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Saint Wolfgang and The Devil [Faustian Bargain], by Michael Pacher, ca. 1471-1475, Munich, Germany, February 19, 2009. (The Yorck Project via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Saint Wolfgang and The Devil [Faustian Bargain], by Michael Pacher, ca. 1471-1475, Munich, Germany, February 19, 2009. (The Yorck Project via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It was this time twenty years ago that I decided to transfer from the University of Pittsburgh to Carnegie Mellon to complete my PhD in history. It was a solid tactical decision on many levels. The strategy, however, was a bust, although the reasons for this failure wouldn’t become apparent for several years.

I made the decision to leave Pitt based on at least three deficiencies. One, I was a doctoral student who’s dissertation research would be about multiculturalism, education, and a Black urban community (I hadn’t decided on Washington, DC yet). The only person in the history department with expertise in African American history was Larry Glasco, my advisor, and it had become obvious by the beginning of the 1992-93 school year that his interests had shifted to Afro-Caribbean studies, specifically Afro-Cuban history (see my post “Larry Glasco and the Suzy-Q Hypothesis” from August ’11). Larry’s understanding of such things as Black migration studies, Black education and Black intellectual developments pretty much stopped with the year he took his job at Pitt, 1969 (the year I was born).

Two for moving on from Pitt came out of my interactions with other professors and grad students in the department and in the School of Education. It was obvious during the fall of ’92 that most of my professors found me an enigma, from Dick Oestriecher’s “exceptional Black man” allowances in class (see my post “Dairy Queens, Dick Oestriecher and Race” from February ’11) to some colleagues’ comments about how easy I made grad school look (especially since I had time to talk and go up the hill to shoot hoops).

Hammer & Sickle & Pitt Flag [symbolic of Pitt's history department], December 13, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Hammer & Sickle & Pitt Flag [symbolic of Pitt’s history department], December 13, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

I realized that in a department that placed a premium on American working-class studies, on the supremacy of class warfare and neo-Marxism above any other historical field, that my chances for graduating anytime before the year 2000 were slim. And forget about picking up a fellowship or grant to do my dissertation research or finding a job if and when I did graduate! There were still professors at Pitt — like Reid Andrews (now department chair) and the former department chair Richard Smethurst — who didn’t even think I was “grad school material,” and they said as much. I was an anomaly in an anomalous department (see my “Letter of Recommendation (or Wreck-o-mendation)” post from September ’10).

I did consider doing a PhD in education at Pitt, with possibly Bruce Anthony Jones as my advisor, or someone more senior like Bill Thomas. Bruce, though, discouraged me from that idea, as he was only an assistant professor at the time. It was obvious that Bill Thomas was a popular professor, so much in demand that I’d be lucky to meet with him three times in a semester to discuss his work, much less my own.

And I already had that kind of relationship with Larry. My third reason that led to my decision to transfer to Carnegie Mellon involved a very angry Larry at the end of November ’92. You see, one of the requirements for getting to the end of coursework status was the completion of a quantitative methodology course or the completion of a project in which quantitative methods drove said project.

I decided on the latter, but told Larry that between teaching four sections of US Since 1877 with over 100 students and taking three grad seminars with 1,500 pages of reading per week, that I wouldn’t be doing an independent study with him that fall. I said that I’d carve out time “on my own” to get started this fall, but wouldn’t be prepared to complete the quantitative methods project until the spring semester.

Cartoon on data points & regression analysis involving drug trials, December 13, 2012. (http://www.landers.co.uk).

Cartoon on data points & regression analysis involving drug trials, December 13, 2012. (http://www.landers.co.uk).

So after I presented some of my early findings regarding 1910 census data and infant mortality rates among Black women in Pittsburgh to Larry’s History of Black Pittsburgh class, we met to discuss how far I’d gotten in my regression analysis. I hadn’t done much with the variables yet, simply because I hadn’t had the time in November to do any off-time work. Larry became furious, said that he was “disappointed in me,” and wondered aloud if I’d make it through this year as a grad student. When I pointed out for a second time that I was doing this work in my spare time — not as an independent study course, not for a grade — he finally remember what we had discussed in August.

Larry did apologize, profusely. But I was pissed. “You’re only advising one active student, and you can’t remember what I’m working on,” I thought. With Joe Trotter at Carnegie Mellon attempting to woo me into their program, with me already taking his grad seminar in African American history, and with the writing on the wall at Pitt (where I’d already earned my B.A. and M.A. in history), I set up a meeting with Joe in mid-December to explore the possibility of transferring.

Although it would’ve been a worse decision to stay at Pitt, leaving for Joe Trotter and Carnegie Mellon was just about the worst decision I’d made as an adult (see my post “The Audacity of Youth, Grad School Style” from August ’11). For it set up so many of my other career decisions and choices I’ve made in the two decades since.

A school of education would’ve made more sense for me and the research I wanted to pursue, after all. But I would’ve had to think beyond Western Pennsylvania, taken a year off, and then pointed at Stanford, Harvard, UPenn or Teachers College as possibly better choices, better situations. Chris Rock is right. “Life is long, when you make the wrong decisions.”