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May 22, 2007

Getting What You Came For

Getting What You Came For is the title of a book that the University of Kansas Graduate Schools gives to its new doctoral candidates.

Basically, a series of chapters instruct graduate students on how to stay on task -- not getting lazy, not getting overly distracted by work and family, not becoming perfectionists in their research and dissertation writing, etc. What graduate students "come for" is a Ph.D., a credential that theoretically opens new career doors. I have now gotten mine. I successfully defended my dissertation -- "Invited Influence: American Private Associations in the Modernization of China, 1985-2005" -- on April 23, 2007.

Actually, first passing the defense (a result that was a foregone conclusion, once my advisor had accepted all my chapters, with no dissent from the two other committee members who consituted my "core committee"), then getting "hooded" in a formal ceremony on May 20, was largely anti-climactic. I felt a combination of relief at being done and gratification at having assimmilated a considerable body of secondary reading (books and articles by others) and primary sources (my own engagement with a variety of documents and intereviews) and having crafted their essense into a readable and hopefully meaningful narrative that combined contemporary history with social theory. My interaction with four of five committee members was terrific -- especially with my advisor, Norm Yetman. In fact, when my childhood friend Howard Sacks called to congratulate me, he asked what about the whole experience most surprised me. After a moment's thought, I replied that it was the intensity of Norm's guidance and mentoring. On the other hand, one committee member turned out to be not as helpful as I would have wished and expected. Although he provided competent and helpful critical input, several months before my defense he began refusing to acknowledge my requests for letters of recommendation for jobs. I suppose this unprofessional behavior was my second biggest surprise.

One nice thing about getting an advanced degree this late in life is that one of my grandsons (Drew) was able to attend my celebration dinner. As he is only seven months old, of course, he may need some help retrieving this memory in later years. A disadvantage is that my parents had both passed away before the grand finale. Dad had done considerable travel to East Asia when he was younger and wanted to know everything about my connections to China -- business, personal, and academic. Mom ... well, she would have been proud finally to have a "doctor" for a son.

At my celebration dinner, I acknowledged three people without whom I could not have completed my Ph.D. -- Norm Yetman, whom I described as my Virgil; my wife Terry, the Beatrice who had been with me all along and was ever patient and supportive; and Jim Kaplan, my boss and friend for the past 19 years (and too unique to have an analogue in Dante's Comedy or anywhere else), who never once even hinted that my decade-long academic concentration was distracting me from my business responsibilities. Honorable mention went to my friend Honggen (Jonathan) Yi, who helped me by arranging and interpreting for a key research interview and who, happily, was back at KU this year to teach Chinese at the university's and was, thus, able to attend the dinner.

I was honored that widely respected historian Martin Sklar sent Terry some words of praise, which she read at the dinner. In the end, though, friends who have known me for many years made sure that I will maintain a modest perspective on this new stage in life. Sandy (Goldberg) Wendell sent me a framed B.C. comic strip, in which a caveman looks up a definition of "Spin Doctor" in The Book of Phrases and finds that it is "The first Ph.D. to affix a propeller to his beenie cap." Jeff Slotsky, who drove in from rural Iowa, told me he realized he had to call me "Dr. Wheeler" in public but wondered whether in private he could address me with something a little less formal -- like "Doc." Finally, Joe Berry, a fellow troublemaker from undergraduate days at the U of Iowa who flew in from Chicago, began an inscription in his recent book on organizing adjuct instructors with, "Congratulations on returning to the working class." (As if I needed such a reminder, I learned a couple of days later that my Ph.D. is worth $100 extra per course per semester at Washburn U, where I will be teaching during the 2007-08 academic year -- and that comes to just a little less per credit hour than I earned at Morningside College in 2006-07!)

-- Norty