ever go on to complete our doctorates. That no Pitt History grad student had obtained substantial research funding from outside the university since my Mom potty-trained me back in ’72-’73. And that politically, the powers that used to be in the department didn’t take my or Larry’s work with me seriously. Even if Larry didn’t see that, I sure did.

Off then, I went. Into the unknown known of CMU, conservative, elite and elitist, not sure if I’d ever be comfortable on the lily-White and honorary-White-as-Asian campus. Still, I reminded myself that Pitt was really only a couple of blocks away at the closest point between the two campuses, that I still had lots of friends and acquaintances there. I also knew, though, that my relationship with Trotter as my advisor would be crucial to my successful navigation of this drab and stuffy world. Too bad I wasn’t clairvoyant!


The Master’s – Too Young, Too Soon

April 14, 2012

The Masters 2011, 13th fairway and green, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, GA, April 6, 2011. (Ed-supergolfdude via Flickr.com). In public domain.

Twenty years ago today, I took my master’s oral exam and passed, and my committee recommended me into Pitt’s history doctoral program. It should’ve been a day of celebration, as I had knocked out a second degree two weeks shy of two semesters, in just seven and a half months. But, as with many euphoric events in my life, the other shoe dropped, one that led me down a road to a degree and betrayal from my eventual dissertation committee.

The two-hour comprehensive exam was easy enough. My advisor Larry Glasco (see my “Larry Glasco and the Suzy-Q Hypothesis” post from August ’11), along with Paula Baker (see my “Paula Baker and the 4.0 Aftermath” post from February ’12) and Van Beck Hall (department chair) made up my oral examination committee. Most of the questions weren’t about my research and coursework during the 1991-92 school year. They were about my potential dissertation topic and how I’d approach it from a coursework and research perspective. The first question was, in fact, “If we recommend you into the PhD program here, what would your research topic be?”

Needless to say, those questions put me at ease for finishing my master’s and moving forward into the world of the doctoral student. I waited anxiously for ten minutes before my committee came out of the conference room within the department to congratulate me on my performance. I managed to hide my smile as Paula and Hall shook my hand, knowing how easy it would be for professors to misinterpret relief and happiness for cocky arrogance.

NY Knicks' Jeremy Lin double-teamed by Dallas Mavericks, MSG, New York, February 19, 2012. (Trendsetter via Streetball.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of limited reproduction/distribution value.

It didn’t take long for Larry to burst my bubble, though. “You passed, but we’re going to have to slow you down,” he said. I was, according to at least one member of the committee, “moving way too fast,” at least that was what Larry followed up with. I was stunned. It was as if I’d done something wrong, as if I’d broken some golden rule around what age I should’ve been and how long I should’ve taken to do my master’s work.

I went home that Tuesday evening and tried not to think about what Larry had said. But that was all I could think about. How was it that I was to blame for knocking out a thirty-credit master’s program — including language proficiency requirement, master’s research and reading papers, and five graduate seminars — in two semesters? Or that I was only twenty-two when I did all of this? It didn’t seem fair that a history program as difficult as Pitt’s had professors who intended to make the path toward a PhD even more difficult for me.

I think that despite my DC trip and Georgetown University visit that March, that the night after my master’s oral exam was the first time I knew that it was time to leave Pitt for greener doctoral pastures. I liked Larry, and I generally trusted him. But given my history with the department (see my post “The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel” from May ’11), it seemed suicidal to try to complete a PhD there. I already knew that there were grad students there who had reached the dissertation stage in the early-70s — before I was in kindergarten — and had yet to finish. I also knew that Larry had about as much influence on departmental politics as I did.

Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I was too young. Maybe Larry was attempting to look out for my best interests. What I did know, though, flew in the face of all three of those assumptions. It really was time to move on.


Ego Inflation

May 18, 2011

My PhD Graduation, Thackeray Club, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. Angelia N. Levy

May 18th. Another year, fourteen years now, in fact. I’ve been Dr. Collins to my students and the world of academia officially for that long. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about the values and limits of having a doctorate in history over the course of the past decade and a half. One of them is how easily egos are inflated by it. And everything else gets inflated in the process of having an ego that could challenge the Himalayas for supremacy.

One of the more stunning and thoughtful moments I had during the graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon on that hot and sticky Sunday in ’97 — besides the dreadful realization that my own mother was jealous of me — was shaking Peter Stearns‘ hand on stage. The Napoleonic red-and-white-haired Stearns — currently the university provost at George Mason — was the Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences at

Provost Peter N. Stearns, George Mason University, 2008. Source: http://provost.gmu.edu.

Carnegie Mellon at the time. Having to touch his rough yet clammy right hand as they read off the names of the doctorates that afternoon brought back quite a few not-so-pleasant memories of why I found Carnegie Mellon a terrible elitist (as opposed to elite) school to attend for four years.

I’d most recently co-presented with Stearns on how to successfully finish a doctorate that March, which wasn’t so unpleasant. Except for the fact that most of his presentation was off-the-cuff ego-stroking. Except that the lessons learned from writing a dissertation in six weeks in ’64 were mostly irrelevant to the students in front of us that day. Except that I already knew that Stearns was equally polite and dismissive of my presentation by proxy.

Too bad hand sanitizers — or as my son Noah calls them, hanitizers — were in their infancy in ’97. For as I shook Stearns’ hand, the memory that crept to the fore was my other experience working with the man, when I was a teaching assistant for two sections of his world-famous World Stereotypes, oops, World History course in the fall of ’94. He spent lecture after lecture entertaining mostly White college freshman with dirty jokes about beer and sex in covering World History Plato-to-NATO style. I spent most of my teaching time attempting to refocus my group of students away from stereotyping South Asian women as “demur” and Arab men as horn dogs.

Then the end of that semester came, and I turned in all of my grades. I had a few students with D’s and F’s because they had failed their exams, or hadn’t shown up for class really, or both. One of those students was a White male freshman who’d only been to class twice, had failed one exam and barely passed his final. I received an email from Stearns two days before the end of the semester ordering me to change the student’s grade from an F to a C. The reason: “[h]e’s a good kid…he showed up for a couple of my sections…” [emphasis added]. I send an email back that basically read, “So?” Stearns repeated his order to change the grade, in person, which meant that I needed to change the grades of five other students so that their grades weren’t worse than the student that Stearns had coddled.

It was the one and only time I found myself inflating grades. That exchange confirmed so much that I heard and suspected about the father of college-level World History. Stearns was mercurial, egotistical and played favorites, who somehow were usually White and often male. I knew of at least one former grad student who’d all but been blackballed from finding academic jobs because of him. I also knew that he arbitrarily provided vastly different pay levels to grad students and instructors when he was the history department chair.

Denholm Elliott in A Room With A View, 1985. Source: http://content8.flixster.com/photo/13/52/75/13527526_gal.jpg

When my future wife first saw Stearns in ’96 at some history department conference in which my then advisor Joe Trotter forced me to do a presentation, she said that the five-foot-four man looked like the late British actor Denholm Elliott, especially from the movie A Room With A View (1985). That’s really in insult to Elliott. A better comparison would be between the actor who played the emperor in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Or, more specifically, like the late actor Jack Nance’s character Nefud from Dune (1984). Very mean of me, I suppose, not to mention, a digression.

As I began to walk off the stage after shaking Stearns’ hand, I felt agitated, and thought of all that I’d gone through with him and with Carnegie Mellon in general. Ultimately, like the characters I mentioned above, Stearns was and remains an imperialist, building an academic empire in his image and crushing all opposition (real and imagined) along the way. His legacy will be the multiplication of inflated student egos who believe they understand the world but instead really only understand how to see the world in their own egocentric ways.

Jack Nance as Nefud in Dune, 1984. Source: http://www.aveleyman.com/FilmCredit.aspx?FilmID=5459


No Rhodes Lead to College Park

February 4, 2011

The Road to the University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Note the Maryland flag colored shell on the Terrapin (turtle).

Three years ago I did an interview at the University of Maryland for a director position with their National Scholarships Office. It was a day-long interview that went from 9 am until 6:30 pm, meeting faculty and administrators throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour process.

It was one of my best interviews. I didn’t feel like I made any obvious errors, and I genuinely liked all of the people I met that day. But there was one question, one topic, that felt out-of-place, awkward, even stupid as part of the discussion of this position. It was the question, “If you get this job, can you guarantee that the University of Maryland will have a Rhodes Scholarship winner in five years?”

I was almost speechless after hearing the question. Not because I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to detect academic excellence or strong leadership skills in students. Not because I didn’t think I could handle the job. Mostly, I just thought that it would be ridiculous for any responsible professional to guarantee a prize like a Rhodes Scholarship based on variables beyond their control. “I can guarantee that I can get more students into the pipeline for a Rhodes, but I think it would be foolhardy for me to guarantee that I could get a Rhodes Scholarship in two or five years.”

Former U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, a Rhodes Scholar, NBA player, and alumnus of the University of Maryland, 2008. BGervais. Creator has granted permision for free use via Creative Commons.The conversation continued over the next fifteen minutes between me, another director and two deans. I discussed other important scholarships and fellowships. Fulbright. Truman, Mellon Mays, Ford Foundation, and so on. But the conversation returned three times to the mandate of then President Mote and his emphasis on raising Maryland’s prestige by having a student win a Rhodes Scholarship. After all, the university had not had a Rhodes Scholarship winner since basketball star Tom McMillen won the award in ’74. One administrator actually said, “We see no reason why we couldn’t do as well as the University of Michigan.”

I thought, “Wow! He said that with a straight face!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was as if I was listening to my ex-stepfather talk about how great a father he was while his kids were running around 616 with graying drawers and grumbling stomachs. Given the state of the scholarships office at the University of Maryland, they weren’t ready to compete with the University of Pittsburgh yet, much less the most prestigious land-grant public university in the country, and arguably the world. I graduated with and found myself in the same classes with one Rhodes Scholar when I was an undergrad at Pitt, and knew a finalist for the scholarship when I was a grad student there as well. And Pitt had nowhere near the academic reputation in ’91 or ’94 that it had earned by 2008.

I nudged the administrators who were interviewing me to think more systematically about how the scholarships office at the University of Maryland should go about setting goals. That a university must build its reputation for high-achieving students over time, so that its Rhodes Scholarship candidates will survive to at least be finalists in the process. That our competition was more the University of Virginia or University of Delaware or even Johns Hopkins before setting goals on par with the University of Michigan.

I obviously didn’t get the job. Given that conversation, though, I wasn’t sure if I wanted the job. The university found someone who had previous experience working in a university scholarships office. As with most staff positions at universities, experience working as a staff member (considered different from faculty, in case folks don’t know the difference) is more important than nonprofit management or academic teaching experience. I was definitely disappointed.

Still,  I wanted the challenge of creating a more academically enriching environment at the University of Maryland. And after three years of teaching in the University System of Maryland (via University of Maryland University College), I’ve taught enough College Park students to know that much work remains to create the kind of university necessary to produce Rhodes Scholars. Who knows? Maybe Maryland will have its first Rhodes Scholar recipient in thirty-seven years this spring. However, given the split personality of both the campus and the academic culture there, I seriously doubt it.


Kate Lynch, Annie Lennox & A CMU Education

January 15, 2011

 

Annie Lennox, Stock Photo, January 15, 2011. Source: http://www.mediabistro.com

Probably the professor that most approximated a teacher in my courses at Carnegie Mellon University (called “CMU” by folks there, in the ‘Burgh) was Katherine Lynch (she usually went by Kate). I took her for two classes in my transfer year to Carnegie Mellon in ’93-’94.

 

I had Lynch for Historical Methods my first semester because, you know, a student with a master’s degree and a year of doctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh in history would have no idea about historical methodology by his third year of coursework. But the department insisted that I needed to take courses like that in order to earn their stamp of approval — that I was properly prepared for my comprehensive exams and the dissertation stage once this year of hoop-jumping ended (but that’s a blog post for another time). I also took a course with Lynch in Comparative Urban History (read “Western Europe and the US” here).

What I remember most about Professor Lynch was how much of a contradiction she was, and not necessarily in a bad way. She kept her hair short and platinum blond, wore clothes that were professional but fit that near-rocker style. Compared to the tweed jacket, sweater vest and Shaft-suit-wearing crowd of super-stuffy professors in the history department, Kate Lynch reminded me of, well, Annie Lennox in

Annie Lennox, Gaza Protest, January 3, 2009. Source: http://www.topnews.in

Eurythmics and solo (or Sharon Stone, at least in haircut). Even though I was twenty-four years old by my second time in one of her seminars, my mind in class wandered like I was in high school again. I thought of songs like “Would I Lie To You,” “Walking On Broken Glass,” “No More I Love You’s,” and my favorite when it came to Lynch, “Here Comes The Rain Again.”

 

The contradiction was in Lynch’s teaching style. Cold, dispassionate, and befuddling, a complete opposite of how she presented herself based on her outward appearances. I’m sure the decidedly male history department played a significant role in how she expressed herself in the classroom. I found her off-putting, to say the least. She was moody, happy and energized one class, irritated and impatient another. She’d lecture on a concept in a graduate seminar for an hour, then somehow expect us to have a vigorous discussion for the next two.

All because Lynch’s style was all about us deciphering her cryptic questions, rather than about us debating fine historical points or big historical themes. In many classes, it came down to one of us — and I was fairly good at this — finding a paragraph on page 88 of a 400-page book that addressed one of her cipher questions. My late eleventh-grade AP US History teacher and mentor Harold Meltzer and his weird and meandering stories were easier to figure out. I’ve always said that Humanities prepared me more for grad school than it did for college. In Lynch’s case, I was absolutely right.

Even with all of that, Lynch was undoubtedly the closest thing to a teacher I had in my nine courses at Carnegie Mellon. Joe Trotter was a better professor, but Lynch acted the most like a teacher, reminding me very much of many of my teachers during my Humanities years from seventh grade through high school. On that scale, at least, she was pretty good.

Yet I sensed that Lynch was holding back, not engaging us in ways that would’ve made us better students, better historians, better intellectuals. And I confirmed that sense when I finished my coursework in May ’94. She was a much warmer person and intellectual outside of the classroom, much more interested in discussing ideas — hers and mine — than she showed at any point in the two classes I had with her. In the classroom, most of my classmates felt like they were “walking on broken glass” around her. But for me outside of the classroom, Lynch was easily the most engaging and caring of the professors I took while in the “madhouse asylum” that was Carnegie Mellon’s history department.

If there was anything I learned from Lynch, it was the need to engage students, to be vulnerable (not weak, mind you) to them in order to reach even the ones that might well be unreachable. Because the opposite approach doesn’t work very well, that is, if one wants to teach and not just facilitate a “shape of the river” discussion.


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