Zig-Zagging Towards a PhD — Part 3: University of Michigan

The University of Michigan welcomed us with open arms. I got all the same admission papers as Carol did. The Admissions people basically said, “Anyone qualified for graduate study at the University of Chicago is OK for Michigan.” Apparently Michigan and Chicago were in some kind of University Alliance that permitted the easy transfer of students from one U to another in the group.

We both received financial support through teaching fellowships, and settled into our course work, lab participation, and teaching duties. Graduate student life was grand. The first year we lived in a largish house that had been converted into two apartments. The young couple that occupied the other half was notable only in that the wife, an elementary school teacher, had never traveled more than 50 miles from Ann Arbor in all 25 years of her life.

In walking around the neighborhood, we found a small house for sale at an exceptionally reasonable price, and with help from Carol’s mother, we were able to purchase it. In the absence of institutional married student housing, it sure beat living in any of the apartment options available, and our house became the focus of our small social group’s activities. Sirloin steak was 79 cents a pound and milk was 69 cents a gallon. Life couldn’t be better…almost too good to be true. And you know what they say about that.

Somewhere along about the second year I was there, I got a letter from the Dean of graduate studies saying that, since I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, I wasn’t really admitted to the university.  After a few meetings, reminding them of the “good enough for Chicago” line, things seemed to settle down.  On my next transcript, in the upper left hand corner in the box labeled “undergraduate degree,” there were the letters “ABEQ.” which I interpreted as “bachelor of equestrian arts,” since I had been horsing around with my education for so long.

I passed my pre-lim exam (required to start on dissertation research) on April Fool’s Day in 1968, and was ready to choose a dissertation topic and members of my dissertation committee. So far, so good.  I selected Jim Olds (of pleasure-centers-in-the-brain fame), Robert Isaacson (brain research), and Steve Glickman, with an “outside” member from the embryology department. I dropped the embryology guy after he read my dissertation proposal.  His only comment was, “You split infinitives at least a dozen times on the first page alone.”

Suddenly it was the summer of 1968, and the US was in political turmoil over the war in Viet Nam. A bunch of us drove to DC in an old VW bus (at 40mph uphill and not much faster downhill) to demonstrate in the “levitating the Pentagon” rally. We stood face-to-face with armed National Guardsmen and they only aimed into the crowds once while we were there.

It was also the year that Olds, Isaacson, and Glickman all announced that they were departing Michigan for other universities to advance their careers.   Steve invited me to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley, where he would be a full professor, but it was 1968 and Berkeley was not the most settled place in the country, not to mention that we had just transferred to Michigan a couple of years earlier, and Carol would need to find yet another program in Developmental Psychology. So we declined. But I had to form a new committee. Didn’t I mention that it was all “too good to be true”?

Steve would remain on my committee as co-chair, and Ed Walker, who was then the chairman of the Bio-Psych Program, would be the other co-chair. I grabbed two other faculty members to round out the committee and started my research. That was when Walker took a year-long sabbatical and moved to DC to serve at the American Psychological Association. By the time Walker got back to Michigan, I had completed my research, collected my data, and was ready to start writing my dissertation.

During most of our time at Michigan, Carol and I had been spending several of our holidays and vacations at Twin Oaks Community, near Louisa, Virginia. Twin Oaks had been founded by a group of idealists inspired by Skinner’s novel, Walden Two. We decided that we would actually move to the community after I finished my research. So I asked Walker if he knew of any job openings within 50 miles of Louisa. He did, and it turns out that the University of Virginia had a one-year slot that they were holding for an incoming chairman. I got the job: Acting Assistant Professor at Mr. Jefferson’s University.

During the year I was at UVA I wrote a draft of my dissertation and submitted it to my committee for review. Ed Walker had been away while I was collecting data and had no idea what I had done or why, so he gave the draft to a new faculty member to review. The new guy had come from a four-year undergraduate school (admittedly, a fine one) but had never supervised a doctoral student in his life. None the less, he felt qualified to pronounce that, “This is not a dissertation!” and I was advised to do additional research and try again.

Meanwhile, Carol and I had decided to help expand the intentional community movement, and planned to move to Denver to join forces with a fledgling urban community there. It turned out that the new chairman couldn’t come to UVA for another year, so I was offered an extension on my position in Charlottesville. I declined, which in retrospect, wasn’t a wise move. Ed Walker viewed this as being “irresponsible” and “uncommitted” and apparently said as much in a couple of “letters of recommendation” he wrote in “support” of my job applications to a couple of universities.

So, off to Denver we went, with half a dissertation, and no visible prospects for employment.


About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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