Before and After Spencer

April 14, 2015

Seattle Seahawks' Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (

Seattle Seahawks’ Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (

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.

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago - The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago – The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (

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.

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (

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.

Easter Seder 1995

April 8, 2015

Matzo and a cup of wine in a Kiddush cup for first evening of Passover, April 7, 2015. (

Matzo and a cup of wine in a Kiddush cup for first evening of Passover, April 7, 2015. (

Like most of my posts, this is a story of irony, sarcasm and identity. It may be a bit out of time, since the first night of Passover and Easter already occurred last weekend. But it’s still Passover week for those who do more than eat matzos and chicken liver paste with a glass of Manischewitz on the first night.

In all, I have been present, prayed, dined, wined and whined at four Passover Seders. Three of them were during the Hebrew-Israelite years, 1982, 1983, and 1984. All of them involved a roasted leg of lamb, bitter herbs, and chewing down raw horseradish while chugging super-sweet wine to chase away the five-alarm-fire in my mouth, throat and stomach. Endless praises to Yahweh, too many exhortations of Moses, and awkward snorts toward being strangers among strangers in a strange and oppressive land. That was my Passover experience in a lifetime and timeline determined by my Mom and idiot stepfather Maurice, before I turned to Christianity, before I gave up on the idea that I could be from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.

My fourth Seder, though, came eleven years later, in mid-April 1995. I’d been a Christian for as long as I hadn’t commemorated Passover as part of my religious birthright. I wasn’t sure about the idea of attending this celebration, as it wasn’t even at sundown on that year’s first day of Passover, Saturday, April 15. My friend Carl and his/our respective Carnegie Mellon history grad school mates Alan, Jeff, and Susannah were holding their little Seder on Easter Sunday, April 16, as the first two rented a house together in the Point Breeze (really, the White end of Homewood-Brushton, which asked for a race-based divorce in 1961) neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Picture of the Henry Clay Frick Mansion, or "Clayton", located at 7200 Penn Avenue, Point Breeze, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2010. (Lee Paxton via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Picture of the Henry Clay Frick Mansion, or “Clayton”, located at 7200 Penn Avenue, Point Breeze, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2010. (Lee Paxton via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

They had invited me a week earlier, a few days before my Spencer Foundation Fellowship application went from no-go to a go. I thought about saying no, but generally, I didn’t do anything on Easter Sundays, anyway. Even as a member of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, the one Sunday I didn’t attend church was Easter Sunday. It the holiest of days, like Passover, and for so many people, the only day all year they attended church. For so many, it was show-off-my-new-spring-clothes day, not Jesus’ Resurrection Day. I didn’t like the overcrowded-ness that came with an Easter Sunday or Christmas service. It smacked of hypocrisy, my own included.

So I decided for one Sunday to attend a Seder prepared by folks who’d only known themselves as Jews both ethnically and religion-wise their whole lives. Except the stern, orthodox, full of bitterness and tears, joy and triumph that were the Seders of my Hebrew-Israelite days was a lighthearted affair. It was as unorthodox a Seder as could’ve expected, with lots of conversation about grad school, about my dissertation fellowship, about life and sports and music in general. No raw horseradish, but lots of chicken liver paste. No Manischewitz, but some Mogen David, along with more traditional red and white wines, and an empty seat for Elijah.

Manischewitz wine, in bottle and a wine glass, September 11, 2012. (

Manischewitz wine, in bottle and a wine glass, September 11, 2012. (

Carl and Alan, of course, expressed surprise when I did ask questions or make comments. Like about the kosher-ness of eating mashed-up chicken livers, or the differences in taste between the traditional Pesach beverages, or how peanut butter and jelly went well with matzo crackers. Alan, about to be a one-year-and-done CMU history doctoral student, did ask me, “Where did you learn about Passover?” I said, “This is my fourth Seder.”

I knew better than to fully unlock everything I knew about Pesach, Judaism, Jewish history, the Ten Lost Tribes, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and the racial privileging that I had observed growing up in Mount Vernon between “real” Jews and us “weird” (read “not White”) Jews. For a few hours, though, I had to confront a part of my past that I’d all but locked away by the beginning of ’90. Not just locked away. I’d taken everything from between April 13, ’81 and July 23, ’89, wrapped it in Saran Wrap, put that in a Ziploc bag, thrown it in a safe, locked it, and then built a force field to keep out intruders.

I was relieved when I finally left Carl and Alan’s Easter Sunday/Passover Seder and walked back to my apartment in East Liberty. I wasn’t ready yet to take a look back at what I lived through during the Reagan Years. I was all about moving forward, and the previous days and weeks of dissertation research followed by a major-league dissertation fellowship made me feel like the completely different person that I believed I actually was. At least ninety-five percent of the time.

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.

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.

Spencer for Higher

October 23, 2010


Spenser For Hire Title Screen, February 26, 2008. Source:

Higher education, that is. Sixteen years ago this weekend, I put my application in the mail for a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. It was a $15,000, one-year award that would give me time off from teaching or doing grunt work for my advisor and other professors. I’d have a year to do nothing but do work on my doctoral thesis, to travel, do additional research and lock myself in my apartment for week on end to write what would become a 505-page document.


But don’t let me over-glamorize the moment. After all, I’d applied for fellowships and been in search for grants in the years before and after this application. The University of Pittsburgh had made me part of the first class of recipients for their Challenge Scholarship in ’87. I’d been awarded a graduate student assistantship and teaching assistantships throughout grad school. The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship — I applied for it twice, in ’91 and ’93. Soon after my Spencer application, I also applied for the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) Dissertation Fellowship (which they disbanded the following year).

I’d later apply for a few postdoctoral fellowships in ’96 and ’97. Then, once I became part of the nonprofit sector, grant-seeking became a part of my jobs. Including letters of inquiry, concept papers, about three dozen grant proposals that I worked on in part or in whole. Not to mention meetings with foundation program officers, numerous networking opportunities at the Independent Sector and other conferences. Between them all, I directly or indirectly helped raise about $1.4 million over the past ten years, and played a role in programs that possessed about $11 million in funding overall.


Spencer Foundation Logo, October 23, 2010

But the most satisfied I ever was in putting together a proposal, or in receiving an award, or in participating in a grant-related experienced, was when I applied for the Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. You see, I’d spent nearly eighteen months preparing myself to apply. I started doing my dissertation topic research a full year before the October ’94 application deadline, months before my advisor and committee were to officially approve my topic and research.


I’d started going through microfilm of Black Washington newspapers from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, looking up Census data, thinking of places to look up old records of DC Public Schools  from the segregation era, and contemplating interviewing former teachers and students who’d worked at or attending DCPS between 1920 and 1970. It was exhausting doing that and taking a full load of classes, struggling with finances so badly that I had no money for new sneakers, that I’d walk in three-year-old sneakers with holes in them to and from campus in ankle-deep snow to push this project forward. Of course, I lined the sneakers with plastic bags from Giant Eagle to keep my socks and feet dry and warm.

Yes, I was committed to the task all right, and probably should’ve been committed in the process. But it was also worth it. I felt — rather, I practically knew — that it would all work out with the Spencer Fellowship somehow. And it did, not just because of the award, and not just because of my friend and mentor, Catherine Lacey (see April 2009 post). It worked, because it helped me find my calling as a writer and teacher. It worked because it helped bring to the fore my ambivalence about academic writing and scholarship as the raison d’etre of an academically-trained historian.

The application, fellowship and that year free from Carnegie Mellon’s clutches helped put me on the right path. Even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Kiss From A Rose (or [sigh] “Hi” )

May 20, 2010

Fifteen years ago on this date, I re-met the woman who’s now my wife of ten years, Angelia on a PAT-Transit bus in Pittsburgh, the old 71B-Highland Park into Oakland. It was an eighty-five degree Saturday afternoon in the ‘Burgh. I decided to treat myself to a movie, Batman Forever, mostly because I knew Val Kilmer was in it. After seeing him act as well as he did in Tombstone, I figured I needed to give it a try. I needed a break, between the euphoria of the Spencer Fellowship and the depression from the fire at 616 that had rendered my family homeless.

So here it was, 3:15 in the afternoon, with me dressed in a blue t-shirt with blue basketball shorts and sneaks. I was standing at the corner of Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, across from my apartment building, waiting for a bus. The 71B showed up first. I jumped on, sat down on the right-hand side in a front-facing seat. As soon as I sat down, I saw her, sitting right in front of me. It was “Angela with an ‘i’,” Angelia, like that Richard Marx song from ’90.

The thing was, I had a dream that she showed up in the Saturday before this one. I hadn’t seen Angelia in more than two years, hadn’t given her any thought. But it seemed weird that she would just show up a week later in the flesh.

So I said, “Hi Angelia!,” excitedly, wondering what she was doing on the bus. She paused, said “Hi” with the heaviest, stop-bothering-me sigh I’d heard since my high school days. That didn’t deter me. I coaxed out of her the fact that she was pissed off with Carnegie Library because a book she was looking for at the East Liberty branch wasn’t there, even though the catalog said it was. It was a conversation that was one-sided, with Angelia doing most of the complaining.

I listened, and thought, “Yep, same Angelia, same weird Angelia.” But since I was weird also, I kept listening. Finally, she asked me what I was up to. I told her about school, my Spencer Fellowship, my family’s homelessness situation. I kept it brief. I mean, I hadn’t seen her in two years.

By the time we reached Oakland — me to catch one of the 61s to Squirrel Hill to catch the movie, Angelia to walk over to the main branch of Carnegie Library — we exchanged numbers, with Angelia saying, “It was really good talking to you.” I wasn’t so sure about that myself, but at least, she didn’t seem as weird as the woman she was five years earlier.

I went to see the movie, and it sucked, just like Angelia said it would. I walked home, got together some grub, and through all preconceptions out the window. I gave her a call to tell her that she was right about the film. We ended up talking for more than three hours! It was the first time in a long time I had talked to a woman who wanted to hear what I thought about, well, anything, at least anything outside of sex. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 776 other followers