“To learn, we have to be social”: Talking Twitter and Teaching with Tressie McMillan Cottom


Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Blogger. Writer at Slate, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Dissent, and more. Faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. Prolific tweeter. Black. Feminist. Brilliant.

Tressie McMillan Cottom writes about issues of race, class, economic inequality, and gender in a way that is deep and blunt, frustrated and hopeful, and above all, smart and challenging. I talked with her about Twitter and social change, the increasing role of the digital in our lives, and why stories will always be important.

tressie cottom headshot 2015
Browse Tressie’s archives at Slate, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Dissent.

Follow Tressie on Twitter @tressiemcphd.

You’re a Twitter regular, commenting on current events, your work, your mom, the laughable expectations of people on House Hunters, and more. Does tweeting bleed back into your writing?

In many ways Twitter is my inner dialogue, edited for profanity and the more personal bits. It’s a great place for that kind of ephemeral communication. The conversations I have on Twitter absolutely make their way back into my writing. I thank my Twitter feed in my dissertation and book acknowledgements. The exchange of information on Twitter has been an important resource for me in my professional writing.

What potential does Twitter have as a tool for social change? In the past year or two, we’ve seen an uptick in Twitter as a locus for activism (#BLM, #OscarsSoWhite, #YesAllWomen) and real-time crisis communications (Ferguson, Paris), especially for historically marginalized communities. 

I think what happens on Twitter is consciousness raising. Consciousness raising — or developing awareness and a critical process of coalition identity making — has always been important to social movements. This form of making public our private foibles is really vital to social change.

It is a necessary but insufficient condition, however. As we’ve seen with modern social movements, local infrastructure and place-making still matters. It might matter even more as consciousness raising goes digital.

chalk text on sidewalk
A chalked message on the sidewalk in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The “#icantbreathe” hashtag was a reaction to the death of Eric Garner. Photo by Daily Chalkupy, (CC BY 2.0).

What happens next? 

What happens next is what has always been happening: people organize. Despite the political jokes about community organizers, people have been doing this work for a long time. There is no replacement for the hard labor of building relationships, developing institutional memories, strategizing and building coalitions. I suspect that will continue even as our digital means of raising awareness about social change morph with the times.

How does it impact academia?

So far, Twitter doesn’t impact the academy very much at a structural level. For some individual members of the academy, like me, Twitter provides a platform to develop relationships that aren’t as governed by institutional prestige and hierarchies. But Twitter isn’t revolutionizing the academy, no matter what anyone tells you.

Twitter isn’t revolutionizing the academy, no matter what anyone tells you.

Globalization and neo-liberalism and political gridlock and systemic inequalities are impacting the academy. The academy piecemeal recognizes things like Twitter as a band-aid for those bigger issues, e.g., asking scholars to use social media to increase institutional prestige. But that is an effect and not a cause.

In the west, our life experiences are more and more entwined with the digital world — going to school, banking, applying for college, paying parking tickets. A lot of your work happens online, alongside your classroom work. But access to the internet and to the education, experience, and physical tools needed to at home in this world remains unequal.

According to Pew, internet access has increased but it is still not evenly distributed by class, race, or geography (urban/rural; global north/global south, etc). And cheaper tools like smartphones increase access while also introducing new forms of stratified experiences of the internet. You can check Facebook on a smartphone pretty easily but it is pretty hard to take a class online with one.

I am increasingly in favor of the internet as a utility. As access becomes necessary to participate in markets and civic life, I just don’t see any other way.

Is it a struggle to reconcile your own access to and work in the digital sphere?

Absolutely. Just about every critically inclined academic I know carries some guilt about the privilege afforded us by our jobs and education. I’m no different. All I know to do is to do what I can.

How do you see the role of blogs here, if at all? You publish substantive pieces on your own blog — why use that space, rather than pitching to a publication?

You have to have a place of your own to take the kind of risks necessary for intellectual development.

I intentionally keep my blog precisely so that I do not have to pitch to a publication every time I want to produce something. I have been extremely fortunate with mass publication. I have had wonderful invitations, relationships, and access afforded me by incredible publications. I do not take that for granted. But, as my mother always told me, “If the lease isn’t in your name, you’re homeless.” You have to have a place of your own to take the kind of risks necessary for intellectual development. I believe that and www.tressiemc.com is where I keep the lease in my name.

Can you say more about your blog’s tagline, “some of us are brave,” and what it means to you?

It is from the eponymous black feminist text, “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.” The reader was published in 1982. In the preface the editors say that to even name “black feminism” is political because it asserts that black women exist. I was reading the book for maybe the third time but my first time as a real adult when I was also starting the blog.

I don’t remember putting any thought into naming the blog AT ALL. There was the WordPress field to name it and I just wrote “some of us are brave.” Because naming is important.

Tressie McMillan Cottom on naming, and how it’s central to meaningful social change: 

As it stands, most media people come from the same socio-economic background. They share a racial identity (white). And, they are often produced by closed off social networks and elite institutions. It is no wonder that they tend to share ideas about when something does or does not earn the label “racism.”

As one reporter told me, they rely on other people -– their subjects — to call something racist. Given the research that shows that people also rarely call anything racist, even when acknowledging racism, we end up in a divine feedback loop: people see racism but no racists and media will only report on what people say is racist.

The feedback loop can feel like a noose when you are organizing against the very racism people might agree exists but that no one will name.

– From “Fascism,” on tressiemc.com.

Talk to us about teaching. In higher ed, there’s often a heavy focus on research and publishing. You believe being in the classroom is a fundamental piece of research. What happens in the classroom that doesn’t happen in the library?

Oh! I just love libraries. Love them. I plan to live in one someday. I don’t know if that’s possible, though I love the idea of it. But the classroom is magic.

We can come to know alone but to learn we have to be social. If I cannot translate my research into praxis and my praxis into research then I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Praxis, noun: real-life practice or application, as opposed to theory.

I believe that learning is inherently social. It relies on context and stories and negotiation of self and history and selves. We can come to know alone, but to learn we have to be social. If I cannot translate my research into praxis and my praxis into research then I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

I just don’t understand divvying up research from teaching. They are fundamentally on the same continuum. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that way, for what it is worth. Many of my colleagues do, too. It just doesn’t sell very well in our current culture where a price must be affixed to all activities. Teaching is inefficient and ours is an efficiency fetish culture. Many of us value teaching as an underground activity, performing our commitment to research first to satisfy the tyranny of measuring our worth.

You can find Tressie on her blog, tressiemc.com, and on Twitter @tressiemcphd. Her upcoming book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For Profit Colleges in the New Economy, will be published by The New Press this October.

April 7, 2016Academia, Interviews, Race, , , ,