This week marks twenty years since the now-retired Catherine Lacey called me up on a Friday morning while I was brushing my teeth to tell me that I’d been selected to be a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for the 1995-96 year. I’d hoped and prayed for that day for more than twenty months, after my fellowship and teaching plans for the summer of ’93 fell through. But I’ve talked about Catherine Lacey and some of my Spencer experiences already, as well as about the reaction of Joe Trotter and some of my Carnegie Mellon grad school mates to this news.
This post is about the days before I received Lacey’s call, before I knew that I would be on the fast track to a doctorate. Because before I’d been selected for the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the selection committee had rejected me, with a 6-1-1 vote (that’s six in favor, one not in favor, and one abstaining). I knew this because Catherine had sent me a rejection letter with a handwritten note at the bottom of it, one that I received after two months away in DC doing my dissertation research. My suspicion was that most of the Fellows had received an 8-0 or 7-1 selection vote.
That was all on March 31, ’95. Catherine’s note, though, was encouraging. She said to “stay tuned,” that she was “looking into other alternatives.” So there was still a chance that I’d get the fellowship. Still, I didn’t want to do what I did two years earlier, when assumptions and hope led me to six weeks of joblessness and an eviction notice.
So I did what I’ve done best throughout my work experiences. I scrambled to make sure I had work during the summer and upcoming school year. I didn’t want to be stuck borrowing more in student loans or teaching more of Peter Stearns’ version of World History courses — really, World Stereotypes — for entitled CMU freshmen.
I talked with both then associate provost (and also an eventual) mentor) Barbara Lazarus and fellow but further along grad student in John Hinshaw about me taking his job as a part-time assistant to Barbara. John really wanted to finish his dissertation and move on (who could blame him, given that Trotter was his advisor as well), and Barbara would’ve liked me for the job. So I gave them both a tentative yes, knowing that the job was contingent on John’s timetable for leaving it and finding an academic job elsewhere, all while completing his dissertation.
The thought occurred to me, though, that I may need more than a 15-20-hour-per-week job to get through the dissertation stage. Especially if I was to avoid teaching for the mercurial Stearns again. So I scheduled a meeting with Trotter to see if he any research project he needed help with.
We met at 2 pm on Thursday, April 13. Trotter was as excited about us meeting as he had been when I first decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to work with him as my advisor two and a half years earlier. He had at least three migration studies projects with which he wanted my labor. All the projects were about extending his grand proletarianization thesis. All would be dreadfully boring drudgery compared to my dissertation, but would keep me in additional pay checks for a year or two. I faked a smile, and tentatively said yes to Trotter as well.
Eighteen hours later came Catherine’s call about me being offered the Spencer Fellowship! I took it as a sign from God, that at the very least, I’d finish my dissertation and my doctorate without the need for working on it an extra two or three years. Unfortunately, neither John Hinshaw nor Joe Trotter saw my great fortune the way I did. When John found out, which was a week later, he didn’t talk to me for nearly three years. And from reading my previous blog posts, you all already know how my work with Trotter devolved after the Spencer award announcement.
The one thing that fellowship did for me as a person — and not just as an academician, researcher or education — was to give me the space to question academia and my role in it. Even two decades later, I’m still ambivalent about the academic method of obtaining tenure, of the publish-or-perish paradigm, of the hypocrisy that exists in such a cloistered world. Even as I still hold a job and play a role in this world.
What I’ve come to learn is that hypocrisy is everywhere, in the nonprofit world, in romance, and in academia, too. We could all start with, “Did you hear the one joke about how merit and hard work alone can lead to a prosperous life?” That’s the hypocrisy that I had to learn to see in academia, and began to, thanks to the space that the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship gave me that year. More on that later.