Me as Naruto, the ultimate hollerer, Noah's 7th birthday, July 30, 2010. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)
This weekend should be of significance to me. Actually it should be of more significance than anything else I’ve done professionally in the fifteen years since. For this was the weekend that I decided I was “Dr. Collins,” three and a half months before actually becoming Dr. Collins.
I was in the middle of a tumultuous time, caught between Joe Trotter and five years of graduate school, the last three of which had been at Carnegie Mellon. I had just finished revising my first draft of my dissertation, adding thirty pages to an already hefty 475-page manuscript. Me and Trotter hadn’t been getting along for four months, and after two months with my first draft, I’d received a response in mid-July that was disheartening.
Most of my dissertation, examining how multiculturalism was lived intellectually, educationally and culturally in Black Washington, DC, received no comment whatsoever. The chapters on the development of
Trotter comments, back of page 43 of first dissertation draft, July 15, 1996. Pic taken August 6, 2011. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)
the Black community in DC, particularly in the period immediately before the 1930-1960 period, had received lots of snarky comments. Like “I told you to change this already,” or “This is the third time I commented on this section,” or “Make these suggested revisions on…already,” handwritten in pencil, big, bold and rushed, as if he wanted to stab me in the neck with the pencil. Comments on writing, evidence, to sharpen analysis of my multiculturalism argument, I expected. What I, naive little me, didn’t expect was a series of comments about data and information that, quite frankly, was irrelevant.
After talking with a couple of professors who weren’t on my dissertation committee — including one whom himself had been Trotter’s advisor back in the ’70s — I finally figured out what had been eating at the man ever since I began handing him chapters. It wasn’t as if Trotter’s comments were transparent in what he wanted me to revise. He wanted me to put together a proletarianization argument for DC. Bottom line was, he was pissed with me because I had written that the Great Migration period (1910-1930) of Blacks leaving the rural South for the industrial, urban North had little effect on DC, a truly Southern city at the time.
I was incensed when I finally figured out why Trotter had been giving me a hard time since last fall and especially since April. It made me think that maybe earning a doctorate in history — especially with him as the head of my committee, along with Dan Resnick and an increasingly distant Bruce Anthony Jones — wasn’t worth it. I thought that if I had to go through another year of this, that I’d drop out of the program.
But I’d only do that after giving the revisions one more shot. I addressed every — and I mean every — comment I had from Trotter by email or written out across a page, and then documented every change in a six-page memo of my revisions. I even went so far as to rhetorically fudge the Great Migration period data, just to see how Trotter would respond. On page 100 of my dissertation, I wrote, “For Washington, a slight acceleration in black migration occurred between 1915 and 1930.” That was an obfuscation, for Blacks migration didn’t “accelerate” until the 1930s, after a twenty-year period of limited migration that only added 20,000 to a Black population of more than a 100,000. Trotter actually praised this revision.
I made a deal with myself to quit after another year if this revision didn’t work out. After receiving a response that only required four minor revisions, Trotter made an attempt to remove the one professor I did have in my corner from my committee in Bruce Jones, using Jones’ recent acceptance of a position at the University of Missouri as an excuse. From that weekend in August ’96 until the week before Thanksgiving, everything about my doctorate became a battle with Trotter.
In a way, I guess I was lucky it did work out. But now, as I did then, I wonder if it was really worth it, to fight as hard as I did for that degree. Would I be a better writer, a better educator, if I had dropped out of the program, gone back to school, and become a high school history or social studies teacher? At least my employment status would’ve been much more stable between ’96 and ’99 if I had, and I’d have an additional career option now.
PhD Graduation - CMU Diploma, May 21, 1997. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)
Even now, thinking about what happened a decade and a half ago makes me clench my teeth, not with anger, but more with a sense of dread and latent rage. What I and at least two other male students went through (as I’d learn later on) was patently unfair. Still, I realize that while I’ve long since forgiven Trotter for his misdeeds, I can’t help but think that professionally, he aged me in my last year in graduate school. The sense of security I felt about my professional future back then was gone, and I don’t think I’ve felt that certain, that youthful, since.
I do know this. That that youthful, if somewhat naive, twenty-six year-old still resides in me. But with the mind of a forty-one year-old man, I can use both wisdom and experience to say that I wouldn’t go through that again. I’d either would’ve gone to law school or a school of education, maybe even with a focus on ed foundations and ed policy. As it is, between Boy @ The Window and my recent articles, that’s really what I’m most intellectually passionate about these days anyway.
I may be Dr. Collins or Professor Collins, maybe for the rest of my life. But really, I’d be happiest as Donald Earl Collins, the author, educator and troublemaker I believe with all my heart I am and I will always be.