Academic Got to Carolina Just Ahead of Her Genius Grant

As a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, McMillan Cottom receives a $625,000, no-strings-attached prize presented to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” (UNC photo)

Sociologist, author and public scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom, who joined UNC’s School of Information and Library Science this past summer, is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as a “genius grant”) from the MacArthur Foundation.

As a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, McMillan Cottom receives a $625,000, no-strings-attached prize presented to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.”

Through her scholarship and writing and her ability to reach broad audiences, McMillan Cottom has been recognized for helping make sense of current events, including social upheaval. She thinks about how digital technologies have transformed the public good and social institutions, especially as they relate to race, class and gender inequality.

“Right now, I’m studying how African American women piece together economic security through their activity on social media platforms like Instagram,” she said. “Part of my work is to connect the dots between things people might consider disparate or not relevant to their daily lives. Connecting those dots in academic discourse and public life brings me a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction.”

McMillan Cottom’s most recent book, THICK: And Other Essays, centers on Black women’s intellectual tradition. It was shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Award in nonfiction.

“Public discourse benefits when we have a deeper, richer set of discursive tools to talk about social problems,” she told CNN. “And my hope is that that will socialize and condition a listener to expect the voice of authority or the voice of expertise to be a complex, African American woman’s voice.”

In a video posted on the foundation’s website, McMillan Cottom said: “I unpack what I call the metaphors of mobility. These are these ideas, like the American dream [and] equal opportunity. I try to rewrite those metaphors in a way that sheds a light on just how unfair and unjust they are.”

The criteria for the MacArthur Foundation’s selection of fellows are exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and potential for the fellowship to lead to subsequent creative work.

Writers, scientists, a documentary filmmaker, a legal scholar and an environmental health advocate are among those named this year. The Chicago-based foundation has awarded the grants every year since 1981.

The foundation said McMillan Cottom’s work is “shaping discourse on pressing issues at the confluence of race, gender, education and digital technology. In work across multiple platforms, ranging from academic scholarship to essays and social media engagement, McMillan Cottom combines analytical insights and personal experiences in a frank, accessible style of communication that resonates with broad audiences within and outside of academia.”

McMillan Cottom’s columns have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Dissent magazine. She has appeared on Amanpour & Co., MSNBC, The Daily Show and National Public Radio, and she has testified before U.S. Senate subcommittees on student loan debt.

She is regarded as an influential voice on Twitter and co-host of “Hear to Slay,” a Black feminist podcast with writer Roxane Gay.

McMillan Cottom holds a bachelor of arts from N.C. Central University and a doctorate from Emory University. Her dissertation research formed the foundation for her first book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.

A faculty affiliate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, McMillan Cottom came to Carolina from Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Carolina is a beacon in the popular imagination for good reason,” she said recently. “It is not only one of the most intellectually stimulating communities I’ve had experience with, it is also a beautiful place to think, to live and to build a life.”

McMillan Cottom, who also is a senior faculty researcher in UNC’s Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, is one of 21 MacArthur fellows for 2020. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz received a genius grant in 2011 for his sport medicine research.


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