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 Those promises, along with the idea of working with an enthusiastic professor whose research didn’t seem out-of-date in a department that seemed to fast-track its students toward doctoral completion.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.
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!