Advisor-Student Relationships, Anger, CMU, Dissertation Completion, Howard University, Jealousy, job search, Joe William Trotter Jr., Labor Day, Mentoring, NYU, Post-Docs, Rage, Running Interference, Spencer Foundation, Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Program, Steven Schlossman, University of Maryland, University of Wisconsin-Madison
One of the more gut-wrenching periods of my career began right after Labor Day 1995. In some respects, that period of my career has left a stain over the past two decades. Not so much in terms of what I have done or in what I’m doing now, as much as in setting limits on the range of possible outcomes with which I could’ve begun my career.
Right after Labor Day, I saw an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education for an open-ranked (tenured or tenure-stream) position at NYU’s school of education in US education history. I hadn’t thought about teaching in a school of education before, but after meeting my friend Cath and having received my Spencer Foundation fellowship, I understood that this was likely a better choice for me than a history department. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My department chair Steven Schlossman had received a letter and a telephone call from his equivalent peer at NYU asking if there were any graduate students in the pipeline who could apply for the position. Schlossman apparently told that department chair about me and my multiculturalism dissertation, and caught up with me that same week to give me a copy of the letter and encouraged me to apply for the job.
I was two-and-a-half chapters into my planned eight-chapter dissertation, and I still had some US Census data to look at and interviews to conduct as part of the process. I knew that my advisor Joe Trotter wouldn’t be happy about the idea of me applying for a job so soon into the process, but Schlossman and I also knew that the job — if I somehow got it — wouldn’t start for eleven months. That was more than enough time for me to write, revise, revise again, polish up and defend my dissertation. I was on a Spencer fellowship, after all!
Of course Trotter thought otherwise. He was incensed that Schlossman had discussed the NYU job with me, that I hadn’t talked with him about the position first. Of course Trotter said that he needed to “run interference” on my behalf, to protect me and my career. By “running interference,” Trotter meant that he would not write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. He told me to put the job out of my mind, to focus on my dissertation, and that we could revisit the prospect of apply for jobs when I was much further along.
A few months later, in February ’96, I saw another job ad in the Chronicle, this one for a history of education assistant professorship at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Schlossman saw that ad as well, but I was still the dutiful ABD student with Trotter as my patron. I decided this time to approach Trotter before meeting with Schlossman about the job. Trotter flipped out again, telling me, “you’re not ready,” that he had seen too many of his own peers not finish dissertations when taking jobs, only to end up unemployed. Keep in mind, I had written six of my eight chapters at this point, and had started working on number seven that month.
Trotter’s “you’re not ready” pronouncements rang even more hollow in March, when I requested a letter from him to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship in African American Studies at University of Maryland, College Park. He refused at first, then agreed, with the caveat that he would write in his letter his belief that I wouldn’t complete my dissertation in time to begin the fellowship at the end of August ’96. With that kind of endorsement, of course I didn’t apply!
When we finally had our blow-out argument that April 4th, I was frustrated, he was actually angry, for reasons I didn’t put together until I considered my age and his HNIC status and age later on. Most of Trotter’s stonewalling occurred after he found out that I was still only about to turn twenty-six at the time of the NYU job prospect. Between that and the limited mileage remaining in his proletarianization hypothesis, I was working for and with an advisor who was giving me mixed signals and mediocre advice. Both were based in part on jealousy, and in part on Trotter’s own bad experiences at University of Minnesota and on the job front in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Trotter didn’t understand that in blocking my first attempts to begin my career, he had helped set up a struggle for me to have even a semblance of a career before I had completed the first draft of my dissertation. As it was, I finished the first draft in June ’96, the second at the end of July, and polished it up before Labor Day Weekend ’96. That fact that I was done with all major revisions to my dissertation in time for any job that year made ready to strangle Trotter at that point.
Still, it would be only fair to say that my career moves — good and bad, smart and stupid — have mainly been of my own making. It would also be unfair to blame Trotter for any moves that I have made or didn’t make that didn’t work out after 1996-97. But every career has a beginning. And in the beginning, Trotter was there, making a mess of my first steps. It took until the spring of 2000 before Howard University offered me a tenure-track position in Afro-American Studies, to which I did say no. I didn’t need any more Joe Trotter’s in my life at that point, and working in the nonprofit world paid my bills better than teaching at that time.
My overall advice would be to make damn sure that you choose an advisor who cares about your whole career and about you as a person. Don’t choose someone to advise and mentor you out of convenience, and make sure that your advisor isn’t someone who just wants to mold you into a mediocre version of themselves. After all, it’s not their career trajectory or reputation that’s on the line. It’s yours.