Cath The Great

November 5, 2012

Catherine A. Lugg, circa 2009, November 5, 2012. (Catherine A. Lugg via Facebook).

I define serendipity as the ability of hard work to create what others would consider good luck, fortuitous chances, random opportunities for success. I’ve managed to do just that over and over again over the course of my life, particularly as a student and occasionally as a writer. But as a human being in search of real, positive, life-changing connections and friendships, serendipity has been very hard to make happen. When it does occur, at least for me, it becomes one of those moments that I seal in my mind, like a note in a time capsule.

The beginning of November ’94 was one of those weeks filled with serendipity. It started with the chair of the History Department at Carnegie Mellon, Steven Schlossman. He had decided that he couldn’t make it to the 1994 History of Education Society annual meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But because he had already booked a room and a flight, Schlossman apparently figured that he could simply transfer both the airline tickets and room to me instead (back in the pre-9/11 days when you could do such things without creating a potential terror alert). So Schlossman met with me a week before this conference and said that I should go “to represent the department” and because he thought it “a great opportunity” for me.

Carolina Inn at night (its better side), Chapel Hill, NC, 2007, November 5, 2012. (http://booked.com).

I wasn’t so sure, with the HES meeting being held in a mansion-turned-hotel, not quite on the University of North Carolina campus. Once I arrived from Pittsburgh on that first Wednesday in November, though, I felt at least free from the burdens of grad school at Carnegie Mellon. The weather was perfect, in the low eighties, and my World History sections for that Thursday and Friday were being covered by other teaching assistants. So I gave myself a tour of Chapel Hill, all the while wondering why didn’t I apply here for graduate school.

That was only the prelude to the four-day conference that began that Thursday. And since Schlossman had charged me to attend four sessions and to take notes on them on his behalf, I went to as many conference offerings as humanly possible. Back then, I had a much higher tolerance for boring academician-speak. So I was easily able to take detailed notes. I asked questions on topics in which I knew little. I even smiled and introduced myself to the mostly over-fifty White male crowd.

By Saturday, I had one mandatory session to attend. It was something about education in Japan and Germany post-World War II and how Japanese textbook makers left Japanese atrocities during World War II out of the nation’s history textbooks. During the Q & A, I asked what I thought was a pedestrian question, pedestrian because I forgot it five minutes after I asked it. Yet several people afterward told me that I’d asked a great question, as if I had some unique perspective or something. “It’s not even my subject matter,” I thought, adding in my mind that “Maybe some of these folks thought that the Black guy in the room didn’t really know anything.”

History of Education Society 1994 Annual Meeting program, November 3-6 1994, November 5, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Or, as it turned out, my dedication to Schlossman’s charge made me seem 1,000 times as enthused about the HES meeting as anyone else attending. For two women did in fact notice me during that session. That Saturday evening, during beer, wine and spirits time in a cramped conference/ball room space, after pleasantries with a couple of older professors, I bumped into the two women again. They immediately engaged me in conversation, because they wanted to know how I managed to remain upbeat during such a boring ass conference.

Barbara and Catherine were both grad students in the School of Education at Penn State, as it turned out. Both were also PhD candidates in the midst of doctoral theses, and because of my being only twenty-four, couldn’t believe that I was a PhD candidate also. What I thought was going to be just another one of thirty conversations with older White male professors and kiss-ass grad students turned into a nearly ninety-minute discussion of research, pop culture, the HES conversation, and the ironies of life, and all with a snarkiness that only someone like me (or Rachel Maddow) could fully appreciate.

It might’ve ended there. Except that Barbara and Catherine’s research on federal education policy and achievement gap data for Latinos (especially Mexican immigrants) dovetailed pretty well with my work on multiculturalism and Black education in Washington, DC. Plus, the three of us saw an opportunity to use next year’s HES meeting as an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the old boys’ club and their petri-dish sense of educational issues for women, for communities of color, and for immigrants. We titled it, “Educational Historiography and Diverse Populations: Why Research Isn’t ‘Bringing a Pet to Class’.” Somehow the powers who ran HES accepted our proposal, giving us a chance to present at HES in Minneapolis in October ’95.

A skunk (something a teacher shouldn’t bring to class), November 5, 2012. (http://animal.discovery.com).

By that time, though, Barbara couldn’t make it, having recently married and having moved across the pond to the UK. Catherine ended up taking her place, and ended up doing two presentations in less than twenty-four hours. She’s been there for me as a genuine friend in academia and in my aspirations as a writer ever since.

The HES meetings  were the start of an eighteen-year friendship with Catherine, one that actually survived despite the tendency of the academic life to kill more friendships than one could ever start. I think we’re friends still because we share a same sense of the world, and both are willing to snark our way through the madness of it all.


Almost Doesn’t Count

March 24, 2012

LA Lakers Shannon Brown's missed dunk in Game 1 of NBA Western Conference Finals vs. Phoenix Suns, May 17, 2010. (Getty Images).

The title for this post could also be “It Was Never Almost.” I had one of my best chances at publishing my dissertation on multiculturalism and mid-twentieth century Black Washington, DC (now the book Fear of a “Black” America) in March ’97. But not knowing the publishing world, combined with PTDD (post-traumatic dissertation disorder) from the past year of surviving Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee (see my “’It Is Done’” – 15 Years Later” post from November ’11 and “Letter of Recommendation (or “Wreck-o-Mendation)” post from September ’10) made this three-week period of negotiations a total communications mash-up.

I was in an “I’ll show them” mode in the months after my committee approved my dissertation “‘A Substance of Things Hoped For’: Multiculturalism, Desegregation, and Identity in African American Washington, DC, 1930-1960″ at the end of November ’96. Within a month, I made some minor revisions to the 505-page tome, and worked on some query letters for academic publishing houses about turning the dissertation into a book.

I contacted Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Princeton University Press and a few others. I also sent a query to New York University Press. Their acquisitions editor responded enthusiastically, and asked for a copy of the manuscript, which I dutifully sent their way in mid-February ’97.

And that’s when the communications about converting my doctoral thesis into a book went haywire. What was unknown to me was that Steven Schlossman, the chair of the history department at Carnegie Mellon, had been in contact with Niko Pfund, the then head of NYU Press (now president of Oxford University Press), about my dissertation. Three weeks after sending out my manuscript, I received a rejection letter from NYU Press, saying that while my manuscript was worthy of publication, that my “anachronistic use” of multiculturalism to describe the ideas and activities of Black intellectuals and educators in Washington, DC didn’t fly for them.

That same week, I received a telephone call from Schlossman asking me to meet about the dissertation. At his office, I not only learned that he had been in contact with Pfund and NYU Press. I also found out that he had sent them the first fifty pages or so of my dissertation without my permission. I told Schlossman about the fact that I’d already been in contact with NYU Press and that they had rejected the manuscript. But he insisted that his way of going through this process was the best way to go.

I was incensed at the idea that folks were working to publish my dissertation without my input. Especially someone like Schlossman, whom I knew didn’t understand why or how I had planned to use multiculturalism from a historical perspective for a book. I didn’t understand what I planned to do yet, but Schlossman could explain it? I left his office, upset and confused about the lack of communication between me and my department, and within NYU Press itself.

NYU Press-Niko Pfund Letter from March 1997, March 24, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

A few days later, I received a letter and then a telephone call from Niko Pfund. In the letter, he expressed interest in my manuscript, and wanted me to send in the whole thing. But his assistant had already done an extensive review of the partial manuscript they had received from Schlossman. It was one that was mixed, but it leaned slightly toward rejection because they didn’t get the term “multiculturalism” in the context of “Black history.”

I complained that I was getting mixed signals from Pfund and NYU Press. I’d been rejected, yet this was the second time I’d been invited to submit the same manuscript. The folks there didn’t understand why I used the term multiculturalism in my dissertation, yet never discussed the issue with me directly, just with Schlossman. Someone did a decidedly thorough yet biased review of a portion of my manuscript, yet never had the chapter in hand that was specifically about why multiculturalism has a history.

All I heard from Pfund were excuses, that Schlossman sought them out, that I was being offered an opportunity here for review, but certainly not for publication, because the NYU Press has “high standards.” I rejected him and his unapologetic bull crap on the spot. I decided that I couldn’t work with a place where the director didn’t even know that his acquisitions editor had rejected my manuscript, nor had the common sense to contact a potential author directly to clear up contradictory communications.

It turned out that Pfund and NYU Press weren’t my best opportunities for publishing my first book. But it would’ve been the best time to publish it, within months of completing the dissertation. It would’ve remained a timely topic, with President Bill Clinton’s Commission on Race commencing the following year.

It just wouldn’t have been the best time for me. I was pissed with the world, and burned out to boot. There really wasn’t anyone in my life who could’ve given me sage advice about the publishing process, and I certainly didn’t and couldn’t trust anyone in Carnegie Mellon’s history department to play that role. That much, I was certain about.


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