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Freedom to Flourish: McMillan Cottom on Leaving for UNC

Woman in doorway
(Photo courtesy Tressie McMillan Cottom)

After five years at Virginia Commonwealth University, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom is leaving Richmond for the University of North Carolina information school.

While at VCU, McMillan Cottom authored two best sellers: “Lower Ed” about the expansion of for-profit colleges and “Thick,” an essay collection on her experiences as a Black woman that’s part memoir, part manifesto. She spoke with VPM’s David Streever on what the shift means for her - and what went in to her decision.

Editor’s note: What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the audio conversation. Some parts have been edited for clarity, while we’ve also added elements from the original interview that were cut from the recording to comply with airtime limitations. In addition to our aired conversation, we’ve included a segment on how white readers can over identify with Black thinkers on social media, and make racist demands on their time.

David Streever:
How will your new post in library sciences differ from your work as a professor of sociology?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Nobody knows. Nobody knows the answer. Listen, so there are a couple things. ‘I schools’ are these inherently interdisciplinary things, right. It came out of universities trying to figure out where they were going to put the study of the Internet in a university system.

And since none of the disciplines are really good at doing it, these interdisciplinary places popped up. Some places have data science schools like UVA [University of Virginia], and some went the other way, with I-schools.

Each I-school has a different personality based on who they hired. And so one of the things that was attractive about the one at UNC is that they have a lot of top-notch sociologists -  Zeynep Tufekci is there, Alice Dyer is there. So these are like trained sociologists who I knew and whose work I knew, so it is a sociologically leaning department. 

My understanding is there’s a little less managing of the reputation of the discipline of sociology, right. Like I don't necessarily have to go to the big conferences and make sure that, you know, sociology looks good, if that makes sense.

But you know, I'm still a sociologist. Probably at some point will be, what we call, a courtesy appointment in the sociology department.

I'm still a sociologist. But like what it looks like in my day to day life is - what I hope - is that it means I do less institution building, meaning, I don't have to do as much work keeping the discipline alive, and I can just do more work that is just like laser focused on what my research is and how it interacts with the other people's research.

"Listen. I mean, what’s the most polite way I can say this. Every Black woman I know has about four jobs. It will be nice to get rid of one of mine."

David Streever:
I’m reminded that you often say, “The institution doesn’t love you,” when dispensing advice to graduate students. It must be nice to not be responsible for the image of the institution anymore.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yep.

Listen. I mean, what’s the most polite way I can say this. Every Black woman I know has about four jobs. It will be nice to get rid of one of mine. If I can drop down to just having three jobs, that will be exciting.

David Streever:
I expect you’ll have more time for writing books now.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
It was part of my decision making process, and I absolutely took this opportunity because they understood who I am and what I do. They understood how I work. And they not only understand it but really articulated that they valued it..

They said, we want you to do what you do. Instead of doing that now as a side, kind of parallel career … I can do that as my main career.

The idea that I could do what it is I really do, as my main career objective, is just a really huge deal for me. And so, yes, I absolutely will continue writing. And in fact, I'm kind of excited about writing, surrounded by people who are also sort of writing and doing that work. So not just UNC, but I think like the area proper just more broadly has a lot of writers

But yea, absolutely. In fact, it was after I took the job. I finally let my agent talk to me about the possibility of a next book project,  like I couldn't even think about it before then, and then it became like, oh yeah, that is the thing I can do because there's a little bit more space open up for me.

"Thinking about where you can sort of flourish is the kind of question that most Black people never get to ask ourselves, and I finally had the freedom to ask it of myself."

David Streever:
That brings up something else I wanted to ask you about. There’s this snobby idea that if you’re not in New York City or Los Angeles, you don’t exist. Your work shows that’s just not true, but community matters, right? So I’m wondering, what will change for your work, your writing, in this new community? What role does place play?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
 As a sociologist, I know that creative people are made. They're not born. There's the right set of conditions for somebody to be a quote unquote genius or for someone to become the greatest at this or that.

As Americans,  we love that narrative of the single genius. But you know, that's just not true. These things take systems, they take a community.

I knew that was true, I’d never really applied it to myself, but it was just a basic sociological fact.

Then when you start looking as a writer and you have these opportunities and you're able to think more deliberately about the work you're going to do, I had to sit down and go okay, now I get to choose the kind of work that I want to do, as opposed to just merely choosing the work that needs to be done. And what do I need to do that, to the best of my ability.

So both the personal and the professional side of me was like, oh yeah, duh: you have to have a community. There's only so much you can kind of do by yourself. That is why, New York is New York right? It is this density of people that creates a sort of like kinetic energy. And so for writing, yeah, it’s the center of the world, for that reason.

But there are other places. I talked to my friend Kiese Laymon about this a lot. He's down in Mississippi, and he talked about leaving New York to go back home to Mississippi and, you know, people kind of think he’s crazy. What writer leaves New York, especially as an accomplished writer as he is?

Well, it's also about the type of writer you're going to be. He is very steeped in like Southern culture and Black Southern literature and arts, and so it makes sense for him to be like the center of the South and in the University of Mississippi. That was a choice about what type of writer you are going to be.

So yeah, community started to matter to me a lot. And it wasn't that there isn't a community in Richmond, it is. I will be honest, it's really hard to break into that community as a newcomer which five years in I still very much was, and it took a lot of energy to build it. And I think one of the things that I'm looking for at this life stage was, can I spend less energy building a thing, and maybe just tapping into a thing that's kind of already there.

So I had tons of friends here [Richmond] that I was able to talk with about like the business of writing and publishing. But you know, I think like Kiese and I were talking about, thinking about where you can sort of flourish is the kind of question that most Black people never get to ask ourselves, and I finally had the freedom to ask it of myself.

And it just made sense to  think about you know, where is there a community that understands what I do, and I can spend my time sort of building on that instead. 

David Streever:
There’s so much here - you’re gaining more collaborators, you’re focusing on the work you want to do, and you’ll live closer to your family, right?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Exactly. And again, not something I just didn't think that was possible, and academic work, you get really used to making do with where you are and what you are, because the job market is just so byzantine. The fact that it’s worked out is just so beyond what I could have imagined.

"And then for a lot of people, this is what racial segregation does to our lives, Black famous people become in the minds of a lot of a white audiences their one Black friend."

David Streever:
This kind of goes back to what I said last time we spoke, that you’re kind of famous, right? You get to make different choices now.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I still resist it, I resist the very idea of the thing. I was talking to my best friend last night, because nobody sleeps anymore, it was about 2 a.m. or so. And she said, “You’re almost as famous as so-and-so,” and I stopped her right in her tracks, like, “I’ve told you about saying that sort of thing. It’s not true and I don’t want to hear it.” I still have a moratorium on “the f word.”

David Streever:
That’s fair, but I wanted to ask you about how you get kind of the worst parts of being famous and usually not the best. Looking at your Twitter, and that of [your frequent collaborator and fellow academic] Roxane Gay, it’s almost every day where you’ll say the most anodyne thing, like express a preference for a piece of music or type of food, and there’s someone - usually a white middle-class woman - who feels the need to explain that, actually, you’re position is very privileged in their opinion. Has that intensified even more as you’ve gained prominence? How do you deal with that?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I don’t think there’s been a day in my life, in six years, where there has not been a white woman telling me something that nobody asked her about. It’s constant. It’s just a low-level buzz now in the back of my mind, because it rarely rises to the level of something I can pay attention to, but it’s just so constant now that I can barely see it, but it’s there.

Roxane gets it worse than I do, because there’s something about being a creative person that writes about trauma or has written about trauma, that can cause people to over identify with you, especially if you're a woman and then magnified by about a factor of 10 if you are a Black woman or a woman of color.

Because so much of that just maps on to white people's idea of who should be a caretaker, so they think of course you should take care of me that's what people who live in your body. Because that’s what you do, right, the “mammification” of us.

And then social media just networks that, so you get it constantly.

And then for a lot of people, this is what racial segregation does to our lives, Black famous people become in the minds of a lot of a white audiences their one Black friend.

They really do. You know, I'm their Black friend in their mind, and just the one. And so that can create this like over familiarity and this desire to like control what you like. You have to like exactly what I like. You have to think exactly as I think because of, you know, you are my one Black friend and if we diverge on this, then I have to question some things about myself and it's a whole thing. And then the third one is, which is just that people are just rude. People are just rude.

David Streever:
I hadn’t considered the first part of that before - the trauma aspect - and I’m thinking, that must be horrible to be the person who is that kind of outlet for other people’s traumas, and now you have to process your own trauma regularly as an outlet. And it must be hard to have to refuse to do that, too, right?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
It absolutely is.

I mean, even if you are the best person and you feel responsible to your ideals and to humanity and all of these things, and you want to give people this conduit and this opportunity to express that, because that we have so few spaces for that in our culture - you know, it’s a hustle hard culture, everything is supposed to be about presenting our best selves and we're all aspirational, we're always fine, you know.

And so we have very few spaces where people can explore the parts that are not fine and you don't want to take that away and you certainly don't want to be the person who says, I cannot listen to another one of these stories today, because you feel horrible, but at some point, you do have to realize that you are not an institution. You're just a person. You might be in an institution but you just don't have the resources to do that for everybody who will want it of you.

And so yes, it's tough. It's tough to balance that, in fact, you end up not balancing it. You really do just have to choose your own survival and then be as kind about defending your survival as you possibly can be.

I've talked to the professionals about it. Like, how do you set those boundaries. How do you manage it and I'm still always constantly learning - but the amplification effect of that, that's just what being out in the public does. There are now more people than you could ever have imagined who want that and need that from you.

But you don't multiply. Your audience multiplies. But you don't

I still have the same amount of hours in the day that I had when I only knew 20 people. I still have the same amount of emotional and cognitive resources. None of those things expand, but the demands on you do.

David Streever:
OK, please be as candid or as open as you like, but I have to ask you: What were some of the high points and low points of your time here, and of your time at VCU.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
This was my first tenure track job out of graduate school here at VCU and it always will be. This is where I learned how to be a professor, and the students were kind with me figuring that out. 

I will tell you there was always a tension between the fact that I individually, as a scholar, was extremely well supported at VCU. Listen, there's no bones about that. I mean, every time I sat down with the administration, for example, and said, Listen, this is what I think I want to do, how even if there was some education involved in getting the university to figure out how to do it, they always started with yes, and then we just worked our way back.

That is unheard of for a junior scholar, it is almost unheard of for any Black scholar that I know of.

And I will always say that part of the reason why I had sort of the mental space to do some of the work that I've done over the last five years is because they let me take that space at VCU and do it.

Having said that, yeah, there are challenges. Listen, it’s difficult, being the only one of anything.

And in many ways, I was sort of a perfect professional isolate, you know over to the side from lots of important networks. That's a really great space to be creative, it's a really challenging space to be safe.

And so that was just a challenge … we had to build the infrastructure for everything we did [like the Race Space and Place Initiative conference]

Thinking about the conference, for example, the infrastructure of making it happen on campus became so onerous that we couldn't do it. We had it off campus, which ended up being the best thing probably for the event, but it was a real learning experience for me about how difficult the bureaucracy of a major institution like this, that is just really kind of sprawling and doesn't have like a central focus and leadership.

How that was just always going to be that sort of yes, you had to build everything from scratch, we had to build a marketing apparatus, we had to build the online platform. We had to build the system for collaborating on ideas and we had to do that for every event, for everything, you know, sort of endeavor that I undertook

It means I learned a lot, but it's not a way I wanted to keep having to learn forever.

But again, I also learned how to be a professor here, I learned how to develop my own research trajectory here.

And hands down - and this is not a cop out - the very best part of this place, there are two things. The city is the best part of VCU, and the students are the best part of VCU.

David Streever:
I know you can't tell me what the next book is, right? But, is there anything you can tell me about the next book, even in terms of like general genre or style or?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yeah, I can tell you that I've argued with myself for quite a while about even putting a name to what the next book will be. I've got both a research project and a creative project right now. And I just think that's how my life is going to go for the foreseeable future, one of each. I do think the next book probably comes out of my creative project work, and it is probably a book about all of the Vivian's [Editor's note: This is a reference to her mom] in the world. That's all I'll say.

David Streever:
Thank you so much for talking with me.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Absolutely, David. I love it.