Scholars Talk Writing: Tressie McMillan Cottom
“Part of my personal political project is naturalizing the sound of expert information in a Black American woman’s voice.”
In Thick, her 2019 essay collection, Tressie McMillan Cottom says she was told that she was “too deep to be popular, too country Black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose.” Yet today she writes for many and varied publications, and her voice is always her own.
It’s a voice heard in multiple arenas: She is a sociologist, an associate professor of information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, a New York Times opinion writer, a social-media maven, and a host, with Roxane Gay, of “Hear to Slay” — the “Black feminist podcast of your dreams.” She recently signed a two-book deal with Random House. Of her academic work, she writes that her “ethnographies have too much structure and my sociology is a bit too loose with voice. A bit slutty it all is, really, jumping between forms and disciplines and audiences.”
When I approached her to talk about writing, research, and other academic-career issues for the Scholars Talk Writing series, I mentioned that I was among the commenters on a blog post that she describes, in the introduction of Thick, as her first experience with going “viral.” Cottom’s blog post — written in 2012 when she was just a graduate student — objected to a conservative white writer’s opinionattacking Black studies as a field on a Chronicle blog. Cottom’s post prompted an outcry, which led to the writer’s being dropped as a Chronicle blogger. In the introduction, she writes that she was “just a Black girl writing. Black girls do not cause problems for powerful white women or august professional publications.”
Nearly a decade later, while she’s written a couple of academic-career essays for The Chronicle, Cottom tends to resist offering general advice on the profession. Still, she agreed (through her assistant) to an interview by email, and started by saying: “I’m well known for not being very enthusiastic about giving advice, because advice is only useful as an ego exercise unless you actually know the recipient.” Nevertheless, she persisted.
A lot of academics value research over writing. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Cottom: If you want the writing to matter, I believe that you’ve got a better chance of that happening if you bring your full creative and intellectual self to the writing process. What happens to the work when it gets edited for different audiences is a whole other bag, but when you are doing the hard work of what I call structural writing — the kind of writing where I’m having to pull the ideas down out of the consciousness, give them form, make them relate to each other — that’s as much about getting the words down as it is about thinking. Bringing your whole self to that process is absolutely critical. Your writing will be better, yes, but more important, your thinking will be better.
One of the biggest roadblocks to that is how little our professional culture values writing as part of the thinking process. Writing is the research. It isn’t just summarizing findings after you’ve done the “real” work, right? It is an iterative process that helps you bring your findings back to your hypothesis, strengthen your theoretical model, refine your argument. I’m very cheered by how many graduate students and junior scholars are refusing that binary between writing and doing research.
Writing is part of the research process, and writing is part of the intellectual process. And it’s important to be comfortable owning and developing your own writing voice and style. It is all right to sound like yourself. It is harder earlier in your career, but it is ultimately more conducive to a long career.
Your writing is often called brave or unapologetic. I prefer your descriptor: “critical truth-telling.”
Cottom: Most of the time, when people say I’m unapologetic or that my writing is brave, they mean that it is clear. Academic writing does a lot of equivocation, and it hides in the ambiguity. Messy thinking can hide in ambiguity — fear about how one will be perceived and what the implications will be for their work. I think ambiguity facilitates the emotional process of managing our identities. If you’re unclear about your identity, and you’re not tackling head-on the complexities and the nuances of who you are, your writing will reflect that chaotic internal life. In writing clearly I don’t use ambiguity as a shield.
I don’t think it’s writing if it isn’t brave. It might be reporting, but it isn’t writing. And I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be technical. I actually think there’s a place for technical writing, both in empirical writing and theoretical writing, that may read as ambiguity to a nontechnical or nonexpert reader. But, holding constant that the reader shares your technical specifications and you’re speaking to an audience who is your intellectual community, the writing should not hide in itself.
And if it is hiding in itself, it is a moment for a writer or a thinker to ask what it is they’re hiding from. I think mostly we’re hiding from ourselves. It’s a process to learn how not to do that, and everyone’s is different, but I attribute a great deal of my professional trajectory to that kind of clarity.
Graduate students and junior faculty members often feel like they can’t decline work invitations when what they really need to be focused on is their own writing. Is there a good way to say no?
Cottom: It depends on your power and status in the professional community. The reality is, it is going to be more difficult for you to turn down requests earlier in your career. The sooner you accept that you are at a disadvantage in negotiating those requests, the better it is for you — if only because you can be kind with yourself and give yourself grace because you understand why it’s happening, and that it won’t stay that way forever.
I think it is very important to set up your priorities early on. If your priorities are to move up in institutional prestige, for example, with selectivity, then it may make more sense for you to privilege requests that give you networking opportunities, even if that undermines your time to write. Because the reality is, moving up in an institution and getting an early lead on jobs means networking.
If your priority is writing, above all else, my advice is to be brutal about that time. Use an auto-response message that takes some of the decision making out of your hands: “I’m working on a project. I have internal deadlines. I will not be able to accept requests during this time.” Automation can signal to people that it is nothing personal — and that can help when you’re afraid of something routine being taken as an insult by someone who has more institutional prestige or power than you do.
You should also be very transparent about your decision making with the people in your network: your mentors, the senior people in your department, your adviser. Let them know you have a deadline and you’re not accepting additional requests, because your advocates can often help with defending your boundaries.
Finally, be just as ruthless with yourself as you are with everybody else. Because sometimes we’re the ones who are distracting ourselves more than anyone else is — with our expectations, with our fears, with our anxieties. Take advantage of digital tools that help you with your attention and focus by shutting down your access to certain sites, scheduling your time, and working with your natural rhythms. If you work best in the morning, then prioritize the mornings, do your writing during your most generative, emotional, and physical time.
What do faculty members need to do differently to accommodate more interesting and creative scholarly work in their disciplines, to allow other voices to be heard?
Cottom: I always believed that if I was willing to defend the veracity of my work and if I was willing to hold that work up for evaluation — for critique and judgment — then who I was when I was doing the work would eventually matter less. And that took time. And I took hits. But I do think that that is ultimately what happened.
Ideally, to accommodate that kind of work, faculty members would be the kind of people who do some of these things that I’ve talked about to this point, who value writing as part of the research process, right?
It means giving up some of the expectation that being a credentialed faculty member by default makes you an expert on all domains of experience and knowledge. To support interesting and creative work, you must constantly engage in it yourself, and be willing to risk being a novice reader of work that may not necessarily be in your professional wheelhouse but moves forward a conversation that you care about.
Mariame Kaba (founder and director of an organization to prevent youth incarceration) has this wonderful point about how she has people who are younger than her mentor her, and how important that is to her intellectual vitality. I think of being a professor in the same way: My students are mentors to me, as much as I am a mentor to them.
It’s important to get to know the kinds of work that our students are doing and to become comfortable being a novice “reader” of them — whether of their visual work, the stuff they’re doing online and in social media, the stuff they’re doing in their respective movement communities, what they’re doing in their other courses. To know what our students are doing keeps our intellectual vitality from atrophying, and allows more space for those different kinds of voices to be heard.
You read a ton. As a writer, how do you take notes and keep track of things you might want to use?
Cottom: I have got to say, I’ve struggled more with the process stuff than anything else in my career. I feel like I restart and come up with a new process every year, but I think I’ve done better over the last couple of years, in part, because I now respect and acknowledge some of the work I do that is less obvious. For example, I used to say, “Oh, I don’t have time to read everything. I just have to pick up something here and there.” But now I think of those 15 or 20 minutes of reading as being absolutely part of my formal research process and creative process. I value those little bits and less obvious forms of work.
Now this is the part where I say: I wish I took wonderful detailed notes and typed them up. I do not. I have a colleague who does. She recently shared a screenshot of her wonderful Google drive folder set up with all of her reading notes, and I felt so ashamed because it was beautiful. Mine looks more like written margin notes, and Post-it notes in the text. That’s why paper is still very important to me. I tend to print out journal articles when I need to read them deeply, as opposed to skimming them. And then of course, in books, I just write all over them. My marginalia is just off the charts.
And once I’ve read enough, I start on my very first drafts. I sit down to write, and I open a blank page on a word-processing document. My first draft of everything is just free writing what I know and how I know it. I worry about structure and editing and moving things around later. I draft and draft and draft until I decide that tinkering with the draft has become a distraction.
And then I print it out, usually, stack it to the side, and then start with a completely clean page. And I rewrite from scratch, having done some of that presynthesis, precognition work in the first draft.
There’s always a point in a project when I scrap the whole thing and just rewrite from the beginning. That’s usually the beginning of the draft that will then be edited and crafted into an argument. This is when I start to pay attention to things like transitions and voice, word choice, precision.
I’m wondering about your thoughts on those who argue that language purity and insistence on proper English, grammar, spelling, and syntax in writing is a tool of white supremacy.
Cottom: Oh yeah. Ontological categories are all about domination, so that’s the whole point. I think at its highest level of abstraction, it’s impossible to divorce the rules of language, or the language math as I call it, from the normative structure of white supremacy as a domination regime. Absolutely. And then having said that, I do accept that if I’m writing into a tradition, I have to learn enough of the rules to consider myself part of that discursive community.
But norms actually flatten the nuance and the timbre of writing voice. Voice is the deviation from norms. And I am very committed to my intellectual ideas’ sounding as much like my natural voice as possible because part of my personal political project is naturalizing the sound of expert information in a Black American woman’s voice. And I want you to be able to hear that through my syntax as a way of naturalizing that syntax.
My editing process is always very combative for this reason, I do a lot of stet, stet, stetting, because I know exactly and precisely what I wanted to say, and I said it this way for a reason. Sometimes the incongruence between my expert information and the voice that I use to structure the sentence is exactly what primes the denaturalization for the reader, particularly a white male reader.
That moment of denaturalization, that surprise, that counterintuitiveness, is how you crack open a hostile reader or a reader who was ungenerous to you — as so many non-Black women readers are when they read a Black woman. I’m very deliberate about that. And I think owning up and fighting for the fact that I have expertise and that I’m making deliberate choices has been one of the things I’ve learned and grown into as my work has matured — to push back on the editorial process to make sure it sounds like me.
What do you tell your students about the writing and revision process?
Cottom: As I said earlier, there’s a point in my process where I just basically start over, from scratch — that is, re-seeing the work and rethinking it. I don’t think it’s a natural stage for anybody, by the way. I think we all had to learn it, but what happens in formal schooling these days is that there’s almost no leeway in teaching that process to most students. So by the time they come to me, many of our students have just never, ever approached revising as part of the thinking process.
And so I try to structure it as an assignment. I try to force it, use my authority in the classroom to force them to revise or to rethink an idea. I’ll assign something at the beginning of a semester, they turn it in and get a grade, and they think it’s over, and I will bring that assignment back up three months into class.
Often in academic work, we present our work as finished. Because we’re so sensitive to early evaluations of our research and writing process, we don’t tend to share drafts and share the broken pieces and the pieces that don’t make it. I tell students that the writing and revision process is the writing process. We think of revision as the set-up of something you can get to later, if you’re so fortunate, whereas I tell students you’re not done writing if you haven’t revised.
And if they’re struggling with revision, I will often send them back to reading. If you’re having a problem revising, or if you’re having a problem writing, it is probably because you need to read some more. So they get to a part where they cannot revise it because something hasn’t happened for that metacognition process to kick in. I have found that, nine times out of 10, what fixes that is more reading.
And so, as some of my former students have told me, I’m quite annoying about how I send them back to their reading list.
One more thing, my single bit of true advice: Please turn off your notifications. All of them, except those from your children or pet caregivers. You cannot write like that. What are you thinking?