Academia’s Silence Must Be Heard

February 24, 2014

At Eternity's Gate, by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas painting, Kröller-Müller Museum (The Netherlands), May 1890. (Eloquence via Wikipedia). In public domain.

At Eternity’s Gate, by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas painting, Kröller-Müller Museum (The Netherlands), May 1890. (Eloquence via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve learned the hard way how the world of academia treats folks who break its unwritten covenants. The ones that say  accept all of our strictures about what to publish, how to write, when to write it, about tenured/tenure-streamed vs. non-tenured, adjuncts and graduate student TAs and unionization, among so many others. Those of us who make trouble, who question the archaic wisdom of those in our world, are often cast out, rendered invisible or otherwise completely forgotten about.

The funny thing about going against the grain of academia — or at least, my fields of US/African American history and American education/ed policy — has been that criticism can serve as a better sign of acceptance than hearing nothing at all. It was like this for me in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, and even my first five years after finishing my doctorate. Whenever someone said that my work on multiculturalism and Black history was “interesting,” the flatness with which a professor or grad student said “interesting” was the key for me. If the “interesting” was completely flat, it meant “but I completely disagree with your line of research” or “this thing is too simplistic and boring for me as a scholar to get excited about.” If the “interesting” had a lilt to it or even a slightly raised eyebrow, it meant that one of my colleagues or more senior folk really found my work intriguing.

Actor Arte Johnson as the Nazi German character Wolfgang on NBC's Laugh-In (1968-73), saying "Very interresting..." per usual,  September 4, 2011. (

Actor Arte Johnson as the Nazi German character Wolfgang on NBC’s Laugh-In (1968-73), saying “Very interesting…” per usual, September 4, 2011. (

That term “interesting” was my indication that some people acknowledged and understood the importance of my work, and that some absolutely couldn’t and wouldn’t. But over the past decade, as I’ve complained about the nature of academic writing, about the limits of scholarship and about the changing nature of academia itself (from a hiring perspective), the one thing I’ve noticed the most has been academia’s silence. The collective silence has been deafening, so much so that I finally concluded it meant not only disagreement, but a shunning as well. Like the Amish, only without the Rumspringa.

I had fleeting moments when I noticed the silence, like at my second OAH presentation in Los Angeles in ’01 on Black women intellectuals and multiculturalism. Even though my research was sound, I knew I needed to work on drawing clearer connections between how I’d been defining intellectual and connecting it with notions of cultural pluralism, and thus, multiculturalism. With forty people in the audience, and with thirty-five minutes of Q and A, no one asked me a single question. No one in the audience, it seemed, was interested in multiculturalism or historical contributions to the idea from Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Church Terrell or anyone else.

I noticed even more as I submitted my first book Fear of a “Black” America for publication with the university presses prior to ’04. At least with the likes of Praeger and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I’d frequently get a detailed response, good and bad. But with the university presses, it was deadly silence. I guess me working full-time in the nonprofit world and only teaching ed foundation courses part-time was one of my deficits.

The final set of hints of silence that came my way was in the year after I published Fear of a “Black” America. I decided in ’05 to write an article on the overuse of the term scholar-activist, an article I published in Academe Magazine that fall. Grad students tended to like it, activists outside of academia have cited it hundreds of times, and my immediate circle of friends in academia loved it. But my relevant fields within academia remained silent about it. They were silent about my argument that exercising academic freedom doesn’t automatically make one an activist, and that academic writing, even writings that lean hard to the left, don’t make an academician an activist either.

Dante in Exile (n.d.), painting by anonymous, Archivo Iconografico S.A., Itália, June 3, 2006. (Fernando S. Aldado via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Dante in Exile (n.d.), painting by anonymous author, Archivo Iconografico S.A., Itália, June 3, 2006. (Fernando S. Aldado via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I realize then I had evolved as a writer to the point where I wasn’t just uncomfortable with academic writing, the tenure process and the lack of unionization for adjuncts and grad students — I’d been uncomfortable for years. No, I wanted a teaching, even administrative relationship with higher education for sure, but not one where all of my eggs were in the academic writing basket. Unlike Joshua Rothman’s grand assumption in his “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” piece in last week’s New Yorker, that “[p]rofessors live inside that system [of academic writing] and have made peace with it,” I have not and will not make peace with this. Ever.

I think Nicholas Kristof is a hack, and that most of the columnists of The New York Times are hacks as well. But in knowing the sadistic silence of academia as well as I do, I also know that this world of higher education can and does grind many of its participants up, often without making the slightest sound. It’s a wonder that I’m still teaching and writing anything at all.

In Denigration of the Black and Accomplished

January 20, 2014

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (

I plan half of my blog posts in advance. At the beginning of every year, I make up a list of topics that I intend to cover, listed by month, and then go through that list. For the other half, I take advantage of relevant news stories or sudden life experiences that also seem relevant. Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 9.25.25 AM

Today’s post is a combination of planning and the impromptu. I’d already planned to write about the tightrope of being Black and accomplished — actually, more like the noose of it. But thanks to @profragsdale’s tweet, aka, Rhonda Ragsdale, an Associate Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris (Houston, Texas) and a PhD candidate at Rice University, I started on this topic a day early. Her tweet was the kick-off to eight hours of tweets about the cold and often cold-shoulder reception women — and Black male and LGBT — faculty and grad students receive when bringing up, discussing or even promoting themselves and their accomplishments.

Only to see more of these tweets and thoughts confirmed in another arena. The response of the racist, George-Zimmerman-set to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews on FOX within a couple of moments after he made the play to seal the game for his Seattle Seahawks to go play in Super Bowl XLVIII. You, Black man, can’t have a flash of anger and moment of passion on TV after playing in the NFC Championship Game, for then your accomplishments will be used against you. (Sarcasm aside, Sherman’s taunting will likely result in a fine, but that’s the NFL).

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (

My post is much, much closer to home. I had the blessing and the curse of having two Black males as my official advisors while in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, Larry Glasco for two years at Pitt, and Joe Trotter for four years at CMU. My gripes and complaints about their neglect, selective attentions to my development, and, in Trotter’s case, harassment and psychological torture I’ve already documented well here. What I haven’t discussed is that they were part of a cycle of academic abuse that they passed down to my generation of grad students, and likely some of my colleagues are passing on to their grad students as I write today.

My best example of how denigration in academia works was a conversation I had with Dick Oestreicher, a Pitt professor for my grad seminar in American Working-Class History in Fall ’92. I was in Trotter’s African American History seminar at CMU at the same time. Oestreicher asked me what else I was taking that semester, I guess because I’d proven resistant to the idea that social class had primacy over all forms of inequality, even in the US (a neo-Marxist to the core, I guessed).

When I told him I was in Trotter’s seminar, Oestreicher said, “Oh, I’ve heard of him,” with the disdain a fashion designer usually reserved for suits off Sears’ rack. You’ve “heard of him?” Really? Trotter, an award-winner scholar and author with a groundbreaking book on Black migration, urbanization and class formation in Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1985; 2007), and you’ve heard of him? A colleague only three blocks and one bridge away, and you’ve heard of him? Even now, the only word I have to that is, “Wow!”

If Oestreicher was the only one to do that, and only to Trotter, then my observations here would be suspect. But I witnessed this same kind of thing from other White history professors at Pitt and CMU toward Trotter and Glasco during my grad school years. Heck, one of the reasons I left for CMU in the first place was because I knew several of the most powerful professors in the Pitt history department didn’t respect Glasco’s work, and by extension, my own progress and work.

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Maybe that was part of the reason why Trotter would constantly “run interference” on my behalf, to protect my “interests” during my four years there. Because, despite all the long hours, the sweat, tears and blood, there were folks at CMU who just saw him as a mere Black man, not a colleague or scholar every bit their equal. Given the books, the articles, the grants and so many other accomplishments, Trotter was easily the most productive professor in the department.

None of this justified how Trotter treated me when I was his student. I was semi-aware of the racial politics of accomplishment denial that folks around us practiced. I often chalked it up to jealousy or stress, thinking that the quality of my work or — to use Trotter’s terminology — my scholarship would show the academic world my worth. What White disdain toward Glasco and Trotter — and Trotter’s harassment of me — taught me, though, is that I’d have to be White in order for my accomplishments to seriously matter in academia, and I wasn’t planning on being White in my lifetime. And, that intellectual Whiteness can be nurtured and grown into Black professors.

In the years since finishing my own PhD, I’ve faced my own dilemmas around my achievements. I’ve at times attempted to fit in by downplaying my publications, by not bringing up my degrees, by not talking about my fellowship awards. What have I learned? To deny myself of my own accomplishments is like making a fine wine but not even daring to take a sip. White accomplishment deniers be damned.

The Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 3: Spencer Fellowship

July 1, 2013

I’ve written before about the epiphanies that came with my status as a Spencer Foundation Dissertation  Fellow during the 1995-96 year, particularly during our retreat in the Bay Area in February ’96. What that time as a fellow and at this retreat revealed was that I had pushed much of what I thought of as ambivalence toward academia into my mind’s subconscious. But that splinter in the back of my head driving me crazy was about much more than academia and my pursuit of a doctorate and a job as a history/education professor. No, it was as much about my purpose in life, my writing gift and the need to pursue this calling despite my being within a year of becoming “Dr. Collins.”

You see, there was a civil war of sorts going on in my soul and spirit over the very nature of who I was and wanted to be. I’d spent more than four years in resistance to the idea that every sentence I wrote in academia needed to be a compound sentence. I fought over the idea of making my writing more accessible to readers who weren’t history majors, graduate students or actual history professors. I wanted to write so that what I wrote wouldn’t be forgotten in five minutes because my writing required a cryptographer’s chart to decipher its meaning.

Whether Dan Resnick or Joe Trotter, Paula Baker and a few other professors, their overarching criticism of my writing was that it didn’t sound scholarly enough. It didn’t have the heft of words like “posits,” “tropes,” “archetypes,” “eschatology,” and a thousand other words that required a minimum of a master’s degree to fully understand their meaning. I tried in my dissertation to address those concerns. But after the first few chapters, I decided to write first, and then rewrite second, third and fourth to mold my language into scholar-speak.

Luckily I had the Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship by then. It saved me at least a year — and possibly as many as three — in terms of completing my doctoral thesis and degree. I didn’t have to teach for a full year, do research or work for Joe Trotter or anyone else for a year.

And it gave me time to think about the kind of career and future I wanted. Maybe too much time. For the first time, I realized the question that had been on my mind for years was about my competing interests in academia and in writing. Was I a writer first? Was I an academic historian? Would it be possible to do both? And if it were, how would I do both?

The Spencer Fellows retreat in Berkeley/Oakland in February helped broaden my horizons. Some of my fellow Spencer Fellows were struggling with the issue of their career moves as well. I had only considered teaching in schools of education in passing prior to that retreat. I knew that with my interests in diversity in education, in educational equity, in the process of getting into and through college, a traditional history program would be an uncomfortable fit for my interests and talents. The retreat revealed that much to me, at least.

It revealed far more than that, though. I realized that out of the thirty-three Fellows, I was the only one who actually understood on a personal level how difficult issues of race, poverty and the politics of education made it for someone like me to go to college, graduate, get into a grad program, and eventually finish a doctorate. Oh, my fellow Fellows knew all too well the harassment and hazing and jealousies of their professors and dissertation advisors. Still, issues like welfare poverty and magnet school programs like the one I attended in Humanities were abstractions for them. Most of them hadn’t experienced what they were actually studying. The ones who had become my favorite Spencer Fellows to be around, for those were the greatest of conversations.

So the seed of thinking about my work in more personal terms was planted on a conscious level by the time my Spencer Fellowship ended in June ’96. I might not have figured out seventeen years that I was a writer first, an academic historian and educator second, but clearly both in the end. I was too invested in earning the degree and getting away from Joe Trotter as fast as I could back then.

Yet I did think incorporating my experiences around the importance of education, of race, of poverty, of family dynamics in my writing would make what I wrote about much more meaningful. It wouldn’t diminish the scholarship, and would provide a creative outlet beyond the mundane world of academic writing.

The Road to My Memoir, Part 1: Welfare

May 7, 2013

Adrian LeBlanc's Random Family (2002) and Rhonda Y. Williams' The Politics of Public Housing (2005), May 7, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family (2002) and Rhonda Y. Williams’ The Politics of Public Housing (2005), May 7, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

This isn’t a straight-forward post or series of posts. I didn’t come to Boy @ The Window quickly or easily. I didn’t intend it to be a memoir, even though I’d left myself bread crumbs to turn it into a memoir years ago.

The first time I’d thought about writing a book related to my experiences was at the beginning of my junior year of college, in September and October ’89. Not even three months after my idiot stepfather had left 616 for good, and I was thinking about writing up something about the experience? A bit ambitious I was!

What I did do, though, was somehow find my old scraps of journals about what happened to me when I was twelve before I came back to Pittsburgh and Pitt for the school year. I wrote up additional experiences, about running away from 616 in August ’85, about my Mom’s experience at the feet and fists of my now ex-stepfather, about my time on a drafty Pitt stairwell the year before.

That was painful to write about, so soon after finally being rid of Maurice, too soon, really, for me to fully process it without re-living the experience. So I wrote or rewrote four of these experiences in all, and put them away in one of my Pitt notebooks.

But there was one other experience I wanted to write about, to move from a personal story to one of academic scholarship. It was the experience of my being on welfare from ’83 to ’87, covering on-the-ground perspectives from people like me and my Mom, as well as those of case workers. I thought that it would fill a void in both media coverage and in historical scholarship about the topic of welfare, particularly how it became a racial stereotype and slur.

I thought that by juxtaposing (and that’s the word I used for this back in ’89) the plight of welfare recipients and case workers, that I could show some sense of irony. That so many of the case workers and managers were only a paycheck or two away from being on welfare — and that some of them had been on welfare themselves, at least based on my limited experience — would make for an interesting story. What I hoped to show, ultimately, was the inhumanity of the welfare system itself, pitting people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds against each other because of the mix of welfare as racial and as a form of the undeserving getting their government handouts, of crumbs from America’s table being turned into a political football.

I didn’t say this exactly when I had a conversation about this topic with my former TA Paul Riggs in October ’89. The ideas and many of the sentiments, particularly about “juxtaposing,” “irony,” and “inhumanity,” though, were all part of the conversation. Riggs told me I needed to slow down, that even if I somehow were able to make this topic historical, that I’d need to much more reading on the topic, to divorce myself from my emotions around this topic.

In some ways, my late-twenties mentor was right. It’s hard to do scholarly work on a topic in which you are heavily emotionally invested. The topic wasn’t historical, given that I had just lived it and my Mom and younger siblings were still living it. And I was nineteen after all, and after seven years of seldom writing for any purpose outside of the classroom except letters to former high school classmates and college friends, a book would’ve been a daunting, almost immeasurable task.

That started me on the path to learn how to write like an academic historian, instead of writing out of emotion and irony. One that would delay my writing on anything like Boy @ The Window for the better part of a decade, even as the academic process enabled me to do the interviews and research necessary to put the memoir together.

Luckily, there are three authors whose work over the past decade has covered this topic of welfare, racial stereotypes, inhumanity, criminality and irony. Mostly in ways I would’ve covered it had I had the words and research skills to do this work twenty-four years ago. Adrian LeBlanc‘s Random Family (2002), though a sensational accounting of a Latino family in the Bronx between ’88 and ’01, does provide a glimpse (still MacArthur “genius” Award winner). Rhonda Y. WilliamsThe Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (2005) is her excellent collection of research and personal vignettes about public housing, welfare, Black women and empowerment despite the odds covering the period between the 1940s and the early 1980s (with a bit on the early 1990s). All just before crack cocaine, TANF and the gentrification of previously off-limit poor neighborhoods in a city like Baltimore became bigger themes.

And now there’s Kaaryn Gustafson‘s Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty (2012). She covers in so many ways what I’d once hoped to capture in emotion and storytelling about the stain of welfare as illustrated in policies and politics. Kaaryn’s (I know her from my New Voices days) written a great book, one that I wished I could’ve read or written when I was nineteen.

Kaaryn Gustafson's Cheating Welfare (2012), May 7, 2013. (

Kaaryn Gustafson’s Cheating Welfare (2012), May 7, 2013. (

That wasn’t my path, though I had interests that would include welfare. No, my path was about race, diversity, education and self-discovery, not just about my Mom and family.

Paula Baker and the 4.0 Aftermath

February 1, 2012

Paula Baker speaking (screen shot) in response to Donald Crichlow's book, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism at The New School, New York City, March 1, 2006. (

Of all the professors I worked with in grad school, there wasn’t a tougher one on me than Paula Baker. Or a better one. She wanted and expected more out of me than even my advisors, Larry Glasco and Joe Trotter. If it weren’t for her, I probably would’ve been content with earning all of my degrees at the University of Pittsburgh. But if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have discovered my ambivalence about academia in the first place.

I took an upper level history course in US history since 1945 and an independent study with Paula the semester after earning straight-As, the one that made my master’s program a seven-and-a-half month one instead of two years (see “The 4.0 Of It All” from December 2011). It was her second semester as an assistant professor in our department, and given the demographics of the ol’ White boys club, I thought it a good idea to take a professor whose graduate studies were still going on while I was in high school. That, and learning of Paula rare feat (at least for ’84) of publishing an article in the Journal of American History while still a grad student herself at Rutgers University, appealed to the competitor in me.

Paula Baker, University of Virginia, Miller Center, December 2006. (

I sat down for my first meeting with Paula in her small, windowless office (except for a glass partition that she had covered up so students couldn’t look in), just across from the grad student cubicles on the third floor of Forbes Quad. She said, “What are you doing here?” I didn’t understand her question at first. What I soon realized was that Paula was asking me the kinds of questions I should’ve asked myself two years earlier, when I first started applying to grad schools. She said that there were better options for a doctorate in American and African American history than Pitt, including the University of Michigan and UCLA.

There were two things that made Paula, though. One, she regularly broke the law while anyone was in her office, including pre-asthmatic me. Paula smoked as if her life depended on it. For me, it was the first time I thought that I might end up dead before I turned thirty for second-hand smoke and lung cancer. Mind you, my mother, my father and my idiot ex-stepfather all smoked, but not in a space unfit for a sardine.

Two, and more important in my second semester of grad school, was her uncompromising perfectionism when it came to my research and writing. Obviously my writing was already good. But it wasn’t scholarly, at least not as scholarly as it needed to be. In writing my paper on the influence of Marxist ideology (perceived and actual) on the early Civil Rights Movement, I must’ve done at least seven drafts for Paula.

She probably used up about three ball point pens editing my drafts, crossing out whole paragraphs at a time, demanding that I raise my level of analysis ever higher. And when it was all said and done, Paula assigned me a grade of B+ in my independent study with her, the lowest grade I’d receive in three years of master’s and doctoral work. Still, she turned me on to Adolph Reed, Jr. and Theda Skocpol.

What Paula didn’t know was that by the middle of February ’92, I was mentally exhausted, mostly from the previous semester’s work and the lack of a holiday break. I wasn’t at my best in her class and in her office. Somewhere in the midst of struggling to stay on task, I learned how to read for arguments, how to use book reviews to supplement my lack of historiographical knowledge, and to expand my thinking to include other fields, like philosophy and sociology.

I also learned that I really didn’t like writing in scholarly-speak. It felt fake, as if I had to learn French and German and high English in order to make an argument that would make old White farts stand at attention. I didn’t blame Paula for this. I fully understood what she was doing and why she was doing it. But I also knew that this wasn’t me, the scholarly world wasn’t quite an exact fit for me. C’est la vie!

After April ’92, I took one other independent study with Paula, the following year, to get ready for the comprehensive exams for my doctorate. I took it as a non-graded course, as I knew I was about to transfer to Carnegie Mellon. She eventually left Pitt — not exactly a surprise.

I bumped into her once in ’01 right outside Union Station in DC, while she was a fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and I was in my assistant director job with the New Voices Fellowship Program. Paula didn’t seem happy to see me, but then again, sarcasm and irony always seemed to be the key to getting her smile. Like the irony of me not using my degree in academia.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 610 other followers