Running Interference

April 4, 2011


Joe Trotter, circa 2008.

Today is the forty-third anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. But for the past fifteen years, April 4th has also had the dubious distinction of reminding me of a big argument between me and Joe Trotter. He was my doctoral thesis advisor at Carnegie Mellon and, until that day, someone I considered a mentor in my becoming an academic historian.


Below is an excerpt from my book Fear of a “Black” America (with some minor additions) in which I recount what happened that day:

“‘I’m looking out for your best interests’ was what my dissertation advisor typically said in discussing my future with me. As far as Trotter was concerned, he was in charge of the rest of my academic career, determining everything from whether I would finish my doctorate to where I would live and work after I graduated. But as I’d already discovered in the months leading to this moment, he was not nurturing my career at all. Virtually all of my achievements as a graduate student occurred despite my advisor rather than because of him.

This was because my advisor discouraged my attempts to publish, to obtain grants for my research, to participate in major conferences, and to apply for jobs when it was apparent I had nearly completed my doctoral thesis. My advisor would frequently say ‘You’re not ready’ to take on a particular project or to apply for a grant or job to hinder my efforts. Yet Trotter never pointed out what he thought I needed to do to be “ready.”

One of our last official meetings as advisor and student covered this particular issue. Six chapters into an eight-chapter dissertation, I was still being told that I was ‘not ready’ to apply for jobs or to attend major conferences. Trotter had in fact contradicted some of what he had said about my work in a previous meeting. So when he declared for the eighteenth time in this particular meeting that he was not giving me his support because he was ‘looking out for my best interests,’ I sarcastically replied ‘Yeah, right!’ I decided that I could not abide the hypocrisy of an advisor who cared little for my future while at the same time professing to care very deeply.”

There was an eerie silence. Trotter actually didn’t know what to say. Neither did I. Mostly because I wanted to strangle him with his own blue neck tie. So I did something less dramatic far more legal. I said, “I don’t have anything else to say to you,” picked up my stuff, walked out his heavy dark wood door, and slammed it as hard as I could. “Stupid ass,” I said under my breath as I walked out of Baker Hall that day. I was talking about myself as much as I was talking about Trotter.

For any academic scholar who reads this, they’ll likely conclude that I committed academic suicide by exhibiting such defiance to my advisor that day. Not true — I have a doctorate and years teaching in academia to prove otherwise. Not having the support of an advisor — whether that support’s official or in the reality of a friendship or a mentorship — does make building a career harder. But given what I’d learned about Trotter’s lack of support for a Spencer Fellowship that I ended up receiving as an award anyway, despite him, I knew that even if everything had been okay, it wouldn’t have been after graduation.

The reality is that my former advisor and thousands like him commit a form of academic suicide every day by refusing to promote at least one student’s career development. Besides having one’s work published and obtaining grants, developing new talent is key to creating a legacy as a successful professor. It’s why I can go to any history conference and hear stories about David Montgomery, or to an education conference and hear folks discuss their wonderful mentoring relationships with Michael Nettles. Or why so many responded across all of the social networks after learning that Manning Marable had passed away on Friday, April 1st.

I’m not holding these examples up because these professors were saints. Hardly. Just pointing out the fact that when a professor maliciously and deliberately attempts to hold back students otherwise deserving of moving on out of jealousy or some other reason, it puts a pox on their house as well.

Golden State Spencer Fellows

February 12, 2011

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. Donald Earl Collins (psst - I'm the young and cute Black guy in the white turtleneck in the back row)

Fifteen years ago this week I went on my first trip to the West Coast. It was for a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows retreat in some villa of a conference center just off UC Berkeley’s campus. It was our second meeting as a cohort, presenting some of our doctoral thesis work in front of a group of professors from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and other places. It was also a chance for the thirty-three of us to meet the selection committee that had made it possible for us to be Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows in the first place. We spent so much time in Berkeley and in Oakland that most of us didn’t bother to take the BART into San Francisco, so the trip was a failure in that area — not really.

But it was very important in one aspect above all else. I learned during our three days of meetings how I wasn’t alone in the world of academia. That I wasn’t the only misfit was the first revelation. There were other Fellows whose departments and classmates had shunned them and their work because it touched on the “soft” field of education. Or because it wasn’t hardcore quantitative analysis. Or because they weren’t thirty years old yet. Or even because of the age-old academic issues of looking at educational issues through the trifocal lens of race, gender and class.

Some of us talked about our dissertation advisors and their lack of support for us and our work. We were individuals who had won a prestigious individual award and a $15,000 grant to research and write a doctoral thesis, but somehow had managed to do this without the support of tenured faculty at major, even elite, universities! I found that fascinating. I also would’ve found that unbelievable if my advisor hadn’t been Joe Trotter. We didn’t have any obvious solutions to the problem of asshole advisors who may well not have supported us on the job market. Nor did we have a solution to their midlife crises or male pattern baldness. Yet it was good to spend significant time talking about this.

I also discovered through this retreat that I wasn’t the only one of us ambivalent about having a career as a professor. It didn’t help that we had a freshly minted associate professor from U Chicago talking to us about her average work week. Not because a forty to forty-five hour work week seemed anywhere close to arduous. At least to me. The half of the Fellows who really did want academic careers moaned quite loudly at the prospect of teaching, research, writing and serving on committees for so many hours. I, among others, looked at the list and found it rather mundane and restricting.

Many of us were concerned about becoming institutionalized, kind of like the way Morgan Freeman’s character “Red” talked about it in Shawshank Redemption. My own fear was that I could make myself a successful academician, molding my imagination and writing more fully into the forms of academic prose. Meaning that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone outside of my subfield or field, and certainly not with the general reading public, who usually wouldn’t use words like fait accompli unless they were French speakers. There were a few other Fellows who didn’t want to write or do research at all. They wanted to teach, to change the world of K-16 education somehow.

Catherine Lacey, the director of the Dissertation Fellowship program at the time, concluded with a lofty and philosophical speech about our bright futures. It was a good speech. It made me begin to think about what to do with my life if I didn’t get a full-time gig as faculty at an elite university. For many of us, though, this would also be the last time we could be this honest about our hopes, fears, and warts when it came to our doctoral theses and post-doctoral careers. If only I had known about the Ford Foundation’s associate program officer program when it existed back in ’96.


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