Bookmarked Public Thinker: Tressie McMillan Cottom on Writing in One’s Own Voice | Public Books,Public Thinker: Tressie McMillan Cottom on Writing in One’s Own Voice (Public Books)

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.

Bookmarked Ed-Tech Agitprop (Hack Education)

To suggest that storytelling in ed-tech is agitprop is not to suggest that it’s part of some communist plot. But it is, I hope, to make clear that there is an agenda — a political agenda and a powerful one at that — and an ideology to our technologies, that come intertwined with an incredible sense of urgency.

In a talk delivered delivered at OEB 2019 in Berlin, Audrey Watters sets out to defamilarise the stories we tell ourselves about educational technology, our “edtech imaginary.” This is a part of an attempt to “turn ed-tech agitprop back on itself” in order to highlight the political agenda and ideology at play.

Agitprop is a portmanteau – a combination of “agitation” and “propaganda,” the shortened name of the Soviet Department for Agitation and Propaganda which was responsible for explaining communist ideology and convincing the people to support the party.

Watters touches on such stories as “65% of children entering primary school today will end up in jobs that don’t exist yet” and “half life of skills” as examples of agitation propaganda. She questions the contradiction that is inherent in much of these discussions, where on the one hand we are calling for a revolt against the system, only the to replace it with a more dystopian one.

If nothing else, it helped underscore for me not only how the vast majority of ed-tech speakers give their talks with a righteous fury about today’s education system that echoes that school-as-factory scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall – a movie that is 40 years old, mind you – and all starry-eyed about a future of education that will be (ironically) more automated, more algorithmic; and how too many people in the audience at ed-tech events want to chant “hey teacher! leave those kids alone” and then be reassured that, in the future, magically, technology will make everything happier.

Watters closes with a quote from Jill Lepore which summarises this current conundrum.

Machines don’t just keep coming. They are funded, invented, built, sold, bought, and used by people who could just as easily not fund, invent, build, sell, buy, and use them. Machines don’t drive history; people do.

This all comes back to the point that technology is.not merely a tool, but rather a system with many interconnecting parts at play.

I loved John Warner’s response:

Bookmarked A Final Nail in the Coffin for Turnitin? | Inside Higher Ed,A Final Nail in the Coffin for Turnitin? | Just Visiting (

Like our time machine, with Turnitin, it doesn’t matter what happens as long as you’re willing to believe the result. Never mind that it doesn’t work. Never mind that it distorts pedagogical practices, demoralizes students, and uses their actual original work to advance Turnitin’s intellectual property (not that this matters with their new business model). As long as we get that certified originality check, we must be doing the job.

John Warner reports on the absurd situation involving the essay factories using TurnItIn, the platform they are trying to circumvent, to certify their pieces:

The purpose is no longer to detect possible plagiarism, but merely for the software to spit out the same answer when presented with the same text, therefore certifying its originality.

Warner continues this conversation on Twitter in the form of a thread. One thing that stood out to me was this:

This is something that he discusses in his book Why They Can’t Write.