This week thirteen years ago I was in serious turmoil. I had just turned in the second draft of my dissertation, one that I had spent the previous three weeks working on. In that time, the draft had expanded thirty pages, mostly because of Joe Trotter’s insistence on my use of his proletarian thesis in my thesis, even though the main concern for me was my argument on multiculturalism. If that was the only issue, there wouldn’t even be a need for me to write this. As it was, it was a battle over my very survival as an almost-done PhD candidate with a tenured professor who seemed to be on the verge of pushing me out of the program. All because he discovered that I was half his age the year before.
It wasn’t as if I was keeping my age a secret. But once out, our relationship began an immediate change. So what if I was ABD and only twenty-five or twenty-six? So what if I had picked up my first major fellowship the year before, or published a few articles? From my perspective, being one of only four tenured or tenure-track Black professors at Carnegie Mellon was a much, much greater achievement. Even saying that would probably rub my former advisor the wrong way, though. It might’ve been obvious to the average, non-graduate student with decent emotional intelligence that my advisor was envious of me because of my youth. It wasn’t to me, which would make finishing even harder than it should’ve been.
I had pursued my dissertation research on multiculturalism in Black Washington, DC during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as if it was only my research, which would normally be the correct assumption. Except that with a man like Joe Trotter as my advisor, your research was never truly yours. For the past thirty-five years, my former professor has pursued his own research on the formation of the Black working and middle classes as if it were the Holy Grail, Noah’s Ark, and evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life wrapped up as one.
That was his proletarianization thesis. That as Blacks moved to the urban North during the first wave of migration in the period between 1910 and 1930, that Black working-class communities grew in size, leading to a need for services, since these communities were residentially segregated. That, in turn, led to the rise of a vibrant Black middle class, providing much needed services for the Black working-class. This might well have led to Black activism against the discrimination they all faced in places like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit, even New York.
Sounds good, but the examples my advisor picked to show how his thesis worked — Milwaukee and West Virginia — were hardly definitive for his thesis. So for each of us who were his students, Trotter expected us to pursue this idea as part of our own research. He never said as much, and surely didn’t drop any hints, but that was apparently what he wanted. At least one other student had gone through this crap with Trotter before, but he never told me what his problems in detail.
By the time I sat down to work on my second draft of my dissertation in July ’96, I really didn’t understand his comments on the document at all. It was as if we were looking at two different 470-page manuscripts. And that was when it occurred to me that Trotter wanted me to include his thesis in my own thesis. It hit me because in all of my previous chapter drafts, he never asked me a single question about multiculturalism, multicultural education, cultural issues, cultural pluralism and how it related to the segregated DC Public Schools. Not a word, not even about diversity and early twentieth-century educational policy. All — and I mean all — of his comments were about why I hadn’t used Census records to verify the size of the Black working- and middle classes, or why I had said that migration patterns remained consistent between 1860 and 1930.
Between that and some much needed advice from the late Barbara Lazarus, Trotter’s former advisor in John Modell, and a young professor at Heinz College, I realized what I needed to do. I infused Trotter’s proletarianization thesis in places where it made the most sense to add it, and expanded a chapter on the Black Washingtonian community to specifically show how proletarianization would’ve worked there. I also obfuscated regarding the Census numbers for Black migration to DC during the 1910-1930 period. I didn’t lie — I merely didn’t say what the evidence would allow me to conclude. Which was that the Great Migration period was not so great for Black Washington, that the patterns of working and middle class development didn’t fit Trotter’s thesis. I wanted to graduate, of course, and I would’ve hoped for support from Trotter on the academic job market.
But other than that, the main thing I did until Trotter officially signed off on my dissertation in January ’97 was document every email, every phone call, and every word I changed in the dissertation. In fact, just before I turned in the second — and as it would turn out, final — draft of my thesis, I took a day to go through my now 505-page manuscript to write a six-page memo that documented every change and the reason(s) for each change, even if it was just changing a semi-colon to a comma. I handed it in on August 2 of ’96 and waited nervously for three weeks for his response. As far as I was concerned, this was it. I believed that if I couldn’t resolve Trotter’s issues with me by the end of ’96, I wouldn’t be able to graduate.
On a walk from Squirrel Hill back to my place in East Liberty a week later, well before I received Trotter’s short response indicating I could move forward to the dissertation end-game with the rest of the dissertation committee, I had a minor epiphany. I decided that it was time to start seeing myself as Dr. Collins, to walk the walk and talk the talk. That didn’t mean passing myself off as Dr. Collins before I had approval from my committee. It meant not allowing my advisor to control how I saw myself. I knew I had done more than enough work to earn the degree. It was “speaking things that be not as though they were.”
It improved my mood, and made Trotter’s and my committee’s approval of my thesis anti-climactic. You have to see yourself as finished in order to finish, even if your advisor’s a butt-head.