“You’re not ready,” my one-time dissertation advisor said to me this week thirteen years ago. Joe Trotter and I were meeting in his spacious Carnegie Mellon office in mid-November ’95 to discuss my progress on my thesis and (at least from my perspective) what jobs I should apply for in the coming months. I was in a somewhat pensive mood. We had only spoken twice since April 14, the day I found out that I’d been selected to receive a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. The $15,000 award meant that I didn’t have to teach — nor did I have to play the role of Joe’s research grunt — during the ’95-96 school year. His response to my news that day was one of shock, not excitement, and though I did some editing and research work for him that summer, he seemed angry with me. I hadn’t figure out why, at least not until our November meeting.
Steve Schlossman, then the chair of the history department, had encouraged me to apply for an assistant professor of history of education opening at NYU. Even though I had only five out of eight chapters of my thesis written — and the NYU gig started September ’96 — I thought that at my pace, I would have a completed (if not formally approved) thesis by then. About a week before our meeting, I emailed Professor Trotter about the position, and received a polite but cryptic “let’s talk about it” response. I knew from the way the email was written that it meant Professor Trotter had some reservations. I had heard from others about how difficult a time he’d given other students as they were completing their doctorates. I just decided to be optimistic — almost oblivious — as I went into my meeting with Professor Trotter that second Tuesday in November.
We met for nearly an hour, going over many of his “recommendations” (more like demands) regarding the first chapters of my dissertation. Professor Trotter wanted more statistics about Washington, DC’s Black community, more tables about Black migration patterns, occupational status, church membership numbers and so on. I was to provide 140 years of statistical background on a community. My thesis was only meant to cover the years 1930-60, and then within the context of multiculturalism’s development among Blacks in DC during this period. Context is important, but even I knew that church membership numbers were irrelevant to the main argument of my thesis.
Trotter never once asked about my argument. Not a single question, comment or feedback on multiculturalism, educational policy, desegregation and how it related to multiculturalism among Blacks. Nothing. Not in that meeting, and not at any point in the dissertation process. It took me a full draft of my thesis to figure out why. But in that meeting, I was more puzzled that disillusioned.
I finally brought up the possibility of my applying for the faculty job at NYU. “I’m gonna have to run interference here,” Trotter said. In the four years he served as my advisor, those were probably the set of words he used most often. Running interference? What does that really mean outside the context of family or the White House, anyway? The image I had in my head was of me trying to catch a football and Professor Trotter trying to pull me to the ground to keep me from catching it. Except there was no referee there to throw a flag and penalize my advisor for interference.
Right after the “running interference” comment was when Professor Trotter told me I wasn’t ready. He didn’t give me much of an explanation why. I just needed to understand that I needed to have all of my doctoral ducks lined up before I began applying for jobs, which meant that I needed to have my PhD in hand — and all dissertation issues taken care of — before he or I could write a single letter. I asked, “What’s wrong with testing the waters?” I didn’t get a response, at least one that was clear and rational. Professor Trotter seemed angry again, like “how dare this kid question me about the job market.”
Technically, Professor Trotter was correct. I wasn’t ready, at least not in November ’95, to go out on the job market and apply for any and all history, education foundation, and African American studies jobs that fit my qualifications. That’s just it, though. Given the relative few complaints my advisor had about my thesis (and with it more than half-done at this point), it wouldn’t have hurt either of us to put a packet together for a few jobs to see if there would be any response at all.
I left Professor Trotter’s office angry, agitated, and confused. Angry that he didn’t want to support me, agitated and confused because I couldn’t figure out exactly why. For a few weeks, I thought it was me. Maybe I’m just a hotheaded twenty-five-year-old who was placing too many demands on my advisor, I thought. Or maybe I really wasn’t ready. Or maybe my then girlfriend in Baltimore was driving me crazy, and it was carrying over to the dissertation process and my advisor. I didn’t know, but I decided to keep working, to finish my oral interviews and transcribe them, and to talk with other folks to get an independent perspective.
At the Spencer Foundation winter forum for the dissertation fellows the following February, I got my answer. I ended up talking with someone who served on the ’95 selection panel, who made a point of pulling me aside. She told me, “Your advisor’s letter didn’t help.” She couldn’t go any further, but she did tell me to pay closer attention to him. It didn’t help that a couple of other dissertation fellows were having similar problems with their advisors.
It all came to a head on Thursday, April 4 of ’96. I talk about this a bit at the beginning of a chapter in Fear of a “Black” America. It was about as bad a meeting as it could’ve been without us coming to blows — God knows I could’ve. I knew from that point on that my advisor was also my adversary.
If it weren’t for a number of my grad school friends, my new girlfriend (who’s also my wife Angelia), and the late Barbara Lazarus, I probably would’ve never finished. But the greatest irony was, I finished the first draft of my dissertation on June 15, and the second on August 6. Between plowing ahead to finish my chapters, revising my dissertation to fit my advisor’s career-stagnating research on proletarianization (I won’t even attempt to explain) and Black migration, and drafting a six-page memo charting every revision I made, Trotter came back with four simple corrections on August 23. That was it until my committee approved the dissertation that fall. I could’ve taken the job at NYU if somehow they would’ve wanted me for the assistant professor position.
I knew by then that my advisor thought I wasn’t ready because of issues beyond my control. I didn’t think that anyone as accomplished as Professor Trotter could possibly be jealous of anyone, especially someone like me. I certainly didn’t realize that I had somehow insulted him by not assuming that I would cover his proletarianization and Great Migration thesis in a dissertation about multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC. I definitely didn’t know that my advisor was deliberately writing lukewarm letters about me to keep me from getting a job or a fellowship. Honesty and transparency were obviously not in his vocabulary or nature.
But, as with many things in my life, I learned some good things from this. I’d always been ambivalent about becoming a full-time professor who just wrote one academic article after one scholarly book and presented papers at one boring academic conference after another. The lack of support from my advisor and elongated job search (I didn’t find a full-time job until June ’99) left me with a lot of time to think about what else I wanted to do in life. I don’t think I would’ve figured out that I’m a writer at heart without this struggle and extra time. So maybe I wasn’t ready after all. It was just for very different reasons than anything my advisor had in mind.