The Long Road Home

May 19, 2015

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

It’s been eighteen years and nearly a day since I had to shake then Carnegie Mellon Dean Peter Stearns’ hand on stage as part of the PhD portion of the 100th commencement ceremony for graduates, that third sweltering Sunday in May ’97. I’ve talked about the ceremony, my Mom’s jealousy and issues about my degree, Peter Stearns, Joe Trotter, Bruce Anthony Jones, and what happened before and after the degree ceremonies on that fateful day.

But time and enlightenment — especially the latter — has allowed me to take a step back from the events leading to a new wave of disillusionment in my life. If I really think about it, my struggles with where I wanted to go with my career go as far back as ’81, in the months after my first accolades as a writer, to the time when at eleven, I already had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, basic science, and technology. Heck, I already knew some of the historiography around World War II, the Cold War, American slavery and civil rights, long before I ever knew the definition for historiography. Not to mention, I was already living what we now call migration studies, thanks to my Mom and dad.

But my Boy @ The Window years did their damage to me. By the time I turned twenty at the end of the ’80s, I wasn’t fully clear of the array of choices I had for a career or set of careers. I knew I could write, and often write well. Yet I had stopped seeing myself as a writer by the time I went through my summer of abuse in ’82. I knew that I was a historian, because I asked the kinds of questions about history that only trained historians would. Yet I hated the idea that I was supposed to write only one way, using words like synergistic and interstitial (at an esoteric minimum) along the way. I toyed with the idea of going to law school in ’90, even going so far as to take the LSAT, scoring a then-50th percentile 31 on the exam in my one-and-only try.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road--Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road–Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I struggled for years with my fundamental question: “Am I an academic historian who’s also a writer? Am I a writer who’s also a historian? Can I be both?” I realized about a decade ago the question was moot. I am both. The real question really has been, will the working world allow me to operate as both without giving me grief and a hard way to go? (By the way, if I ever were to do a second, post-Boy @ The Window memoir, this would be one of that book’s big themes.)

I can safely say as a mildly successful freelance writer that the answer for many in this world of singularities is no. The working world puts up a fight, has and will continue to try to force me and others with multiple talents to choose one path, to do one thing, and one thing only, ideally for all time.

Academicians only think about each other via teaching duties or well-placed articles and books in scholarly journals and scholarly publishing houses. Higher education administrators believe that the only way to understand their work is through the lens of their specific university, as if universities and colleges aren’t similar from a management standpoint. Nonprofit organizations

A male mallard duck, a bird's triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A male mallard duck, a bird’s triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

discount teaching and higher education administrator positions because finding money or managing students isn’t exactly the same as managing staff. Foundations who use your salary history instead of your scope of programs developed, people reached, and money raised as a barometer for even granting you an interview. All would prefer that you be quiet about injustices, especially ones in which their institution, organization, or foundation might well be complicit.

For me in the past couple of decades, though, I’ve worked in and with academicians, higher education administrators, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations. I’ve helped raise $3 million over the years, managed as many as twenty-five staff members, organized four-day conferences with a couple hundred attendees, worked with as many as 500 students at any given time, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses. I’ve written scholarly articles, published in scholarly journals, presented at a couple dozen conferences, and consulted for nonprofit organizations and foundations. To think of myself as only one thing is beyond ridiculous given my by-necessity-and-neglect careers so far.

Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted the article “Thriving as a Freelance Academic” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. In it, Pryal interviewed three White women about their experiences freelancing in the academic world. The women interviewed found a singular niche, found steady work through that niche, and otherwise didn’t question the idea of freelancing in a world in which freelancing is a rare career choice.

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (http://joshbrahm.com/).

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (http://joshbrahm.com/).

All that is fine. Except there was little soul-searching in Pryal’s piece. The women interviewed might as well have decided to go on a global trek or rock climbing, given their lack of ambivalence about academia or deliberate lack of specifics and dryness about the work they actually do. I don’t doubt that one can freelance in academia. I doubt, though, that one can do it without personal relationships with a specific university or alma mater, or with a specific higher education administrator or prominent professor. Why pick on this piece? Because there are far more people like me in and out of academia, who’ve consulted and freelanced and worked and stitched together a career, then there are the people represented in Pryal’s boutique article.

There is a lesson here besides the reality that life is a journey, and to get it right, we need to understand that it can and will be a roller-coaster-ride of a journey. The lesson, for me at least, is that while being true to myself has sometimes had consequences in terms of immediate victories and easy financial gains, it does mean I get to have success, and sometimes, even lasting success.


Walking In New Orleans

April 12, 2012

My AERA 1994 annual meeting program for New Orleans, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Only in the past two decades have I done any travel worth mentioning (see “My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included” post from March ’12). When I have traveled, it’s mostly been for work or for career.

Some of my most significant career-related trips have been as a result of presentations at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meetings, which will be in Vancouver, British Columbia (I won’t be in attendance this year — too expensive, and other reasons beyond that). It is just about the largest gathering of academic professionals that I know of in the US/Canada, with 15,000-20,000 attendees and presenters.

Over the years, I’ve attendance five AERA conferences, and presented at three (in ’94, ’96 and ’07). The first one, though, was the most memorable, for a variety of reasons. For one, I actually spent my first two days of this nine-day trip in Houston, as I managed to arrange a layover before heading out to New Orleans to visit the Gill side of my lineage for the first time (see my “We Are Family” post from April ’09). That was strange, mostly in a good way, as I could see my mother reflected in the eyes and accents of my uncles and cousins.

Holiday Inn, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2012. (Google Maps), where folks stayed for AERA 1994.

But New Orleans was a unique experience beyond my two days with my extended family in Houston. The night I arrived, there were five homicides, including at least two in the French Quarter. About an hour after I check in at the rundown Holiday Inn in which I roomed with my professor Bruce Anthony Jones, another professor, and a doctoral student from Pitt’s School of Education, we went for a walk on Bourbon Street. It was a nice, warm and breezy night for the walk, at least until I saw two people doing ballistic vomiting on a corner about two blocks from our hotel.

The next day, that Monday afternoon, was our presentation on multicultural education. We went and met up with another Pitt education doctoral student at some restaurant a couple of blocks away for lunch, all dressed up and ramped up for our presentations. It was sunny and warm at midday, the perfect day to eat outdoors. When we ordered, I hadn’t really noticed the fact that all of the drinks on the menu were alcoholic ones. I asked Bruce about the Citron Lemonade, and he said, “That’s a good choice.” Despite years around my alcohol dad, I didn’t know that the Citron part was Absolut Vodka with a lemon twist.

Apparently, neither did my fellow grad students. I was on my second one when I felt a serious buzz, before I

1-liter bottle of Absolut Citron Vodka, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

slowed down to savor the taste of lemons, sugar and vodka on my tongue. The other two students seemed similarly relaxed. I said to Bruce, “[y]ou didn’t tell me that this drink had vodka in it!”  Bruce said to all of us in response, “but you’re all relaxed now, right?,” in reference to our presentation. His comment reminded me to look at my watch, which showed that our presentation was in fifteen minutes. We hurried to pay our bill, walked quickly to the Marriott, and did what turned out to be a solid presentation.

The business part of the week was over, but the rest of the week in New Orleans became a learning experience. I did an informational interview with two professors from Illinois State University, who told me to finish my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. Barbara (one of the two Pitt doctoral students) and me checked out the blues and jazz bars in the Quarter, and went to Armstrong Park for an Afrocentric event that Saturday. I took the trolley out of downtown to the Tulane district and then back to experience more of the city. And I bought pralines on behalf of Kate Lynch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who apparently loved the stuff.

But the most disturbing part of the trip occurred between that Friday morning and Sunday morning. The other Pitt grad student had been acting a bit strange during the week, spending less time at AERA, sleeping in late at our hotel, and not interested in hanging out with the rest of us. Then, he just disappeared. He packed up and left without a note and without paying his share of the hotel bill. We didn’t know until the following Tuesday that he had spent the weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi, allegedly hanging out on the beach.

I said to Bruce, “[m]aybe there was just too much testosterone in the room for him.” Bruce didn’t say anything, as he looked completely confused. I knew that at least one of the professors with which we roomed was gay, and that Bruce was in the closet as well. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that my grad student roommate bugged out because he needed a release from the tension he felt being around these professors. Me being heterosexual and spending the week at AERA and on the town, I didn’t notice that my grad student was gay until after he’d disappeared himself.

It was a sad way to end such a wonderfully strange trip. New Orleans was a great city with a diverse culture and history, and despite Katrina and the city’s Whitening, maybe it still is.  I just have no desire to return, as once was enough for me, good and bad.


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