This time twenty years ago, I was finishing up what would turn out to be my first 4.0 semester at Pitt as an undergrad. I’m not bragging, even though my wife once thought I was (more on that in a few days). Key to the way that semester turned out — academically, at least — was a graduate course I talked myself into my junior year, Comparative Slavery. I found a loophole in the University of Pittsburgh handbook that allowed an undergrad to take a graduate school if that course would eventually be used as credit toward a master’s degree in that student’s fifth year. Somehow, I convinced my advisor and an administrator to let me take the course. Groveling and highlighting of obscure rules in the Pitt handbook were involved, though.
It was a good course, taught by Sy Drescher, whose scholarly research we in the history field would now consider part of Transatlantic Studies, as he looked at slavery from the standpoint of its impact on European notions of freedom, as much as he looked at the slave trade itself. As an aside, my nutty Carnegie Mellon University professor Dan Resnick once wrote a letter of recommendation for me to the Spencer Foundation discussing how huge an impact Drescher had on me as a student, which helped me become the great grad student I was. It was a bigoted, paternalistic letter, and I don’t think Drescher would’ve appreciated it if he had known about it. Drescher was one of my best professors at Pitt, undergrad and grad, but his student Paul Riggs was the one who had made a big impression on me in terms of my decision to pursue history as a degree, and to a large extent a profession.
But I digress, once again. This was my second course with Drescher as my professor. My freshman year, I had taken his Western Civilization II course (about how Europe came to dominate the world, 1492-present). It was a great course, and when I saw that he was teaching this one, I sought advice from Paul about the course and about his advisor, all of which convinced me to take it. I learned so much in that semester from that course, and not just the academic content. The fact that American slavery wasn’t the worst in the Western Hemisphere, the fact that the slave trade continued because the average life expectancy of slaves in places like Brazil and Haiti was about seven years, the fact that slavery and the slave trade made money for everyone involved, including West Africans. It was an eye-opening course.
I also learned a few important life and academic socialization lessons. I was in a class of seven people, including about three veteran grad students, a grad student who was the son of a famous civil rights leader, and a nineteen-year old first-year grad student who had gone off to college at the age of fifteen. Listening to these folks debate serious historical issues week after week was fun at first. Until I realized that some of them didn’t know what they were talking about. That at least two were classic yet sophisticated brown-nosers, attempting to sell arguments that would most likely impress Drescher (luckily, our professor didn’t like brown-nosers). And that there were many moments when all seven of us would sit in our grad seminar stumped by a question Drescher asked us about our readings for that week. I learned that students with master’s degrees or working on master’s degrees weren’t any more intelligent than I was as a college junior, or for that matter, when I was a high school junior. They simply read more on a given set of topics, much more in some cases than ninety-five percent of the educated public.
We had a primary source research paper on comparative slavery to do that semester, one that was supposed to be between twenty-five and thirty-five pages long. I decided to do mine on slavery in South Africa versus slavery in the US. It was a continuation of my undergraduate interest in South Africa that had developed my sophomore year. It turned out that with the other paper assignments and readings, Drescher realized that no one in the class would have their papers ready in time to submit by the end of April. So a week before the papers were due, he assigned us all “I” grades (incomplete) and told us to get our papers done as soon as possible.
It put me in a weird position, because I wasn’t a grad student. My semester Work-Study job was up, and I had made plans to be in Mount Vernon that summer working for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health again. So it meant that I needed a job and some money in May and possibly June, I needed to extend my one-room efficiency lease, and I needed to turn a seventeen-page draft into a workable document of at least twenty-five pages. The last part was the easiest, since I had access to British parliamentary document and documents from the colonial government in South Africa about the conditions of slaves and the laws about slavery in that part of the world, all on microfiche. I just needed time to work on it.
Plus, I needed to get over the fact that I had earned A’s in my other four courses that semester: Latin American Revolutions, History of Africa to 1800, History of Blacks in Sports, and American Working-Class History. I had learned that semester how to be a cool nerd, to be diligent, to be social, to hang out when I made the time, and to study when I made the time as well. I had found balance in my life and broken free from six years of Humanities thinking. I no longer obsessed about A’s, which I believed was why I was doing nothing but earning them that semester.
So I did nothing on the comparative slavery paper in the first seventeen days of May. I worked my idiot job at Campos Market Research, where one of my friends and my eventual wife worked (again, more about that in a couple of days). I hung out with E (see “The Power of Another E” post from April 2009) and my other folks, took some driving lessons, went to see the Pirates play, cried about my Knicks again, and watched the Detroit Pistons clothesline players on their way to the hoop. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time, and learned that life really is ironic as a result of reading his story.
Then I got a call from my eventual boss with Westchester County, telling me I had until June 19 to start my job if I still wanted it for the summer. That, and Drescher about to go on vacation after Memorial Day sent me into overdrive. It took a week, but I wrote, cut, wrote and revised my paper until it was thirty-four pages long and had enough endnotes to take up another six pages. It was by far the best academic writing I’d done up to that point in school. I think that Drescher was so happy that any of us turned in a paper that made any sense at all that he graded me on a curve and gave me an A. Honestly, I was just happy to have it out of the way.
I knew by the end of May that I was ready for grad school. It would take until I was done with my doctorate to prove to people like Dan Resnick, though, that I was truly grad school material. Either way, I think of that semester and this course and realize that while I would always care about my grades, I stopped worrying about them after that. And that really is a kind of freedom that can’t be underestimated, especially going into my senior year and in those six years of grad school that came after. I think that this experience helped me to become a better and more confident me.