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Writing A Book In And Of Real Life: An interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom

Writing A Book In And Of Real Life: An interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom

The name of Tressie McMillan Cottom should be familiar to HASTAC Scholars. She is a HASTAC Steering Committee member. She was on The Daily Show, interviewed by Trevor Noah at And she is a plenary speaker for this year’s HASTAC conference in Orlando, Florida, from November 2 through November 4, 2017, at

During our interview, we focused on the “back story” behind the creation of her book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. We covered questions ranging from the writing process and its challenges, to intersectionality and self-care practices.

Jenny Korn (JK): What inspires your research?

Tressie McMillan Cottom (TMC): I am energized by problems. I want to crack them open and understand them and reassemble them in a new way. I'm ridiculously curious about some things and that drives most of my research. But my focus on inequality is always about my deep interest in, respect for, and alliance with Black women. If I do right those commitments in my research and writing, everything else will take care of itself.

JK: What self-care strategies do you recommend in general?

TMC: The best thing I have done for my practice is to develop one. It doesn't always feel like it but having a writing practice is an act of self-care if only because it moves a project along. And few things are as deeply satisfying as making writing progress. I also try, and sometimes fail, to be very kind to myself when writing a big project. I wrote my dissertation and book concurrently. They overlap but are not the same publication. It was rough. That meant I constantly had to give myself permission to not be a superb housekeeper or great friend or even the keeper of details like when is trash pick-up day.

JK: What are some writing practices you have used?

TMC: I experimented with a lot of tools when working on this project. At some point, though, I had to decide when a tool was helping or just making me feel productive instead of writing. That's a fine line. I eventually married Zotero for reference management. I toyed around with Endnote and then decided that learning another reference management system was mostly a distraction. I tried all of the "distraction free" writing tools. They were fine but honestly weren't that critical to my writing progress.

The best tool I have is a printer. I do all my editing on paper.

The best thing I did for time management was to go to a dedicated writing place. My place was the basement of a library at Emory University. It was great for a lot of reasons but the best reason was that I did not have cell reception in the basement. I had a built-in excuse for ignoring all notifications and texts.

I tend to be a binge writer but also a regular writer. When the ideas are new and I am figuring out how they fit together (i.e. pre-writing), I write in huge blocks. However, when a project is ready to be refined (i.e. slog time), I tend to do more appointment writing.

JK: ​What advice do you have to (early) scholars about writing their first (or next) book?

TMC: The only advice I give regularly about writing is to figure yourself out. Get into your stuff. Study yourself. Figure out what you need and then be brutal about giving yourself what you need to write. I no longer apologize for my writing quirks or the time I invest in writing something. I figured out in graduate school what I need to write and I shamelessly invest in those things. For example, I know style guides are online but I work better with a marked-up paper copy. I buy a fresh one every year or so. I also work best with a certain size laptop screen and lined notebook for note-taking as I process. I don't try to write without those things. I learned that when I have what I feel like I need to write, I write. And that's the goal.

JK: Which chapter was the easiest to write?

TMC: The easiest chapter to write, after a lot of very hard writing, was ‘Jesus Is My Backup Plan.’ The stories that illustrate my empirical argument in that story leapt out of my data fairly early on. I did not have those stories in the right order in my grand narrative until fairly late in writing and rewriting the book. But, once I figured out how to tell these stories while weaving in the empirical case everything else about the book just flowed.

JK: Which chapter was the most challenging to write?

TMC: Far and away the most challenging chapter is ‘The Real.’ I was doing a lot in this book. I synthesized literatures from economics, sociology, organizational studies, gender studies, black studies, education research and cultural studies. In this chapter I am putting all of these bodies of literature in conversation. I had to do that while not fudging any of the statistical data but making them seem as if they were speaking to one another. And, I was constantly aware of my responsibility to the authors of all the research represented in that chapter. I wanted to do their work justice by getting it precisely right. It was brutal. I still hate looking at that chapter because I remember what writing it felt like.

JK: What does intersectionality mean to you?

TMC: I subscribe to Black feminist theory's understanding of intersectionality: an accounting of power by examining the multiplicity of lived experiences among structural planes of oppression. I do not know how I practice it as much as the ideas shape how I ask questions. I wouldn't dream of telling others how to "do" intersectionality. It may be like pornography in that we know it when we see it. Or, we know when we don't see it. However, I think Haey Choo and Myra Marx Ferree have it right that intersectionality, in social science, must be a philosophy, a method and an analytical framework.

Tressie makes time for HASTAC Scholars, as she has for this interview, so if you would like to meet her in person, you’ll have a fantastic opportunity to do so at this year’s HASTAC conference in Orlando, Florida, from November 2 through November 4, 2017, at And if you happen to be in the Boston area on Friday, June 23, 2017, you can hear her speak live about her book at Harvard University as part of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society’s Summer Author Series, pictured below.

Tressie Book Talk

At the conclusion of our interview, she shared, “I am extremely excited about the Wonder Woman movie!” Tressie, you are a Wonder Woman! Thank you for inspiring us all. We appreciate your granting this interview for HASTAC!


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