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Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom Starts with Culture First, Then Asks Questions

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom wants her work to meet people where they are, and to do so, she uses many platforms and intersects multiple disciplines. However, her strategy is simple; she starts with culture. 

“Culture is this place where we try to make sense of a really complex world in our own little local context,” says McMillan Cottom.  “Fundamentally, I want my scholarship to matter to people's lives and to do that, it's really helpful if I don't lose sight of how people are living.” 

Dr. Tressie McMillan CottomDr. Tressie McMillan CottomMcMillan Cottom is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill and a senior principal researcher at UNC’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. She is also a columnist for the New York Times, an award-winning author, and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. 

McMillan Cottom received her Ph.D. in sociology in 2015 from Emory University’s Laney Graduate School and her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and political science from North Carolina Central University. 

She says the things that resonated with her in graduate school were theoretically sophisticated and mattered to people. 

“There’s a reason why Du Bois is Du Bois,” she says. “He's like this really great methodologist and this really sophisticated theorist, but, you know, love him or hate him, Du Bois absolutely understood his work as needing to talk to other people.” 

When McMillan Cottom started graduate school, she had more questions than disciplinary allegiances, which led her to the intersection of the sociology of education and political economy. At this intersection, McMillan Cottom emphasizes the importance of storytelling in reaching people, and she has held this skill closely throughout her work. 

“[Du Bois] wrote for the public, gave public lectures, wrote creative works, and wrote fiction,” she says. "He understood that getting people to understand that another world is possible, takes both truth and storytelling, and you can't leave storytelling untouched because, frankly, storytelling will eat truth for lunch.”

McMillan Cottom’s dissertation research at Emory explored for-profit colleges, which led to her first book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, which published in 2017 and catapulted her onto the national scene. 

“I was really grappling with trying to hold two things at one time, which is Black Americans’ deep abiding faith in education as our ticket to citizenship and enfranchisement and mobility,” she says. “Then, on the other hand, the fact that a lot of education doesn't work out great for all of us. Like, how could I honor both of those things to be true?”

Sociology helped McMillan Cottom grapple with her questions, but she approached them intentionally through a Black feminist lens. 

“I firmly believe that if you start asking questions about where Black women's experiences are in things, you get clear paths to answering really good complex questions about the rest of the world for everybody else,” she says.  

McMillan Cottom’s second book, THICK: And Other Essays, was published in 2019. It features a collection of essays on topics ranging from Black womanhood to McMillan Cottom’s own experiences in the academy. The Amazon best-seller won the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2019 Literary Prize.

In 2023, McMillan Cottom won the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize at Brandeis University, recognizing her outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic, and/or religious relations. The same year, she was ranked in the top 200 education scholars in the nation on Education Week’s “2023 Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings,” an annual list published by American Enterprise Institute director of education policy studies and Education Week blogger Frederick M. Hess. The list recognizes scholars for moving ideas from academic journals into national conversations. 

The sociology-trained scholar now asks questions like, “Where's the power?” and “Where's the money in things related to status and mobility?” She is specifically interested in digital sociology, considering how access to technology has or has not impacted access to quality education. 

“Arguably, for pretty low cost, most people, especially in the West, can access the entire rest of the world, using technologies at the same time,” says McMillan Cottom. "That hasn't necessarily benefited minoritized people, and it doesn't necessarily lead to us having more economic mobility and better access to high-quality education. So you know, the digital part really complicates what's quality and accessible.”

McMillan Cottom is also challenging her students to ask critical questions. She is co-piloting an interdisciplinary graduate course called "Politics, Power, and Platforms" with Dr. Daniel Kriess at UNC Chapel Hill. In the course, they ask their students to consider big questions like “Who influences culture and politics, and why?”

For her next career stage, McMillan Cottom is learning the difference between what she can do and only what she can do. 

“Increasingly, I'm just dreaming about focusing more of my energy on the projects where only I can do them,” she says. “There are some questions, some types of work that use all of my experiences and all of my skill sets, and those are the things that really excite me.”

As always, McMillan Cottom hopes to bring students and the public along with her on this journey.

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