A Room With A View, Academia, Academic Politics, Carnegie Mellon University, College of Humanities & Social Sciences, Denholm Elliott, Dune, Ego Inflation, Egocentrism, Elite Institution, Elitist Institutions, George Mason University, Grade Inflation, Jace Nance, Mercurial, Napoleonic Complex, Nefud, Peter N. Stearns, Peter Stearns, PhD Graduation, Provost, Race, World History, World Stereotypes
May 18th. Another year, fourteen years now, in fact. I’ve been Dr. Collins to my students and the world of academia officially for that long. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about the values and limits of having a doctorate in history over the course of the past decade and a half. One of them is how easily egos are inflated by it. And everything else gets inflated in the process of having an ego that could challenge the Himalayas for supremacy.
One of the more stunning and thoughtful moments I had during the graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon on that hot and sticky Sunday in ’97 — besides the dreadful realization that my own mother was jealous of me — was shaking Peter Stearns‘ hand on stage. The Napoleonic red-and-white-haired Stearns — currently the university provost at George Mason — was the Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences at
Carnegie Mellon at the time. Having to touch his rough yet clammy right hand as they read off the names of the doctorates that afternoon brought back quite a few not-so-pleasant memories of why I found Carnegie Mellon a terrible elitist (as opposed to elite) school to attend for four years.
I’d most recently co-presented with Stearns on how to successfully finish a doctorate that March, which wasn’t so unpleasant. Except for the fact that most of his presentation was off-the-cuff ego-stroking. Except that the lessons learned from writing a dissertation in six weeks in ’64 were mostly irrelevant to the students in front of us that day. Except that I already knew that Stearns was equally polite and dismissive of my presentation by proxy.
Too bad hand sanitizers — or as my son Noah calls them, hanitizers — were in their infancy in ’97. For as I shook Stearns’ hand, the memory that crept to the fore was my other experience working with the man, when I was a teaching assistant for two sections of his world-famous World Stereotypes, oops, World History course in the fall of ’94. He spent lecture after lecture entertaining mostly White college freshman with dirty jokes about beer and sex in covering World History Plato-to-NATO style. I spent most of my teaching time attempting to refocus my group of students away from stereotyping South Asian women as “demur” and Arab men as horn dogs.
Then the end of that semester came, and I turned in all of my grades. I had a few students with D’s and F’s because they had failed their exams, or hadn’t shown up for class really, or both. One of those students was a White male freshman who’d only been to class twice, had failed one exam and barely passed his final. I received an email from Stearns two days before the end of the semester ordering me to change the student’s grade from an F to a C. The reason: “[h]e’s a good kid…he showed up for a couple of my sections…” [emphasis added]. I send an email back that basically read, “So?” Stearns repeated his order to change the grade, in person, which meant that I needed to change the grades of five other students so that their grades weren’t worse than the student that Stearns had coddled.
It was the one and only time I found myself inflating grades. That exchange confirmed so much that I heard and suspected about the father of college-level World History. Stearns was mercurial, egotistical and played favorites, who somehow were usually White and often male. I knew of at least one former grad student who’d all but been blackballed from finding academic jobs because of him. I also knew that he arbitrarily provided vastly different pay levels to grad students and instructors when he was the history department chair.
When my future wife first saw Stearns in ’96 at some history department conference in which my then advisor Joe Trotter forced me to do a presentation, she said that the five-foot-four man looked like the late British actor Denholm Elliott, especially from the movie A Room With A View (1985). That’s really an insult to Elliott. A better comparison would be between the actor who played the emperor in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Or, more specifically, like the late actor Jack Nance’s character Nefud from Dune (1984). Very mean of me, I suppose, not to mention, a digression.
As I began to walk off the stage after shaking Stearns’ hand, I felt agitated, and thought of all that I’d gone through with him and with Carnegie Mellon in general. Ultimately, like the characters I mentioned above, Stearns was and remains an imperialist, building an academic empire in his image and crushing all opposition (real and imagined) along the way. His legacy will be the multiplication of inflated student egos who believe they understand the world but instead really only understand how to see the world in their own egocentric ways.