Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and My Own Prison

February 16, 2015

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. ( and

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. ( and

On February 17th seventeen years ago, we opened one of the first community-based computer labs in the US at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. What was once known as the Microsoft Library Fund (which later became the Gates Library Foundation, and then became part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) had provided the initial $110,000 to place this computer lab in one of the East Library branches resource rooms. I guess it could’ve been a proud moment for me. If I hadn’t earned my PhD the year before, only to face unemployment for three months during the summer of ’97 and underemployment in the five months since taking the Carnegie Library job. But this was a humiliating moment, not one of pride or, at least, taking comfort in a job done well. It was a learning moment at a time when I thought I already knew what I need to move forward with my career and life.

The dissertation process, my battles with Joe Trotter, the truth about my relationship with my Mom, had all taken a heavy toll on my heart and mind by the time Memorial Day ’97 rolled around. So much so that I lived between moments of humility (which is different from humiliation) and moments of rage in the sixteen months between May ’97 and the fall of ’98. I was living on fumes from my last Carnegie Mellon paycheck when I began working for Carnegie Library the day after Labor Day that year. I’d been conditioned, though, to think that everything happens for a reason. So I assumed that God was attempting to teach me a lesson, that I needed to give more out of the needs I had in my life in order for the things I thought I deserved to come my way.

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (

There was a bit of a flaw in my logic around God’s lessons. For one, the idea that I wasn’t finding work in academia because I hadn’t been a giver was ridiculous. Between volunteering for soup kitchens, tutoring high school students, tithing at church, and so many other things, it was dumb to think that not enough humility was the reason I didn’t get the job at Teachers College or had trouble finding adjunct work in the fall of ’97. Or rather, it was dumb not to think that bigger issues — like my dissertation committee abandoning me when I needed them the most — played a greater role in my not finding full-time work in my chosen profession than any inability to serve others.

The Carnegie Library job provided a part-time stop-gap for my income while I attempted to figure out how to move forward without my advisor and my committee and move on with the knowledge that my relationship with my Mom would never be the same. I figured that the job gave me the opportunity to help others and to do good, and that it was a good first foray into the nonprofit world, especially with money from the world of Microsoft.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I had a co-worker who was jealous of my degree and attempted to undermine the work of putting together the lab and the class materials for teaching patrons how to use the computers at every turn. I figured out that the bosses at the central branch in Oakland had essentially pocketed some of the funding for the lab to cover the costs of new computers for their own personal use, and had underfunded both my position and my co-worker’s position as part of the grant.

Album cover for Creed's My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

Album cover for Creed’s My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

But I didn’t learn all of this until June. By February ’98, I began to realize that, more than anything else, I needed to free myself from my own prison of an idea, that I’d done anything wrong or sinful to end up running a computer lab project at twenty-eight when I had done much of this same work at nineteen years old. I had to begin to find prominent people in my field(s) to support me in finding work, even if none of them were on my dissertation committee. I still needed to apply for academic jobs, even if my status meant than some would reject me because of my issues with my advisor. I even needed to explore the idea of jobs outside academia, in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, where my degrees and my ideas about education policy and equity might still matter.

It definitely helped when Duquesne hired me in April to teach graduate-level education foundations courses in History of American Education and Multicultural Education. It helped even more, though, when I decided in August to quit the Carnegie Library job. Between the Microsoft folks and the sycophants at Carnegie Library who were willing to do almost anything for a few extra dollars — anything other than serve their neighborhoods, that is — I’d had enough of duplicitous people. Who knew that my first job with sycophants and Gates money would come back to haunt me in the seventeen years since!

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.

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.

Where Audacity Meets Second-Guessing

May 25, 2013

Second-guessing to the extreme, May 25, 2013. (

Second-guessing to the extreme, May 25, 2013. (

I’m a great second-guesser of myself (and of others). But I’m especially hard on myself in that department. Even when I know that what I’m doing is the right thing, that I’m taking the right path and proper course of action. I remind myself of what to do, what to say, how to say what I need to say, and even then, I wonder often if my move was to bold, my words too direct, my tone too know-it-all-esque.

Still, there are plenty of times as an adult where I’ve decided to not give in to my second-guessing impulses, to remain bold and aggressive despite the potential problems with a plan. Graduate school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon was probably the longest time as an adult in which I did little second-guessing, at least when I was awake.

Something happened on my marathon march to the doctorate the week before Memorial Day ’93, one where, for once, someone did my second-guessing for me. And no, it wasn’t Joe Trotter or any of the other usual professorial suspects. This one came courtesy of Harold Scott, an acquaintance (and now friend) who was a visiting professor at Pitt’s GSPIA (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) at the time. I met with him twenty years ago to discuss my transition from the University of Pittsburgh to Carnegie Mellon’s history department, to glean insights from a recent PhD and a man ten years my senior.

I’d met Harold a few times before, mostly in the context of joint Pitt-CMU gatherings related to issues of racial diversity and retention of grad students of color. Aside from discovering that Harold was an anti-affirmative action baby, the only other thing I knew about him was that he was the first African American to earn a doctorate from CMU’s history department.

Dick Cheney as an example of Pollyanna Principle, March 16, 2003. (

Dick Cheney as an example of Pollyanna Principle, March 16, 2003. (

So we both asked questions. I learned how Harold suffered at the hands of a mutual leading professor between us and the department, mostly in the form of isolation and arbitrarily bad pay as an instructor once he became ABD. He learned that I had a lot of ambition as a twenty-three year-old doctoral student. My plan at the time was to complete my PhD by the end of ’95, a little more than two and a half years from the date of our ’93 meeting.

Harold laughed, almost hysterically, as I stepped him through all my steps between late-May ’93 and December ’95. He noted that I had at least one year of coursework to complete at CMU before they’d give me their “stamp of approval” to move on to my written and oral comps, much less the dissertation. (Except that I’d already taken my written comps). Most importantly, Harold didn’t understand how I expected to write a doctoral thesis of significant research and girth in little more than a year, assuming that I’d have have to teach at some point, assuming that I had to find literally hundreds of sources.

Then we discussed my dissertation topic specifically. I talked about multiculturalism and multicultural education, about Black Washington, DC and Negro Education Week, about Carter G. Woodson and Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois. I talked about the counter-literature that laid out multiculturalism as either Polyanna or as a mask for Afrocentricity without the Black nationalism that White scholars had ascribed to it.

Somehow in my discussion of the literature, between Arthur Schlesinger and Diane Ravitch, Thomas Sowell and James Banks, and Gary Nash and Cornel West, Harold had but one question. “Are you a ‘racial determinist’?,” he asked. I didn’t know exactly what that term meant, but I already knew what a cultural determinist was. I answered, “Yes and no.” I went on to describe the many situations in which I believed race played a role, if not a dominant role, in American history or culture. That’s not the definition, by the way, as it’s a variant of biological determinism, and very Nazi-like.

That’s when we really began to go back and forth. But I don’t think much of that argument was about racial determinism or where I stood on it at all. I think Harold thought that I was both arrogant and naive. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve left that impression, or the last. But yes, at twenty-three, I’d set my sights on a degree, a dissertation and book topic, and a career that I wanted, and had made the decision to not let my over-thinking second-guessing get the better of me. That Harold and others weren’t privy to my process likely made my bold plans and predictions seem ridiculous.

Brett Farve and yet another interception, 2009 NFC Championship Game, January 24, 2010. (Ronald Martinez/

Brett Farve and yet another interception, 2009 NFC Championship Game, January 24, 2010. (Ronald Martinez/

Yet there was more going on here, much of which wouldn’t become apparent to me until the end of ’95, when I was six chapters into my eight-chapter dissertation. Harold was my warning that the grad school process alone could beat the living hell out of me, that the professors at CMU — White or Black — had an old-fashioned attitude about how long it ought to take someone like me to finish. Harold went through a gauntlet to finish his doctorate in ’90, only to struggle to find work.

In being the second African American to go through the same gauntlet, I eventually realized that my speed and strength of purpose didn’t really matter in the lily-White thinking of the powers that were at CMU. And by the time I started second-guessing my decisions, I practically already had my degree.

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.

“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.


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