First Day and Last Day of School This Week

September 3, 2014

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY,  November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’ve written about parts of this before, back in my first days of blogging about my life and times as a student. But this week is especially poignant. Yesterday (September 2) marked twenty years since I sat through and passed my PhD dissertation overview defense at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, making me ABD (All But Dissertation, an official PhD candidate). Tomorrow (September 4) will be forty years since my first day of school, attending kindergarten at the Nathan Hale Elementary School (now Cecil Parker ES) in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a school two buildings and an asphalt playground down from our second-floor flat, 425 South Sixth Avenue. In between was nineteen years and 363 days of time as a formal student, going from learning how to read “Dick and Jane went to the store” to writing a “book” about multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

I’m sure most of us don’t remember so much of what occurred in between day one and day 7,303 of student-hood. I remember plenty, though. I remember the morning being unusually cold and having to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat (according to a weather website, the high that day was only 69F, and it actually rained at some point during the day). Kindergarten was only a half-day endeavor back then, so I remember getting released to come home for lunch and spending the rest of the day playing with my Tonka toys and watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Contrast that with a warm first Friday in September ’94, at a time when I’d met some new first-year PhD students in the History program, Carl, Jeff, Susannah and a few others, who all seemed surprisingly interested in my dissertation work. I think it was just that I was one of their first points of contact, going through something they themselves hoped to do within a few years. Either way, I’d been preparing to defend my eighty-page dissertation overview for the previous six weeks, in between working on a migration studies research project for Joe Trotter and keeping an eye out for dissertation grants that I firmly believed were necessary for me to get out of grad school with my sanity intact.

As I walked up the sloped, dark, factory-mimicking hallway on the second floor of Baker Hall to what would be two hours of interrogation from Trotter, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones and Department Chair Steve Schlossman (among others in the conference room that morning) with my “entourage,” I had this two-decade juxtaposition in mind. I actually started thinking about the long path from kindergarten to PhD, and all the bumps, bruises and breaks along the way. About how on a September 2nd morning six years before, I’d been homeless and came within days of dropping out of college. About how none of this would have been possible without my older brother Darren, who taught me how to read on Christmas Day ’74. Or, for that matter, without my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shannon encouraging my Mom to buy the entire set of the ’78 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, which led to me reading through that set between December ’78 and April ’79.

Even J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985) was in my head as I laid out my papers and dissertation overview as references for my overview defense. I’d only read the book in the previous year. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book for nonfiction lived up to the award it earned Lukas, as he went to excruciating lengths to make the process of desegregation by busing, White fears, and Boston’s racism and racial divide come alive.

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (

In reading about what the White parents did to stop busing in September ’74, it forced up a memory of watching the evening news my first two days of school about Boston’s White community rioting over busing and desegregation. The picket signs, the bottles and rocks. I remembered asking my Mom about it then, but I don’t think she gave me a direct answer. Lukas, though, did, twenty years later.

Finally, I thought about my Humanities classmates as I sat down and had gone through all of the pleasantries with my dissertation committee and other professors and grad students in the room. I thought about how classmates like Josh and Danny ridiculed me as a savant, who told me that history essentially was only trivia, that I couldn’t do anything with it other than “go on Jeopardy.” In some ways, they were right. They just weren’t correct on September 2, ’94.

All of this gave me a place to start. So when Trotter asked me, “What in your life has prepared you for this moment?,” I knew from which parts of my life’s journey to pick. Only to realize that in starting at the beginning, I was nowhere near full circle.

“It Is Done” – 15 Years Later

November 21, 2011

Hands of God & Adam, fingers about to touch, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The next twenty-four hours will mark a decade and a half since my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter wrote today’s title quote in a God-like-pronouncement of an email to me regarding my final content-based revisions to my doctoral thesis. With those revisions following my committee meetings in October, I was now officially Dr. Collins. I knew that. I just didn’t feel it.

Working on a book-length research project with an abusive advisor and disinterested committee members at a school as conservative and isolating as Carnegie Mellon University left me exhausted. For I never felt I could ever be all of myself there. I made myself into the scholar I hoped that I wouldn’t become. At least, the twenty-one version of me that began graduate school back in ’91 held that hope. Five years later, I felt alienated from my own purpose and calling, and was more than unsure about becoming a full-time professor and historian. Especially given the wonderful examples of scholarly inhumanity and hypocrisy that Trotter, Dan Resnick and so many others had proven themselves to be (see “You’re Not Ready” post from November ’08 and “And Now, A Plagiarism Moment” post from September ’10).

I was burned out. I felt numb, with a boiling mantle of rage underneath the surface. If Trotter had said the

Arching fountain of a Pahoehoe (like my post-PhD rage) approximately 10 m high issuing from the western end of the 0740 vents, a series of spatter cones 170 m long, south of Pu‘u Kahaualea, September 10, 2007. (USGS via Wikipedia). In public domain.

wrong thing to me at the wrong time in ’96, I probably would’ve laid him out with a right hook to the jaw. And Resnick’s lucky that I didn’t own a car, because I might’ve run him down with it.

As it was, when Trotter attempted to meet with me a few weeks later to discuss “my future,” I refused. Especially given his suggestions for job applications. One, a one-year position at a University of Nebraska branch campus. The other, a CUNY school in Queens with a proposed position that wouldn’t begin until July ’98. I told him, “You don’t get to determine my future, certainly not without me.”

What should’ve been a period of rest and repair between Thanksgiving Week ’96 and graduation day in May ’97 was hardly that at all. It took me, really and truly, six months to recover from the dissertation process, and probably close to two years to not pass by or go on Carnegie Mellon’s campus without wanting to strangle my dissertation committee with piano wire. By then, I’d moved on to the rather mundane task of figuring out how to cobble together a career that wasn’t dependent on a full-time faculty position in academia.

And over the past fifteen years, I have pieced together several careers. As a part-time college professor, as a nonprofit program officer and as a consultant. It helped to have people like the late Barbara Lazarus and my dear friend Cath Lugg in my corner in those first years after I’d finished my doctorate. It helped that I expanded my career options from merely pursuing a history professorship wherever Joe Trotter’s winds could’ve taken me.

But it helped, most of all, for me to start trusting my instincts, my own heart, again. The irony of my complete disillusionment at the end of my degree-earning journey was that it left me with the time to contemplate whom I thought I really was, what I really wanted to do in life, and how I wanted to do it.

It was far from an immediate process of epiphanies and revelation. It took me nearly six years after finishing my dissertation to see myself as a writer, cutting through twenty years of denial and abuse in the process. It took me a little longer to see myself as a writer first and foremost, with all of my other professional hats second, third, and so forth. To understand that mine was a concern far greater than multiculturalism in education. My role as a writer and educator was also about aspirations, academic pathways to success, racial and ethnic equity in education, access to and success in college.

Barbara Sizemore, 1927-2004, circa mid-1990s. (

Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t looked back to wonder what could’ve been. If I were a White male with my credentials, I’d long ago been doing what I’ve been fighting to do as a writer and educator for years. If my advisors had been someone like a Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates. Or if I had attended an Ivy League school in undergrad. Or if I’d earned a master’s degree in journalism or communications, or a doctorate in a school of education or in psychology.

The late Barbara Sizemore once warned me about earning my doctorate in history some two decades ago. “You always have to do things the hard way, don’t you?,” she said to me with disapproval when she learned of my acceptance into Pitt’s history PhD program. I should’ve said, “Yes, I do.” Because the last fifteen years have been a hard road, as all roads to enlightenment are.

The Audacity of Youth, Grad School Style

August 6, 2011

Me as Naruto, the ultimate hollerer, Noah's 7th birthday, July 30, 2010. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

This weekend should be of significance to me. Actually it should be of more significance than anything else I’ve done professionally in the fifteen years since. For this was the weekend that I decided I was “Dr. Collins,” three and a half months before actually becoming Dr. Collins.

I was in the middle of a tumultuous time, caught between Joe Trotter and five years of graduate school, the last three of which had been at Carnegie Mellon. I had just finished revising my first draft of my dissertation, adding thirty pages to an already hefty 475-page manuscript. Me and Trotter hadn’t been getting along for four months, and after two months with my first draft, I’d received a response in mid-July that was disheartening.

Most of my dissertation, examining how multiculturalism was lived intellectually, educationally and culturally in Black Washington, DC, received no comment whatsoever. The chapters on the development of

Trotter comments, back of page 43 of first dissertation draft, July 15, 1996. Pic taken August 6, 2011. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

the Black community in DC, particularly in the period immediately before the 1930-1960 period, had received lots of snarky comments. Like “I told you to change this already,” or “This is the third time I commented on this section,” or “Make these suggested revisions on…already,” handwritten in pencil, big, bold and rushed, as if he wanted to stab me in the neck with the pencil. Comments on writing, evidence, to sharpen analysis of my multiculturalism argument, I expected. What I, naive little me, didn’t expect was a series of comments about data and information that, quite frankly, was irrelevant.

After talking with a couple of professors who weren’t on my dissertation committee — including one whom himself had been Trotter’s advisor back in the ’70s — I finally figured out what had been eating at the man ever since I began handing him chapters. It wasn’t as if Trotter’s comments were transparent in what he wanted me to revise. He wanted me to put together a proletarianization argument for DC. Bottom line was, he was pissed with me because I had written that the Great Migration period (1910-1930) of Blacks leaving the rural South for the industrial, urban North had little effect on DC, a truly Southern city at the time.

I was incensed when I finally figured out why Trotter had been giving me a hard time since last fall and especially since April. It made me think that maybe earning a doctorate in history — especially with him as the head of my committee, along with Dan Resnick and an increasingly distant Bruce Anthony Jones — wasn’t worth it. I thought that if I had to go through another year of this, that I’d drop out of the program.

But I’d only do that after giving the revisions one more shot. I addressed every — and I mean every — comment I had from Trotter by email or written out across a page, and then documented every change in a six-page memo of my revisions. I even went so far as to rhetorically fudge the Great Migration period data, just to see how Trotter would respond. On page 100 of my dissertation, I wrote, “For Washington, a slight acceleration in black migration occurred between 1915 and 1930.” That was an obfuscation, for Blacks migration didn’t “accelerate” until the 1930s, after a twenty-year period of limited migration that only added 20,000 to a Black population of more than a 100,000. Trotter actually praised this revision.

I made a deal with myself to quit after another year if this revision didn’t work out. After receiving a response that only required four minor revisions, Trotter made an attempt to remove the one professor I did have in my corner from my committee in Bruce Jones, using Jones’ recent acceptance of a position at the University of Missouri as an excuse. From that weekend in August ’96 until the week before Thanksgiving, everything about my doctorate became a battle with Trotter.

In a way, I guess I was lucky it did work out. But now, as I did then, I wonder if it was really worth it, to fight as hard as I did for that degree. Would I be a better writer, a better educator, if I had dropped out of the program, gone back to school, and become a high school history or social studies teacher? At least my employment status would’ve been much more stable between ’96 and ’99 if I had, and I’d have an additional career option now.

PhD Graduation - CMU Diploma, May 21, 1997. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

Even now, thinking about what happened a decade and a half ago makes me clench my teeth, not with anger, but more with a sense of dread and latent rage. What I and at least two other male students went through (as I’d learn later on) was patently unfair. Still, I realize that while I’ve long since forgiven Trotter for his misdeeds, I can’t help but think that professionally, he aged me in my last year in graduate school. The sense of security I felt about my professional future back then was gone, and I don’t think I’ve felt that certain, that youthful, since.

I do know this. That that youthful, if somewhat naive, twenty-six year-old still resides in me. But with the mind of a forty-one year-old man, I can use both wisdom and experience to say that I wouldn’t go through that again. I’d either would’ve gone to law school or a school of education, maybe even with a focus on ed foundations and ed policy. As it is, between Boy @ The Window and my recent articles, that’s really what I’m most intellectually passionate about these days anyway.

I may be Dr. Collins or  Professor Collins, maybe for the rest of my life. But really, I’d be happiest as Donald Earl Collins, the author, educator and troublemaker I believe with all my heart I am and I will always be.

Letter of Recommendation (or Wreck-o-mendation)

September 23, 2010

George Reid Andrews, University of Pittsburgh

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a string of not-so-wonderful professors I had at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon who were less than fine with me pursuing anything beyond a bachelor’s degrees, much less with me becoming Dr. Collins. I talked about how some of them went so far as to tell me that I wasn’t “graduate material,” as if I were made from parts found at a junk yard instead of in the shop of an Italian tailor.

I’m more than aware of the fact that I didn’t let those doubters stop me from becoming who I am today. Some were undoubtedly ones whose skepticism bordered on racist because of their assumptions about my intelligence and writing ability. Still, it should be noted that there are pitfalls to be avoided, if at all possible, when you’re applying for a job or applying to a college or graduate and professional school.

One, even if a professor or teacher has assigned an A for your performance in one of their courses, that doesn’t mean that think that you’re a great student. I learned that the hard way with George Reid Andrews, my professor for Latin American Revolutions my junior year at Pitt. Twenty years ago this week, I asked him for letters of recommendation for graduate school. Andrews agreed, but only to tell me seven months later what he really thought of my work. My research writing samples were “problematic,” my GRE scores were “barely adequate,” and I should’ve considered myself “lucky” just to get into the master’s program in the history department. That terse conversation told me that Andrews’ letter was lukewarm at best, or had found me seriously deficient at worst.

Two, and related to my interactions with Andrews, the process of providing a letter of recommendation or a reference ought to be transparent, so that the student or employee can be confident that they’re not being back-stabbed by the same people in which they’re placing significant trust. It was never a question I dared asked — to see my letter of recommendation — before I’d reached the final stages of grad school.

It would’ve helped with Andrews, and it would’ve helped with two of my three dissertation committee members, Joe Trotter and Dan Resnick. I found out through my Spencer Fellowship that Trotter had written me a lukewarm letter, while Resnick had rambled on and on about my “close relationship” with my “mentor Sy Drescher,” who had played “an instrumental role” in making me a scholar. Drescher, while one of my best professors at Pitt, played much less of a role in me pursuing grad school than so many other professors and students, including his former student Paul Riggs. It was a Leslie Stahl, “let’s give the poor Black boy a hand” kind of letter.

Later, when I asked to see my letters of recommendation from Resnick before sending them out for jobs, he went on for ten minutes about the “sanctity” of the recommendation process, about how privacy and “anonymity” were critical to provide protection for all parties involved. Needless to say, if someone blusters about privacy when politely asked about a letter of recommendation they’re writing for you, do not use that letter!

Bruce Anthony Jones, University of South Florida

Three, it’s important to get to know a person, to gain some sense of trust from them, before asking for a letter or a reference. You don’t have to become friends with them or meet their family — although that does help. They just have to know that their recommendation or reference will be put to good use by you and that what they say about you matters to both of you, in the most positive light possible. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing a letter or spending fifteen minutes on the phone talking about your qualities as a student or worker, right? This can go a bit too far, of course, as I wrote one of my own recommendations for Bruce Anthony Jones, another dissertation committee member, for him to merely put his signature to. Once he changed jobs for the University of Missouri-Columbia, his, um, my letter became worthless, if it had been worth anything at all to begin with.

I’ve written about two dozen letters of recommendation for high school, college and graduate students, for jobs, school applications and fellowship programs. Not to mention about an equal number of recommendations and references for professional colleagues and friends in academia and the nonprofit world. I’ve always written my own letters, insisted on them being seen by the people I’ve recommended and required that they explain their own rationale for their acceptance in the process. Most importantly, I’ve made sure to say “No” if I didn’t feel I could recommend them well or provide a great reference.

And Now, A Plagiarism Moment

September 13, 2010

Professor Emeritus Daniel P. Resnick. Source:

I was sitting in the office of the only professor in Carnegie Mellon’s History Department with expertise in the area of history of education one mid-September day in ’93. It was my first semester in the doctoral program there, after transferring from Pitt to finish my PhD. I had already begun to question my decision to do my remaining studies there. My advisor Joe Trotter was “upset” that I’d taken and passed my doctoral written exams the spring before, when I was still technically a Pitt grad student, and had “run interference” to forbid me from publishing any new articles during the ’93-’94 school years. That was after my piece with my friend Marc had come out in Black Issues in Higher Education.

Steve Schlossman, the chair of the history department, was also upset, because I had decided not to take the American history proseminar, a course for first semester grad students. Apparently, even though I had taken the same course at Pitt two years before — and Carnegie Mellon had accepted all of my credits from my master’s program and first year as a doctoral student at Pitt — I had to take this course. I was read the riot act and told that I needed Carnegie Mellon’s “stamp of approval” before becoming a doctoral candidate. I was incensed, because this wasn’t what I’d been promised by my esteemed advisor and the graduate advisor, John Modell.

All this happened before I met Daniel P. Resnick in his office on Tuesday on a cool, but not too cool, and sunny late-summer day. His office was neat, relatively speaking, but spare and spartan in some ways, with books stacked in orderly fashion, and papers in numerous labeled folders. What I noticed the most was the smell, an old person’s not-fully-washed smell, of bagels and lox with some onion cream cheese.

Professor Resnick had gone to the restroom and left the door open for me to sit at a table next to his desk. He had already laid out my writing samples, the ones I’d put in his mailbox the week before. They included the Black Issues in Higher Education piece. After our exchange of greetings, Resnick sat down and said, “Considering your background, your writing is remarkable!” in a way that showed real surprise.

Before I could respond with a defense or process the obvious bigotry in that statement, Resnick then said, “There’s no way you could’ve written all this.” I responded, “Well, I did, and have the grades and degrees to prove it,” preferring not to accuse the only professor in the department with a specialty in the history of education of racism. “What-what I meant was, your papers are well-written…compared to most young scholars,” Resnick stammered. I accepted that response at face value, but kept what he had said before it in mind as I worked with him over the next three years.

Resnick, as it turned out, had lived for a year with his wife, the great Lauren Resnick, on the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border in 1960-61 (one of them was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I think), so after finding out where I grew up, he had put two and two together and come up with sixteen. I found him patronizing, and about as knowledgeable in the recent developments of educational history as I would be of underground house music in Chelsea right now. Resnick himself had plagiarized, not in terms of his own work, but from the race relations rule book. He had plagiarized in stereotypes, far worse than anything of which he’d accused me.

Was it worth having this man on my dissertation committee? Yes, because I graduated. But, in the final analysis, it would’ve made more sense to transfer to NYU or Stanford School of Education than to spend three minutes, much less three years, working with a man whose belief in my work was minimal at best.


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