UNC professor Tressie McMillan Cottom received a MacArthur Genius Grant in recognition of her work in shaping the conversation around important social issues.
McMillan Cottom, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science, was named a MacArthur Fellow in the foundation's class of 2020. She received the Genius Grant, an award of $625,000, given over the course of five years. Former students and colleagues agreed the award is well-deserved.
The MacArthur Foundation recognized McMillan Cottom for "shaping discourse on pressing issues at the confluence of race, gender, education and digital technology.”
McMillan Cottom studies how higher education does and does not pay off for different kinds of students from different kinds of institutions. She has a sociological interest in the means of mobility in society. She said this is where her interest in higher education stemmed from, because, for the last 40 years, the pathway to upward mobility in society has been to go to college.
“Sociologically, I'm interested in the myths of that mobility,” McMillan Cottom said. "How does that work in actuality?"
But McMillan Cottom said she doesn't know if she chose to pursue these topics — rather, they chose her.
MacArthur Fellows are chosen by anonymous nominations, and the program does not accept applications or unsolicited nominations.
"It truly is an award about how others think of you, which is probably the most overwhelming part of it all," McMillan Cottom said.
Lauren Garcia, a former student of McMillan Cottom, said McMillan Cottom takes being a genius a step further, by bringing her community up with her.
"From supporting bail funds for Black moms and making libraries for little Black girls, to mentoring every Black/femme student in our department, she is wholly committed to making life better for those most ravaged by our unjust system," Garcia said.
Brandi T. Summers was a colleague of McMillan Cottom for four years at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“As a fellow sociologist, I was aware of the stellar reputation she had garnered as a social media maven on topics related to race, gender, education, social justice and digital sociology, but it wasn’t until we formally met that I knew she was an extraordinary individual," Summers said.
McMillan Cottom's most recent book, "THICK: And Other Essays," was shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Award. She is also a podcast creator.
Summers said McMillan Cottom's writing is both affirming and life-changing for many readers.
“I try to tie together all of the emotional impact of creative writing with all of the rigor of academic writing,” McMillan Cottom said. “It’s a space that is not very attractive to people, because you have to become skilled at two entirely different skillsets, and in many ways, it's double the work.”
McMillan Cottom said before she begins writing, she reads. She starts with a question — and once she determines whether it is an academic or creative question, that shapes her form of writing.
Chioke I'Anson, another colleague of McMillan Cottom's and a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she is a seamless worker.
"She doesn't need her favorite chair or office or cafe to start doing work," I'Anson said. "She will write essays on her phone, on the side of the road sitting in her car or while she is cooking.”
McMillan Cottom said her overall goal in her work is to ensure that every reader is surprised — through learning new facts, caring about something new, experiencing moments in the world through someone else's eyes or just asking a new question.
“Even when I am almost exhausted by daily life, I'm just so aware of how fortunate I am that I am doing work that I believe in, that I can get back up," McMillan Cottom said. "I think it's because I hope the questions I ask matter somehow to make the world work better, matter to make people feel safe, who may not feel seen.”
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