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.
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.
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.