The Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 3: Spencer Fellowship

July 1, 2013

I’ve written before about the epiphanies that came with my status as a Spencer Foundation Dissertation  Fellow during the 1995-96 year, particularly during our retreat in the Bay Area in February ’96. What that time as a fellow and at this retreat revealed was that I had pushed much of what I thought of as ambivalence toward academia into my mind’s subconscious. But that splinter in the back of my head driving me crazy was about much more than academia and my pursuit of a doctorate and a job as a history/education professor. No, it was as much about my purpose in life, my writing gift and the need to pursue this calling despite my being within a year of becoming “Dr. Collins.”

You see, there was a civil war of sorts going on in my soul and spirit over the very nature of who I was and wanted to be. I’d spent more than four years in resistance to the idea that every sentence I wrote in academia needed to be a compound sentence. I fought over the idea of making my writing more accessible to readers who weren’t history majors, graduate students or actual history professors. I wanted to write so that what I wrote wouldn’t be forgotten in five minutes because my writing required a cryptographer’s chart to decipher its meaning.

Whether Dan Resnick or Joe Trotter, Paula Baker and a few other professors, their overarching criticism of my writing was that it didn’t sound scholarly enough. It didn’t have the heft of words like “posits,” “tropes,” “archetypes,” “eschatology,” and a thousand other words that required a minimum of a master’s degree to fully understand their meaning. I tried in my dissertation to address those concerns. But after the first few chapters, I decided to write first, and then rewrite second, third and fourth to mold my language into scholar-speak.

Luckily I had the Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship by then. It saved me at least a year — and possibly as many as three — in terms of completing my doctoral thesis and degree. I didn’t have to teach for a full year, do research or work for Joe Trotter or anyone else for a year.

And it gave me time to think about the kind of career and future I wanted. Maybe too much time. For the first time, I realized the question that had been on my mind for years was about my competing interests in academia and in writing. Was I a writer first? Was I an academic historian? Would it be possible to do both? And if it were, how would I do both?

The Spencer Fellows retreat in Berkeley/Oakland in February helped broaden my horizons. Some of my fellow Spencer Fellows were struggling with the issue of their career moves as well. I had only considered teaching in schools of education in passing prior to that retreat. I knew that with my interests in diversity in education, in educational equity, in the process of getting into and through college, a traditional history program would be an uncomfortable fit for my interests and talents. The retreat revealed that much to me, at least.

It revealed far more than that, though. I realized that out of the thirty-three Fellows, I was the only one who actually understood on a personal level how difficult issues of race, poverty and the politics of education made it for someone like me to go to college, graduate, get into a grad program, and eventually finish a doctorate. Oh, my fellow Fellows knew all too well the harassment and hazing and jealousies of their professors and dissertation advisors. Still, issues like welfare poverty and magnet school programs like the one I attended in Humanities were abstractions for them. Most of them hadn’t experienced what they were actually studying. The ones who had become my favorite Spencer Fellows to be around, for those were the greatest of conversations.

So the seed of thinking about my work in more personal terms was planted on a conscious level by the time my Spencer Fellowship ended in June ’96. I might not have figured out seventeen years that I was a writer first, an academic historian and educator second, but clearly both in the end. I was too invested in earning the degree and getting away from Joe Trotter as fast as I could back then.

Yet I did think incorporating my experiences around the importance of education, of race, of poverty, of family dynamics in my writing would make what I wrote about much more meaningful. It wouldn’t diminish the scholarship, and would provide a creative outlet beyond the mundane world of academic writing.


Golden State Spencer Fellows

February 12, 2011

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. Donald Earl Collins (psst - I'm the young and cute Black guy in the white turtleneck in the back row)

Fifteen years ago this week I went on my first trip to the West Coast. It was for a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows retreat in some villa of a conference center just off UC Berkeley’s campus. It was our second meeting as a cohort, presenting some of our doctoral thesis work in front of a group of professors from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and other places. It was also a chance for the thirty-three of us to meet the selection committee that had made it possible for us to be Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows in the first place. We spent so much time in Berkeley and in Oakland that most of us didn’t bother to take the BART into San Francisco, so the trip was a failure in that area — not really.

But it was very important in one aspect above all else. I learned during our three days of meetings how I wasn’t alone in the world of academia. That I wasn’t the only misfit was the first revelation. There were other Fellows whose departments and classmates had shunned them and their work because it touched on the “soft” field of education. Or because it wasn’t hardcore quantitative analysis. Or because they weren’t thirty years old yet. Or even because of the age-old academic issues of looking at educational issues through the trifocal lens of race, gender and class.

Some of us talked about our dissertation advisors and their lack of support for us and our work. We were individuals who had won a prestigious individual award and a $15,000 grant to research and write a doctoral thesis, but somehow had managed to do this without the support of tenured faculty at major, even elite, universities! I found that fascinating. I also would’ve found that unbelievable if my advisor hadn’t been Joe Trotter. We didn’t have any obvious solutions to the problem of asshole advisors who may well not have supported us on the job market. Nor did we have a solution to their midlife crises or male pattern baldness. Yet it was good to spend significant time talking about this.

I also discovered through this retreat that I wasn’t the only one of us ambivalent about having a career as a professor. It didn’t help that we had a freshly minted associate professor from U Chicago talking to us about her average work week. Not because a forty to forty-five hour work week seemed anywhere close to arduous. At least to me. The half of the Fellows who really did want academic careers moaned quite loudly at the prospect of teaching, research, writing and serving on committees for so many hours. I, among others, looked at the list and found it rather mundane and restricting.

Many of us were concerned about becoming institutionalized, kind of like the way Morgan Freeman’s character “Red” talked about it in Shawshank Redemption. My own fear was that I could make myself a successful academician, molding my imagination and writing more fully into the forms of academic prose. Meaning that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone outside of my subfield or field, and certainly not with the general reading public, who usually wouldn’t use words like fait accompli unless they were French speakers. There were a few other Fellows who didn’t want to write or do research at all. They wanted to teach, to change the world of K-16 education somehow.

Catherine Lacey, the director of the Dissertation Fellowship program at the time, concluded with a lofty and philosophical speech about our bright futures. It was a good speech. It made me begin to think about what to do with my life if I didn’t get a full-time gig as faculty at an elite university. For many of us, though, this would also be the last time we could be this honest about our hopes, fears, and warts when it came to our doctoral theses and post-doctoral careers. If only I had known about the Ford Foundation’s associate program officer program when it existed back in ’96.


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