Public Thinker: Tressie McMillan Cottom on Writing in One’s Own Voice

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“You don’t tell children not to grow. And you don’t tell a writer not to write.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom is incoming associate professor at the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina and author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (2017) and Thick: And Other Essays (2019), which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for nonfiction. With Roxane Gay she cohosts the podcast Hear to Slay and is a nationally recognized expert on issues of inequality in higher education.

Professor Cottom and I spoke the day after Thick was longlisted for the National Book Award.

John Warner (JW): I’m curious when you started to see yourself as a writer. When did that identity take shape?


Tressie McMillan Cottom (TMC): I cannot pinpoint it. I can say that the act of writing has been something that I always associated with myself. But that is quite a bit different from taking on “writer” as an identity.


JW: You were writing as a kid, when you were young.


TMC: Oh, yes.


JW: So writing, it’s just a way that you relate to the world. You write.


TMC: That’s right. That’s how I process information. It was one of the primary ways that I even remember communicating with my parents. I used to leave notes when I was angry with my mother, for example, or when I wanted something. I’d tape a note to her bedroom door. Writing is just how I interact with the world.

It is also true, however, that class matters. Growing up, writing was not a job. As far as we knew, one didn’t go to school and get hired as a writer. So I just never thought of writing as being a professional identity.

Thinking of myself as a writer probably began to emerge for me when I heard other people say it about me. That was probably in grad school.


JW: And, as you’ve written elsewhere, in grad school you were actually told by a well-meaning professor to stop writing.


TMC: Yes. Oh, yes.


JW: But you also wrote that you could not stop writing.


TMC: That’s right. That’s actually probably the moment when my thoughts about myself as a writer changed. Because it was, at the time, reasonable-sounding advice (although in a way that I just would never recommend someone to give advice).

But it was reasonable. This was a person who understood what was valued and what the incentives were in the profession. They were successful, so they obviously had run that gauntlet and knew what I should be doing. We shared an identity as a woman, as an African American.

So by every measure it was reasonable advice. And the fact that I had such an outsized negative reaction to the advice was maybe my first moment of cognitive awareness about just how important writing was to me. That it was something else for me. In that moment, I realized, Oh, that’s probably very reasonable advice, but there’s no way in hell I can ever follow it. This is not just what I do. This is who I am.

You don’t tell children not to grow. And you don’t tell a writer not to write.


JW: For me, writing is thinking.


TMC: Absolutely.


JW: And, as you say in the first essay in Thick, if you’re going to be a thinking person, then what you most need time to do is to sit, read, and think. And if that’s gonna be part of what you do, then writing ultimately has to result from it. Without writing, the other parts don’t even matter all that much.


TMC: I honestly cannot agree more—with the caveat that I understand that there are different ways of thinking and processing information. But with that caveat, I do believe that, if you’re going to do the kind of thinking that one does to be part of a system of ideas, then, at some point, you have to write. Now, you may not necessarily have to publish. But I do believe you have to write.

And yet, for academics this is a constant tension. They have this idea that the writing should be secondary, or distinct, from the thinking. And I’ve always found that very bizarre. How are you thinking, if you are not writing?


Black Speculation, Black Freedom

By Petal Samuel

JW: I first started reading you when you were blogging. And what jumped off the page for me, then as now, is something that you later said to Roxane Gay in your podcast: that the thing you like most about your writing is that “it sounds like myself.” That it sounds like you.


TMC: Even when I’m wrestling with it on the floor and screaming about it, I am writing, because this is the place where I make the most sense.

I love that question she asked [about what I like most about my writing]. Roxane was the first person to ask me that question, and I was caught so off guard. I answered really honestly, by saying, “God, I love my voice.”

But I do. I love that it sounds like me, because I sound like the people I come from. And the people and places I come from are so intrinsic to who I am that when my writing voice is honest and true to that, I feel connected to all of those things.

And I love how it’s a little subversive. I hear this a lot from readers, that they hadn’t really meant to read me. They were scanning a page, and then, the next thing they knew, they were hooked. I dig that. And I do attribute it to my voice. When I have captured on the page the voice that I’m chasing in my mind, that’s the line that those readers end up following down the rabbit hole.


JW: Yeah. It’s interesting thinking about how academics read or respond to reading. I’ve heard people say that as an academic, you’re trained not to read. You’re trained to skim and assess.


TMC: I still have some rituals around signaling to my brain what type of reading I’m about to do. When I’m in the office, I’m skimming and assessing. When I’m at home reading in my chair, I’m telling my brain: Oh, no, no, no. We’re here to get lost this time. Let’s turn that off.

I developed that in grad school. You were expected to read everything, but to never actually read. And I couldn’t figure it out. For a couple years, even after grad school, many people talked about how they had forgotten how to read. They couldn’t do it anymore.


JW: Oh, no.


TMC: It atrophies. And I was terrified that I could lose my one good thing. So I actually had to really work to bring that back.

JW: When I read Thick, what I see and hear and experience really is this intersection of your identities. A woman, a Southern woman, a Southern black woman, an academic, a writer. Is this anything you’re conscious of, or is this simply just who you are and therefore it winds up on the page?


TMC: It started out as it just being who I was. But there was a point at which I had to become more deliberate about it, mostly because the incentives for me to not do that just became so strong. And so I needed to tackle head-on that I was either going to be this writer or not.

I wanted to make a choice. I didn’t want to be pulled into doing certain types of work just because I was able to. Before grad school, I supported myself by writing ad copy. I can write sounding like someone else. I can actually—and it pains me to do so—but I can write a really boring article if you want me to.

But just because I was able to do the things that the profession would want me to do, that wasn’t enough. I wanted to be more deliberate than that. I wanted to say, No, this is what I’ll do, and why.

How do I do it? I’m still actually working on the process. I think I am doing my best work when I honor the fact that I can speak in different registers at the same time. And when I’m really, really doing this—when I’m doing what I hope I do really well—I can weave those registers together in a way that makes sense for an audience who didn’t think they needed that. But I can only pull it off if I am doing that intersecting, multiple-identities and -structures approach.


JW: That’s how it feels reading Thick. The word: I don’t know if it is an identity, but maybe a philosophy. It seems as though the word came after the philosophy. “Thick” is not a brand. “Thick” is a descriptor of something that already existed.


TMC: Yes. And in fact, I wrote the title essay for this volume after everything else had been finished, and after I had been thinking forever about what strung these essays together. And the word just kept coming back to me over and over.

One of the things that causes books like this to break through is the organic nature of those things that later start to look like a piece of marketing, even if it’s not.

If I can give advice to writers, it’s do what you and other writers do: figure out who you are and figure out what to call it. Be yourself, before you decide what your brand is.

JW: I looked at an interview you did with the folks at Lit Hub. It was really fascinating how you spoke about entering publishing through your trauma. That you were asked to share this trauma. To publish Thick in the way you published it, do you think that first sharing your voice with Lower Ed helped? Or was it not material to your next book?


TMC: Writing Lower Ed first … It was my first thing. I didn’t even know if I could do a book. I didn’t know how to do one. I remember for a while, after signing the contract, just looking at a blank page and thinking, What do you do now? And then I realized, All right. I only know how to do one thing. When the chips are down, I said to myself, I’ll just start writing. But as far as structure, timeline, process: I had none.

I do think that writing Lower Ed helped me develop confidence in my voice. With Lower Ed I figured out how to be empirically true, while also writing really well. I learned how to finesse, without turning data into farce. Because the challenge I’ve set for myself is: How can I make something true also really beautiful, without messing up the truth?

So I was always tussling with the data. We’re the data. If I was going to finesse it, then it was going to have to be through craft, because you can’t change what the numbers are or what your students say or what your respondents do.


JW: In Lower Ed, the core of your argument concerns for-profit education—which you call “lower ed”—and its “negative social insurance program.” What do you mean by “negative social insurance program”?


TMC: I was wrestling with an idea that, in its most basic terms, had always been true in the cultural imagination of Western society: that education makes your life better. Because the book, for me, was about reckoning, perhaps for the first time, with the reality that some education could make your life worse.

If education could uniformly and unilaterally improve your life, health, well-being, earnings, mobility, then we as a society had been justified in turning it into a social insurance program. We had been justified in the state taking on some responsibility for subsidizing the cost of people pursuing this “universally good thing.” If education was all these things, then it was a public good. A good that’s good for the public.

But when that belief had been perverted—in our case by private equity investment, financialization, and what we might call negative politicking—then it was no longer true that education was universally good. Which means that the social insurance ethos had been subverted. And that we were now subsiding something that had a negative effect on a sizable portion of the population.

So that’s what negative social insurance is. We’re subsiding something that could ruin your life, just because it improves the lives of others sometimes.


JW: I was terrified by the book because it rang true. And you have lots and lots of data to support it. But I also began seeing “lower ed” in a lot of places.


TMC: Yes, yes, yes. Everywhere.

JW: How do you feel about public higher education? Are you hopeful?


TMC: I’m like you. I see it everywhere too. I see it in the hallway of my own office. I hear the conversations. I hear the buzzwords. I see the disinvestment, reinvestment, the reallocation of people, the resources. I see people compromise faith and belief in the system.

I don’t know if I’m hopeful. I’m pragmatic, which can sound like hope when things are really bad, which might be where we are right now. If things get bad enough, pragmatism actually can sound quite hopeful.


JW: Right. One foot in front of the other.


TMC: That’s it. Listen: at least I’m still standing. We’re still moving. There is some value in a system that is as good as we can do. And that’s where I am with public higher education.

Is it imperfect? Absolutely. Are the trend lines not just troubling, but devastating? Absolutely. But, as with democracy itself, perhaps the best we can do is not for everyone to benefit equally. Instead, maybe the best we can do is for everyone to be roughly equally pained by the system.

My students get it. They get it, they get it. They may not always know how to talk about it. But they get that this thing is complicated and also that it’s the best we’ve got. That it’s worth fighting for. They want to make college better. They want to make it more accessible. They want it to live up to its promise and its ideals. I am super cheered about that.

I’m very depressed, however, about the politics and the economics of it all. The economic model is not sustainable. If wages stay flat and the politics around wages stay what they are—that is, antagonistic to collective bargaining, to unionization, to appeals for fair wages—if those things stay the same, public higher education can’t survive.


JW: From a moral or ethical framework, some people now absolutely understand. But I wonder if we’re gonna get there, before it’s too late.


TMC: That’s always the question. I do worry that the challenges to massive organizing are unlike anything we’ve probably ever seen. We just can’t overlook how hard it is to build momentum for people power: when the state can move so quickly to quell it, when there are so many competing incentives and opportunities. It’s gonna take far longer than we probably ever imagined it should take.

There are just so many forces out there that seem to be moving faster than we are. Like climate change and political upheaval. All of that seems to move at the speed of light. Whereas our resistance seems so slow.

But my friends who do more actual on-the-ground organizing are always telling me, “Tressie, it’s always been that way. People felt the exact same way in 1890 about the political climate and what was happening. It always feels that way.”

So I don’t know. I have to take some comfort in that, because I’m with you. I get very pessimistic about the speed of all the negative forces.

JW: I want to talk a little bit about mediocrity. The last essay in Thick, “Girl 6,” is an extended argument. On the surface it’s you arguing for a space for a black woman on essentially the New York Times op-ed page. It’s imagining a world where a black woman can be as mediocre as a white man and still secure success of the kind these guys do.

Is there any way that we can dismantle this? Or is this really just a power structure that’s so big that you simply have to recognize it and work around it and seek to elevate other voices in other places? Because they’re never going to gain equal access at a prestige place?


TMC: I go back and forth with thinking about this. But I actually really value the counterculture that arises against a prestige publication. There is just so much richness.

On the podcast, Roxane and I were talking to Rebecca Traister. And a lot of that interview didn’t actually make it into the finished product; it was just Rebecca and Roxane and me talking about how so many people in this countersystem of writing and thinking are working their asses off right now.

Everybody’s game had to change about two years ago, because there was this crop of mostly people of color, on the younger side, who just said: You know what, I’m going to take the ball and run.

To be frank, they gave up on becoming one of the elites at the New York Times. And then when they were unleashed from wanting that … It’s been incredible. There’s some value in having that counterforce to create and write against and tussle with. It would almost make me sorry to see the demise of the prestige perch, because it gives us David Brooks, for God’s sake. And what’s more fun than tossing tomatoes at David Brooks?

However, as Rebecca and I talked about more seriously, it matters whom we elevate as the unassailable rational voices in our culture. The problem with being the counterconversation is that, by virtue of being counter, you’re always seen as being hysterical or overwrought. Whereas that New York Times op-ed rationality is the finality.

We never get to get there. That’s what prestige gives you. It wraps you up in the idea that whatever you think is what’s normal and right. There is some cultural value to us upsetting that applecart.

And here’s the thing. Some places, like the New York Times, can absolutely withstand it. This is what’s so fascinating about power: how fragile the powerful have perceived themselves to be, versus what they could probably get away with and still be the New York Times.


JW: That is the mind-blowing part of it. I look at a writer like Bret Stephens. I think he is a terrible writer.


TMC: I do too. Thank you.

JW: I don’t get the impression that he’s ever discovered something fresh in his own thinking in the drafting of his writing. And then to contrast him to someone like Jamelle Bouie, who, on the other hand, is a tremendous thinker and writer. And even within the pages of the Times Bret Stephens and David Brooks are the Default, whereas Jamelle Bouie is …


TMC: That’s right. He’s offered up as the “counter.”


JW: Ultimately we are unbalanced, and harmed, by their voices being so strong. Does the counterculture ever have a chance of truly upsetting this status quo? Or are we going to be nipping at their heels for our entire lives?


TMC: It’s like with higher education. There are limits to the change you can do to one piece of the apparatus. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t do it. We have to try it. We may as well do this thing right.

But, no, it can’t happen outside of how advertising works or how politics and sinecures work. Yes, all of those things are probably going to have to change for an actual reimagining of the role of elite publishers and publications to occur. In the meantime, I’m always a fan of the idea [that] “until the right revolution comes along, have the fun revolution.” The right revolution would, of course, just get rid of all of this and reimagine people power. I’m absolutely in favor. However, until it comes along, let’s at least push. For it to be considered the accessible “paper of record,” it’s at least got to look that way. Is that a call for inclusion and marginal acceptance? Probably. And no, I’m not happy with it.

I don’t want to confuse this for a real political problem. It is a problem of politics. But it’s not the political problem. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage it.

If only because—as you point out—what we have seen over the last five years is that the publishing status quo is not nearly as mundane as we would think. Opinion thinkers and talking heads seem mundane when systems are working as designed.


JW: Oh, 100 percent.


TMC: We could laugh at David Brooks five years ago. What happened isn’t that David Brooks started being bad or Bret Stephens became a problem. It is that the problems became too real. And now we just can’t waste too much time on these writers.


JW: They’re not up to the task.


TMC: They’re not up to the task. Rebecca Traister said it so well. She wrote that, at the very time that our nation-state, the world, the electorate, the culture looks more diverse, more engaged—at that very moment, the people charged with reflecting the discourse back at us look less so. That’s a problem, when you have all the other bigger political problems wrapped around you.

JW: Thinking about sinecures or not sinecures, do you see a future where you’re not a professor?


TMC: Oh, John.


JW: Let me give a hypothetical. Let’s say the New York Times calls and says, “Tressie, we want you to write twice a week, between 800 and 1,100 words on whatever you want. But we can’t have you full time professoring while you’re doing that.” Is that something that’s of interest to you, or is professoring central to your identity?


TMC: What I have worked out so far is this. Professoring to me is a type of legitimacy that so few people who look like me, or come from where I’ve come from, ever even have a shot in hell at getting. For all of its problems—and there are many—for all of the challenges, the reason why publics have to at least nominally engage me is because I’m a professor.

I am smarter and better at being smart because I am a professor. Having to switch back and forth between teaching and scholarship, that dance, it just keeps things firing for me. That would be so hard for me to imagine giving up.

I will tell you I am actually deathly afraid of becoming too comfortable. Because that’s actually part of what might be David Brooks’s problem, right?


JW: Yes, yes.


TMC: How do you find something interesting to say when your life is centered around going to get a deli sandwich? A deli sandwich was the main thing in his life that day.

I’m deathly terrified of that. And I worry so much about what it would do to my intellectual life.

Having said that, could I imagine it? I don’t know that a place like the New York Times is used to hearing this from someone like me. And, as you know, I received a nomination for a National Book Award just the other day. Admittedly I’m feeling myself this week. But here’s what I’m going to say: really, I just don’t know if the New York Times is good enough for me.


This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen. icon

Featured image: Tressie McMillan Cottom. Photograph courtesy of Tressie McMillan Cottom