With my mother, despite what almost every person who’s never met her has said, I know that she isn’t proud of me. She’s completely puzzled by me, because I don’t act like my other siblings, sound like my other siblings, or complain about life like my other siblings (or like her, for that matter). Mind you, the way I sound hasn’t changed much since my tweener years — I just speak much faster than I did when I was twelve. But somehow, it was me earning my PhD that made me this way, not the fact that I aspired to one in the first place. So if I give my opinion on something and my mother doesn’t like it — which is almost all of the time — it becomes an issue of my “secular education” or having exposed myself to this wicked world of diversity, evolution, gay rights and social justice. It can’t be because I am who I am and have made myself to be over the years.
My mother-in-law’s the same way, picking arguments with me over the silliest of things. She assumes that I assume that she’s “stupid” because I have a doctorate. I don’t think my mother-in-law’s stupid. Like me, (but by a factor of ten or fifteen times more) she has a tendency to say really dumb things. That I sometimes point out the illogical nature of what she has said is usually what gets me in trouble. It would just be nice to have a conversation in which we not only disagree but agree to disagree without my so-called advanced education getting in the way.
Among my co-workers, some of my colleagues, and a fair number of undergraduate friends from my Pitt days, my degree sometimes confuses, even intimidates. I’ve seen it in numerous conversations. People whom I know may be yakking away about the NBA playoffs or the news of the day. I join in the conversation, and my colleagues give themselves a code-switching upgrade, using words I know they don’t use in everyday conversation. What do they think, I’m going to assign them a grade for vocabulary usage or something?
Some of my Pitt friends started falling by the wayside as I pursued my grad degrees, which is normal, but there were some pretty weird conversations I had with them as they did. One insisted on calling me “Dr. Don” about a dozen times during a bus ride one day in ’92, laughing to the point of hilarity while doing it. I thought that he was going to choke on his own spit all the while, he was laughing so hard. Another guy — who eventually committed suicide in ’98 — told me straight up that people like me were “sellouts,” that “The Man” wasn’t going to accept people like me or him “no matta how many degrees we get” or don’t get. Luckily, I learned not to bring up my education to folks unless it was for professional purposes or unless someone asked.
There are other issues that come with an advanced terminal degree. Especially when you’ve been teaching college and grad level courses off and on for eighteen years and have ten years of nonprofit management experience. I can’t apply for just any job, full-time or part-time. Most human resources people probably laugh when they see my c.v. come across their desk. Other writers and editors assume that the only experience I have as a writer is through peer-reviewed academic journals and long-winded monographs about how to use statistical analysis and dry-as-dust-writing to wring the life out of history. If I decided to go back to school, what for? Unless I want to become a lawyer, medical doctor, or astrophysicist, there’s really little reason for me to earn another degree. I could go do some executive or professional program in journalism or writing, get certified as a K-12 teacher or administrator, but given my limited experience with these programs, I wouldn’t want to be my teacher — it’s scary, it’s just too scary!
I could act as if the past twelve or eighteen years haven’t happened. That is, merely list my bachelor’s and master’s, create a true resume instead of a c.v., and only list my job experiences. Even with this, though, there would be problems, as some of my work has required someone with a minimum of a doctorate to do it. Plus, it would surface at some point anyway. In a conversation, in hanging out with co-workers, in occasionally bumping into my former students, in the two-dozen or so articles, book reviews, op-eds and other pieces I’ve published. I am who I am and have made myself to be, and part of who I am is because of those five and a half years of graduate school.
Now what I have done is de-emphasized the degree as the end-all and be-all of my existence. For many, including those whom I know in academia, the degree and tenure are pretty much all that matter. Not so for me. I’ve always been ambivalent about my doctorate and what it means, to me and to others. So I’ve rearranged my priorities, seeing myself as a writer first and an academic historian second (and more often than not, third or fourth, behind teacher and consultant). Now I’m “showing off” again! I’ve just shown how much of a glutton for punishment I am. Is being a writer any easier that being an academic historian?