Killing Joe Trotter

June 10, 2014

Yeah, I did it. I killed the man who kinged himself mentor over me. I took some piano wire, tightened it around my hands while listening to him yammer on an on about “running interference” to protect “my interests.

As the pointy-headed, smoothly bald and mahogany man gazed at my thesis, myopically gazing into nowhere, I pounced. I quickly jumped out of my seat and took Trotter from behind. He clutched at the wire with his elderly left hand as I pulled and tugged, hoping to prolong the bloody agony for as long as I could. Trotter choked for air, then choked for real, as spit, bile, blood and tongue all became his substitute for oxygen. Then, with one bicep curl and pull, I garroted his throat, and watched as his already dead eyes turned lifeless. All as his burgundy blood poured down his white shirt and gray suit. It collected into a small pond, where his pants crotch and his mahogany office chair met. Trotter’s was a chair that was now fully endowed all right. Thanks to my righteous stand.


Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

First, a disclaimer. I am in no way advocating killing Joe Trotter, or any other professor, whether they’re a great advisor or a terrible one (except perhaps in the case of literal self-defense). This was how I imagined what I could do to Trotter in the spring and summer of ’96, as our battles over my dissertation and my future turned from typical to ugly. By mid-July ’96, after his handwritten all-caps comments telling me to disregard my evidence on Black migration to DC during the Great Migration period (1915-30) — or really, the lack of evidence — I was mentally drained. I went back to our first big arguments over my future, the “you’re not ready” meetings from November ’95 and April ’96, and thought about what I could’ve done if I’d stayed in his office five minutes longer. That’s when I imagined killing my advisor for the first time.

By the time Trotter and my dissertation committee had approved my magnum opus, the week before Thanksgiving in ’96, I’d played that scenario in my head at least a dozen times. That’s when I knew I was burned out from the whole process. I may have become Dr. Collins, but I might as well have been my younger and abused self, the one who had to wade through five years of suffering at 616 and in Mount Vernon just to get to college.

Four months ago, I actually dreamed about killing Joe Trotter, exactly as described above, in his office, on a warm spring day like I imagined eighteen years ago. Keep in mind, I don’t think about Trotter much these days, other than when I write a blog post or am in a discussion of worst dissertation advisors ever. So when I woke up from this old-imagination-turned-dream, I had a Boy @ The Window moment and revelation. Did my struggles with Trotter open up old wounds, unearth my deliberately buried past? Did I see my fight with Trotter over my dissertation in the same light as my guerrilla warfare with my abusive and manipulative ex-stepfather?

I obviously brought baggage into my doctoral process that I’d hidden from everyone, including myself, and hadn’t fully resolved. The fact that Trotter was at times tyrannical, deceitful and paternalistic didn’t help matters. In some ways, then, Trotter must’ve morphed into Maurice Washington during the dissertation process, with me only half-realizing it once I was freshly minted.

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

I actually went to Trotter’s office a few weeks after I graduated, to apologize for how our relationship devolved, and to grant him my forgiveness as well. Arrogant as my act was, I needed to make the gesture, to at least begin my healing process. I knew Trotter was beyond surprised, but he shook my hand anyway. I also knew, as I walked away from his Baker Hall office, that other than a letter of recommendation, Trotter no longer had anything to offer me. At least, anything that would help me resolve some deep, underlying issues.

It’s safe to say that of all the reasons that led to me writing Boy @ The Window, my problems with Trotter in ’95 and ’96 were near the top of the list. Still, I needed to kill the idea that Trotter was an indispensable part of my present and future, if I were to ever resolve the issues from my growing-up past.

When Work Really Is Too Much

January 27, 2014

From "How to Do More Work in Less Time" article, Forbes Magazine, February 28, 2012. (Deborah L. Jacobs/

From “How to Do More Work in Less Time” article, Forbes Magazine, February 28, 2012. (Deborah L. Jacobs/

I’ve been working for a paycheck in some capacity since September ’84, when me and my brother Darren began working with our father Jimme down in Upper West/East Side and Midtown Manhattan. Back then, we cleaned the floors of corporate offices, the carpets of condos and co-ops, and endured Jimme’s alcoholic ups and downs. There was one lesson, though, that stuck with me in the year or so that we worked for our father, one that extended the lesson we observed from our Mom before we fell into welfare in April ’83. That we wouldn’t get far without hard work or without having work, and that if we wanted to avoid the work of a low-paying, back-breaking job like buffing and waxing floors, we also needed to work smart, to use our brains and our muscles

Since then, the longest I’ve been without a job has been ten months, between August ’86 and June ’87. I worked all the way through undergrad at Pitt and was a grad assistant and teaching assistant throughout grad school (with the exception of my time as a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow in ’95-’96, and even then, I worked on two of Joe Trotter’s research projects). I’ve faced periods of unemployment and longer periods where I’ve cobbled together part-time and full-time work, as well as held stable full-time work in the nonprofit and higher education worlds.

Working long hours, January 23, 2014. (Mark Holder/

Working long hours, January 23, 2014. (Mark Holder/

In all that time, I’ve only held two jobs where I’d been overwhelmed with work. Not the actual act of performing the duties of these jobs, mind you. The number of hours in which I had to show up for work was what eventually made these jobs overwhelming. My first time experiencing full-time work outside of a summer job was in the middle of my Winter/Spring ’89 semester. I worked for Pitt’s Computer and Information Systems’ (CIS) computer labs back then. I had requested more hours, and had gone from twelve to twenty to thirty-six between the beginning of January and the second-half of February, covering for folks who had moved on to real full-time work after graduating.

This was a seven-week period in which I averaged 36 hours per week while taking sixteen credits — five classes — and all while facing sexual harassment from my co-worker Pam, harassment tacitly sanctioned by our boss and her friend Cindy. Despite it all and my $4.15/hour salary, I focused on the work, the need for extra cash, and my friends, and came out the other side, and hoped to avoid a situation like that again.

I stumbled my way into a worse situation in my first full-time work after earning my doctorate, with the now out-of-business Presidential Classroom. My official title was Director of Curriculum, but that was my main job for only nine months out of the year. Because Presidential Classroom had dedicated itself to edu-tainment with a full-time staff of only a dozen, this meant that all full-time staff were also part of what we called Program. Fifteen weeks during the winter, early spring and summer, one group of 300-400 high school juniors and seniors from across the country (and Puerto Rico and outside the US/commonwealth) after another would spend a week in DC learning about “how government and politics work on Capitol Hill.” Or, as our brochures would say, “Not your typical week in Washington.”

One version of Presidential Classroom logo, January 27, 2014. (

One version of Presidential Classroom logo, January 27, 2014. (

I worked on-site at the Georgetown University Conference Center (where Marriott had a hotel, primarily for families visiting their hospitalized loved ones at Georgetown University Hospital) for seven of those weeks. I supervised interns, so-called faculty (some of whom were government employees who seemed more interested in chasing skirts than in sharing their experiences) and worked with other staff while watching over these groups of students roaming all over DC and Northern Virginia week after week.

One week in February ’00, I counted up, and found that I’d worked 120 hours in all. This included a 21-hour-day, in which I’d caught a boy in a girls’ hotel room, and then proceeded to contact his parents and expel him from the program. Between that and the bigoted staff I worked with — including my boss, the ED, who once told the joke that “slavery was a hoax” — I knew that putting in 100+ hours per week and sleeping in lumpy beds for $35,000 a year wasn’t worth it. By the last week of June ’00, I was severely sleep-deprived and ready to run my co-workers through with a long spear.

The lesson here was that we all need work, and we all need to work hard in order to guarantee success. But working hard also requires hard thinking and decision-making. It required me to say “No” to things that I had said “Yes” to when I was younger and more desperate for any job. What’s the damnable misery of it, though, is knowing that there are millions of people stuck in jobs that require so much more of them than they should be willing to give.

No job should require the kind of hours I put in combined with harassment and bigotry unless the salary is in the six-figure range, and even then, it’s not worth it. It won’t be worth the loss of self-esteem, the sleep deprivation, the sudden weight gain, the irritability and the temptation to turn to forms of self-medication. It wasn’t worth it for me in ’89 or in ’00, as I’m sure it isn’t for those of you in jobs like this now.

Almost Doesn’t Count

March 24, 2012

LA Lakers Shannon Brown's missed dunk in Game 1 of NBA Western Conference Finals vs. Phoenix Suns, May 17, 2010. (Getty Images).

The title for this post could also be “It Was Never Almost.” I had one of my best chances at publishing my dissertation on multiculturalism and mid-twentieth century Black Washington, DC (now the book Fear of a “Black” America) in March ’97. But not knowing the publishing world, combined with PTDD (post-traumatic dissertation disorder) from the past year of surviving Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee (see my “’It Is Done’” – 15 Years Later” post from November ’11 and “Letter of Recommendation (or “Wreck-o-Mendation)” post from September ’10) made this three-week period of negotiations a total communications mash-up.

I was in an “I’ll show them” mode in the months after my committee approved my dissertation “‘A Substance of Things Hoped For’: Multiculturalism, Desegregation, and Identity in African American Washington, DC, 1930-1960″ at the end of November ’96. Within a month, I made some minor revisions to the 505-page tome, and worked on some query letters for academic publishing houses about turning the dissertation into a book.

I contacted Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Princeton University Press and a few others. I also sent a query to New York University Press. Their acquisitions editor responded enthusiastically, and asked for a copy of the manuscript, which I dutifully sent their way in mid-February ’97.

And that’s when the communications about converting my doctoral thesis into a book went haywire. What was unknown to me was that Steven Schlossman, the chair of the history department at Carnegie Mellon, had been in contact with Niko Pfund, the then head of NYU Press (now president of Oxford University Press), about my dissertation. Three weeks after sending out my manuscript, I received a rejection letter from NYU Press, saying that while my manuscript was worthy of publication, that my “anachronistic use” of multiculturalism to describe the ideas and activities of Black intellectuals and educators in Washington, DC didn’t fly for them.

That same week, I received a telephone call from Schlossman asking me to meet about the dissertation. At his office, I not only learned that he had been in contact with Pfund and NYU Press. I also found out that he had sent them the first fifty pages or so of my dissertation without my permission. I told Schlossman about the fact that I’d already been in contact with NYU Press and that they had rejected the manuscript. But he insisted that his way of going through this process was the best way to go.

I was incensed at the idea that folks were working to publish my dissertation without my input. Especially someone like Schlossman, whom I knew didn’t understand why or how I had planned to use multiculturalism from a historical perspective for a book. I didn’t understand what I planned to do yet, but Schlossman could explain it? I left his office, upset and confused about the lack of communication between me and my department, and within NYU Press itself.

NYU Press-Niko Pfund Letter from March 1997, March 24, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

A few days later, I received a letter and then a telephone call from Niko Pfund. In the letter, he expressed interest in my manuscript, and wanted me to send in the whole thing. But his assistant had already done an extensive review of the partial manuscript they had received from Schlossman. It was one that was mixed, but it leaned slightly toward rejection because they didn’t get the term “multiculturalism” in the context of “Black history.”

I complained that I was getting mixed signals from Pfund and NYU Press. I’d been rejected, yet this was the second time I’d been invited to submit the same manuscript. The folks there didn’t understand why I used the term multiculturalism in my dissertation, yet never discussed the issue with me directly, just with Schlossman. Someone did a decidedly thorough yet biased review of a portion of my manuscript, yet never had the chapter in hand that was specifically about why multiculturalism has a history.

All I heard from Pfund were excuses, that Schlossman sought them out, that I was being offered an opportunity here for review, but certainly not for publication, because the NYU Press has “high standards.” I rejected him and his unapologetic bull crap on the spot. I decided that I couldn’t work with a place where the director didn’t even know that his acquisitions editor had rejected my manuscript, nor had the common sense to contact a potential author directly to clear up contradictory communications.

It turned out that Pfund and NYU Press weren’t my best opportunities for publishing my first book. But it would’ve been the best time to publish it, within months of completing the dissertation. It would’ve remained a timely topic, with President Bill Clinton’s Commission on Race commencing the following year.

It just wouldn’t have been the best time for me. I was pissed with the world, and burned out to boot. There really wasn’t anyone in my life who could’ve given me sage advice about the publishing process, and I certainly didn’t and couldn’t trust anyone in Carnegie Mellon’s history department to play that role. That much, I was certain about.


January 16, 2012

Cartoon of a patient consulting a doctor about a burn-out (Dutch -- "You are having a burnout."), April 17, 2008. (Welleman via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It’s a word I rarely admit to. One that I usually notice signs of, but try to work through anyway. But as I’ve learned over the years, I’ve needed to acknowledge and understand my burnouts before moving forward and avoiding the conditions that produced it in the first place.

My first experience with burnout was my sophomore year of high school in June ’85. It came after three solid months of applying my memorization skills (some would say near-photograph memory skills) full-time, without the time and space to study at 616 or the support of good teachers that year, especially in Chemistry with the not-so-great Mr. Lewis. That, and no food at home during finals/Regents exams week made me actually sick of school for the first time (see my “Hunger” post from June ’08).

I went through something similar in late November and December ’89, the end of the first half of my junior year at Pitt. I had put together what I called a “total semester” plan for the first time, to organize my life so that I’d have a life outside of my classes and to take a shot at a 4.0 that semester. Only, I was dumb enough to take third-semester calculus a year and a half after my last math course, and I was now a history major taking writing intensive courses.

That, and finding out that one of my closest female friends was attracted to another, much shorter guy — also a friend of mine — meant for a rocky last three weeks of ’89. And I’d unwittingly helped to set them up. I managed a 2.98 GPA that terrible semester, including a D+ in multiple integrals and differential equations. Terrible, at least by my own standards.

Burning Brain (cropped), January 16, 2012. (Selestron76 via Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws.

I was beginning to understand that my occasional burnout wasn’t just because of school or work, but because some area of my life had caused me significant emotional turmoil, which in turn affected my performance in other areas. The period between December ’96 and September ’98 was a long period of burnout for me. I have written here before about my battles with Joe Trotter and Carnegie Mellon as I completed my dissertation at the end of ’96 — too many times for some people’s tastes. What I haven’t discussed is the emotional toll that process took on me and how long it took for me to recover.

I spent most of ’97 and ’98 angry, raging ready to actually strangle most of the folks on Carnegie Mellon’s campus after finishing the degree. I couldn’t look at Trotter without wanting to wrap piano wire around his throat from behind and feeling him squirm as I cut the life out of him. Yeah, it was bad. As my now wife of twelve years can attest, I’d get into arguments with cashiers at CVS over a nickel and their complete disdain for their duties, ready to throw a punch.

But I also couldn’t write, at least write in the ways in which I wanted. I could execute the mechanical exercise of writing well enough, even put together papers for presentation and articles for publication. I even wrote an editorial on race with my then girlfriend that was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March ’98. Still, I was writing mostly because I didn’t believe in writer’s block or in burnout, this despite all the contrary evidence.

Add the fact that I’d learned that my own mother was actually jealous of me for going to school, among other things (see “My Post-Doctoral Life” post from May ’08). I was burned out, a sad person to be around for most of ’97 and a good portion of ’98. All while I was an underemployed adjunct professor at Duquesne and working part-time at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure how Angelia put up with me, because it was hard for me to put up with me.

So, how did I pull out of my burnout? Time after the doctorate, away from Carnegie Mellon (I didn’t set foot on the campus for nearly two years after I cleaned out my cubicle in July ’97), for starters. Having people in my life who needed me to be me at my best, like Angelia and my Duquesne students, for instance, helped.

But the need to find full-time work and the realization that staying in Pittsburgh to wait for Trotter to be run

Spool of piano wire, with 247 ft-lbs of torque (enough to kill), January 16, 2012. (http://

over by a PA-Transit bus for a potential job opening was also a great motivator. I realized that despite everything, I’d gained more than I lost in earning my doctorate, and that I may yet find my better self again by putting those roiling emotions in a box in my mind’s attic.

I’ve felt burnout since. In a family intervention from a decade ago, in moving on from New Voices, even in my current context as consultant and professor. At least I’m more aware when I’m feeling that way, and am able to cope with those emotions with reminders of what and whom I have in my life that remains true and good.

No Good Teaching Deed Goes Unpunished

May 13, 2011

It’s never really been much of a surprise to me how much we don’t appreciate good teachers. I should know. A few semesters ago, a student of mine filed a complaint against me because she couldn’t see my lecture notes well enough due to some issue with the LCD projector for my classroom. Mind you, she admitted that she didn’t have her glasses that day. When I didn’t allow her to interrupt me in the middle of class over the issue, she stormed out, yelled a couple of obscenities at me, and slammed the classroom door shut.

I know, it’s much worse on the K-12 level, between incorrigible students and insolent parents, school and district administration. Not to mention the pressures of NCLB, initiatives like Race to the Top (or bottom, really) and private foundations with their own agendas. Add to that article after article blaming teachers unions for being on the wrong side of corporatized education reform that emphasizes math and science and test scores over humanities and social science and critical thinking.

Former NYC DOE Chancellor Joel Klein’s now among them, in his lengthy (really, too long) piece on “The Failure of American Schools” in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, laid much of the blame on teachers and teachers unions. Not our nation’s economic woes, an overemphasis on math and science, or a system that was created not to teach academic excellence, but to weed out the so-called weak-minded. It’s no wonder that the average career of a teacher is five years!

A quarter-century ago on this date, my former teacher Harold Meltzer’s good deeds came to fruition through our AP US History class and our AP exam that year. We learned in September ’86 –  the beginning of our senior year — that three of us (including yours truly) all scored 5′s on the AP American History exam on this date. That meant that three of us had earned six college credits a year before enrolling in any university. There were at least four others who scored a 4, guaranteeing them three college credits. Another five scored a 3, considered a passing score by colleges and the College Board.

It was the best an MVHS AP class had ever done on any AP exam up to that point in the high school’s history, and should’ve been a crowning achievement for Meltzer and the school. Yet instead of praise or at least a “Congratulations,” Meltzer was treated as if he’d shown up MVHS by his boss, Social Studies Department Chair Larry Smith, a red-headed man who looked like a character from Dune. He snickered at me every time he saw me with Meltzer. Neither Superintendent William Prattella nor Richard Capozzola saw fit to honor Meltzer or our class for our achievements. It was ironic, because MVHS won a Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence award from the US Department of Education a few months later, off of the work of teachers like Meltzer, as well as Humanities students.

There were rumors that some of the White parents were unhappy with Meltzer’s methods of teaching, which typically involved us interpreting history rather than answering straightforward history trivia questions. More than rumors, actually, as I walked in on a meeting between Meltzer and a parent my senior year. That mother demanded an A for her daughter in Meltzer’s AP US History class. What wasn’t exactly a rumor, either was that Smith was looking for any excuse to take AP US History away from Meltzer. Especially since it was so shocking that both White and Black students did equally well on the exam that year. Of course, there were other, more deeply personal issues between the two men that likely involved jealousy and other not-so-secret secrets.

For our part, our cohort stopped talking to Meltzer altogether. Sure he was eccentric, even a bit strange and unorthodox as a teacher, but at least he cared. And by the way our scores turned out, he didn’t deserve the cold shoulders he received from most of my classmates our senior year. It bothered me when I’d see Meltzer saying “Hello” to one of us as we passed his Room 275, only for one of us to walk by as if Meltzer had phased out of our space-time continuum.

I was sure that some of it was related to Meltzer being a “confirmed bachelor.” But mostly, I thought that despite Meltzer’s lack of a normal teaching style, that my classmates were total assholes toward him. Meltzer spent the week before the AP exam after school with us going over every conceivable fact of American history for the more anal of us. It was above and beyond, and also unnecessary. Because Meltzer had taught us enough about egalitarianism, critical and independent thinking, and “coming to the point at once” in the first months of his class for all of us to do well.

Meltzer died from a number of ailments at the age of sixty-six in early January ’03. But one thing I was sure of that hastened his decline was the bitter and broken heart he had from the way he’d been treated in his last years as a teacher. I just hope that I brought a little bit of laughter to the man in his final months and weeks. Or at least, something to smile about.


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