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

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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.

John Warner speaks with Tressie McMillan Cottom about writing, identity and higher education. Through their conversation, McMillan Cottom shares her belief that writing is a form of thinking.

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?

This reminds me of J. Hillis Miller’s discussion of the obligation to write.

As we read we compose, without thinking about it, a kind of running commentary or marginal jotting that adds more words to the words on the page. There is always already writing as the accompaniment to reading.

Warner and McMillan Cottom extend this discussion to incorporate voice.

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.

The conversation then turns to public higher education and the pragmatic aim to at least create a system where everyone is roughly equally pained.

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.

She elaborates on the challenge of change discussing the idea of having a fun revolution until the right one arrives.

TWC: 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 like this idea and wonder if something like the IndieWeb can be understood as a ‘fun revolution’?

McMillan Cottom closes the conversation we an explanation of why she stays in academia and authenticity it provides.

TMC: 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.

Although a different context, I have found this dance between knowledge and practice an interesting challenge in regards to voice and identity.

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