My First Adult Job Interview, Teachers College

May 12, 2014

Teachers College today, West 120th (between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY, April 15, 2014. (http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/).

Teachers College today, West 120th (between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY, April 15, 2014. (http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/).

Seventeen years ago this week (check the calendar – the days and dates coincide with the week of May 12-18, ’97) was perhaps one of the most euphoric and bitterly disappointing weeks in my entire adult life. It was such a strange week that it forced me into second guessing myself and my path in life for many years afterward.

But it didn’t start out that way. On Monday, May 12th, I did my very first post-doctoral interview, for an assistant professor position at Teachers College (Columbia’s school of education) in Morningside Heights (West Harlem, really). I’d flown in from Pittsburgh the evening before, and stayed at the Hotel Beacon at Teachers College’s expense, because Monday was going to be a very long day. It was loud that Sunday night, as there was some event at the Beacon Theater. But somehow, I had just enough discipline and memories of New York’s smells and sounds to fall asleep comfortably.

My day started at 8:30 am, so of course, I was up before seven. I put on my one and only suit — at least, the only suit I owned that fit my six-three, 215-pound frame — went over my job talk on multiculturalism, and went on my pensive way to the 72nd Street Subway entrance on Broadway. It was a meat-packed ride to 125th Street, where I had to get off (I had forgotten to walk down to 66th Street to catch the local 1 instead of the express 2 train) and walk the six or so blocks to Teachers College.

Original control house (left) and newer control house, on opposite sides of 72nd Street  (IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line), New York, NY, April 13, 2010. (Gryffindor via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Original control house (left) and newer control house, on opposite sides of 72nd Street (IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line), New York, NY, April 13, 2010. (Gryffindor via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

After that, my day was an eight-hour blur, meeting with faculty, grad students and deans. Making sure not to eat too much while being grilled with questions over lunch. Giving my job talk and making sure to tell jokes, to bring up facts relevant to this history of education job, and, of course, to smile. Talking with grad students about how I finished my 505-page dissertation in twenty-seven months, about my teaching style and about growing up in Mount Vernon. It was as intense a process as I had expected it to be, but I felt at the end that I’d done everything possible to get the job.

I knew that I was one out of only five candidates invited to interview, out of over 500 applicants. I even had the chair of the History Department, Steve Schlossman, lobby on my behalf for the job, prior to my interview. And, despite my former advisor in Joe Trotter, I’d managed to put together a group of letters from folks that should’ve passed muster. All I could do after the interview was wait.

But life didn’t wait to intervene. After leaving the interview for the hotel, I changed into my more casual clothing, jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt, and went off to Tower Records and Barnes & Noble on 66th and Broadway, and later, Haagan Dazs (that last one was a big gastrointestinal mistake!).  

From the moment I walked in the door at Barnes & Noble until I left a half-hour later, a Latino security guard tailed me as I perused books in the African American nonfiction, Cultural Studies and Music sections of the store, across three floors. As I walked out, I walked up to the guard and said

“While you were stalking me, you probably let half a dozen White folks slip out of here with books and CDs. Did you learn anything while you were watching me?”

“I was just doing my job,” the dumb-ass security guard said in response.

“Well, if following a Black guy around for thirty minutes is part of your job, you deserve to lose your job,” I said to him as I walked out.

It was a bit of a harbinger of things to come. I was more pissed off about these everyday slights — or, rather, microaggressions — than I’d been before Trotter and my doctorate. And I was less patient about waiting for what I wanted than I’d been as a grad student.

What your second-place prize often looks like, May 12, 2014. (http://www.wmciu.org.uk/).

What your second-place prize often looks like, May 12, 2014. (http://www.wmciu.org.uk/).

Three weeks later, I received a reimbursement check for my travel and other expenses, and within twenty-four hours, a call from the search committee chair. I’d finished second for the job. Second! To whom, I still don’t know. The chair kept telling me, “you didn’t do anything wrong…you did a very good set of interviews,” as if those compliments would pay my rent next month. I was disappointed, hopeful, but disappointed. It was my first shot, my best shot, and I’d given my best effort. “What now?,” I thought.

It’s a question that I still must ask seventeen years, two books and two careers later. I’ve long since realized that the question of what my life would’ve been like if I’d gotten the Teachers College job was moot, because my issues were about more than finding work. I still would’ve been unhappy, with a New York-esque rage to go with it.

So I counted my blessings, and I count them still. Not getting this particular job bought me the time and energy I needed. I needed that time, to see myself as the writer I also wanted to be, not just the educator and thinker I already knew I was. A better, more personable, more revealing and feeling writer than the cold and metallic one that grad school and Trotter helped turn me into by the end of ’96.


Defining Loyalty

August 16, 2012

Gov. Mitt Romney and ‘blind trust,’ June 7, 2012. (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com).

One of any number of concepts I’ve had trouble wrapping my head and heart around over the years has been loyalty. At least, what others in my life have defined as loyalty. For the most part, loyalty for the vast majority of these folk has meant surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women, to have people around them who’d prefer the method of going along to get along. True loyalty, of course, is more about supporting a person and their ideals, ideas, calling and purpose, and not just agreeing with their every word and deed, no matter the contradictions, no matter who it hurts.

I’ve seen it in my own life, so many times, in high school, college, grad school, academia, the nonprofit world, and in church. Over and over again, people who believe that leadership means everyone should fall in line and follow someone else’s vision, without question or contribution. It’s the ultimate form of American entitlement, the one thing that all people in authority — secular or spiritual — have in common in our society and culture.

Republican operative Ron Christie, the ultimate yes-man, November 9, 2010. (http://c-spanvideo.org). In public domain.

One example of this was my former boss Ken, who complained about what he claimed was my lack of loyalty to the New Voices Fellowship Program when I made the decision to move on to another position at the end of ’03. He talked about loyalty as if I was a feral dog who needed to be broken and tamed in order to be useful. I said that loyalty “isn’t just about the person, it’s about the work that needs to be done.”

But I’d go a step further than that now. Loyalty in the workplace requires not only the ability of two or more individuals to trust each others’ judgment and quality of work. It also requires a synergy of vision, a sense of purpose that obligates the people in question to provide transparency, constant communication and certainly criticism in the journey to make any vision a reality.

I remembered this a few years after moving on from New Voices, at an interview I had with the head of the Center of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He began with the question, “So how are you going to contribute to my vision of building the kind of world-class center that will attract the attention of scholarship everywhere?” The director lost me with his emphasis on “my vision.” I’m thinking, “I don’t know you, but somehow, I’m supposed to trust your vision purely because you say so. Are you kidding me? I’m to be loyal to you just because — you’re Black, you’re a decade older than me, you’re at an Ivy League university? Really?” To this day, that was the weirdest interview in which I’d ever been a part.

I saw this also at the church to which I’d been a member of the longest in my adult life, Covenant Church of Pittsburgh (which was in Wilkinsburg, by the way). From ’91 to ’97, I attended services, was part of the men’s choir, tutored high school students and went on retreats. I sometimes turned a blind eye to the occasional hypocrisy around sex, money and marriage in sermons versus what I actually witnessed.

One February ’97 Sunday after I finished a year’s worth of battles with my dissertation advisor Joe Trotter — another person who wanted my false sense of loyalty (see my “Running Interference” post from April ’11)  — I couldn’t take it at CCOP anymore. After a month-long drive to raise $250,000 above our normal tithes and offerings to buy a plot of land to build a megachurch in Monroeville, our pastor made an announcement and delivered a fiery sermon. The announcement was that God had told him to now up the ante to a three-million dollar campaign for money to build the church on this new property.

Man on a leash, June 12, 2010. (dtoy2009 via Flickr.com). In public domain.

Before I had time or faith to absorb that bit of information, my pastor delivered a forty-five minute sermon that blamed Wilkinsburg’s fifty-percent unemployment rate, gang violence and despair on “homosexuals and whoremongers.” I’d heard other statements and similar sermons like this before, but not for nearly an hour, not after an appeal to worshippers to give more than one-tenth of their gross income to CCOP for a new church.

I knew for a fact that some of my fellow CCOP members were giving as much as one-fifth of their disposable income already. I also knew that their were some CCOP members who were in the closet. To require loyalty to a vision without building a consensus on such, while also denigrating the very people from whom you demand loyalty was just downright disgusting to me. So I left CCOP, never to return.

This year’s presidential election cycle, particularly on the GOP/TPer side, seems to demand the same kind of blind loyalty that my former boss, potential boss, former dissertation advisor and former pastor all wanted from me or people like me. I learned a long time ago, though, that what people like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want isn’t loyalty. They want lap dogs, people willing to overlook their own interests in order to help them achieve theirs.


No Rhodes Lead to College Park

February 4, 2011

The Road to the University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Note the Maryland flag colored shell on the Terrapin (turtle).

Three years ago I did an interview at the University of Maryland for a director position with their National Scholarships Office. It was a day-long interview that went from 9 am until 6:30 pm, meeting faculty and administrators throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour process.

It was one of my best interviews. I didn’t feel like I made any obvious errors, and I genuinely liked all of the people I met that day. But there was one question, one topic, that felt out-of-place, awkward, even stupid as part of the discussion of this position. It was the question, “If you get this job, can you guarantee that the University of Maryland will have a Rhodes Scholarship winner in five years?”

I was almost speechless after hearing the question. Not because I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to detect academic excellence or strong leadership skills in students. Not because I didn’t think I could handle the job. Mostly, I just thought that it would be ridiculous for any responsible professional to guarantee a prize like a Rhodes Scholarship based on variables beyond their control. “I can guarantee that I can get more students into the pipeline for a Rhodes, but I think it would be foolhardy for me to guarantee that I could get a Rhodes Scholarship in two or five years.”

Former U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, a Rhodes Scholar, NBA player, and alumnus of the University of Maryland, 2008. BGervais. Creator has granted permision for free use via Creative Commons.The conversation continued over the next fifteen minutes between me, another director and two deans. I discussed other important scholarships and fellowships. Fulbright. Truman, Mellon Mays, Ford Foundation, and so on. But the conversation returned three times to the mandate of then President Mote and his emphasis on raising Maryland’s prestige by having a student win a Rhodes Scholarship. After all, the university had not had a Rhodes Scholarship winner since basketball star Tom McMillen won the award in ’74. One administrator actually said, “We see no reason why we couldn’t do as well as the University of Michigan.”

I thought, “Wow! He said that with a straight face!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was as if I was listening to my ex-stepfather talk about how great a father he was while his kids were running around 616 with graying drawers and grumbling stomachs. Given the state of the scholarships office at the University of Maryland, they weren’t ready to compete with the University of Pittsburgh yet, much less the most prestigious land-grant public university in the country, and arguably the world. I graduated with and found myself in the same classes with one Rhodes Scholar when I was an undergrad at Pitt, and knew a finalist for the scholarship when I was a grad student there as well. And Pitt had nowhere near the academic reputation in ’91 or ’94 that it had earned by 2008.

I nudged the administrators who were interviewing me to think more systematically about how the scholarships office at the University of Maryland should go about setting goals. That a university must build its reputation for high-achieving students over time, so that its Rhodes Scholarship candidates will survive to at least be finalists in the process. That our competition was more the University of Virginia or University of Delaware or even Johns Hopkins before setting goals on par with the University of Michigan.

I obviously didn’t get the job. Given that conversation, though, I wasn’t sure if I wanted the job. The university found someone who had previous experience working in a university scholarships office. As with most staff positions at universities, experience working as a staff member (considered different from faculty, in case folks don’t know the difference) is more important than nonprofit management or academic teaching experience. I was definitely disappointed.

Still,  I wanted the challenge of creating a more academically enriching environment at the University of Maryland. And after three years of teaching in the University System of Maryland (via University of Maryland University College), I’ve taught enough College Park students to know that much work remains to create the kind of university necessary to produce Rhodes Scholars. Who knows? Maybe Maryland will have its first Rhodes Scholar recipient in thirty-seven years this spring. However, given the split personality of both the campus and the academic culture there, I seriously doubt it.


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