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Emory PhD graduate receives 2020 MacArthur Fellowship

Tressie McMillan Cottom, who earned her PhD in sociology in 2015 from Emory’s Laney Graduate School, has received a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship for her work “shaping discourse on highly topical issues at the confluence of race, gender, education and digital technology for broad audiences.” 

The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2020 Fellows on Oct. 6. “In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” says Cecilia Conrad, managing director for the MacArthur Fellows. “They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us.” 

According to fellowship criteria, the program recognizes talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits as well as a marked capacity for self-direction and the promise to do more. Often dubbed “genius grants,” the fellowships come with a $625,000 “no strings attached” award. 

"I care about how societies function," Cottom explains in a video feature by the MacArthur Foundation. "And as a writer, I care deeply about reimagining how societies function so that they might function better for the least and the most marginalized among us."

Cottom is currently on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she serves as associate professor in the School of Information and Library Science and as a senior research professor with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life. She is also a faculty affiliate at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Before joining the faculty at UNC, she was an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

She is highly recognized as a leading voice on topics related to technology, education, race, gender and inequality. She is the author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy” (2017), writes shorter pieces for mainstream media outlets and is the co-founder, with Roxane Gay, of the Black feminist podcast “Here to Slay.”

Cottom’s most recent book is “THICK: And Other Essays,” published in 2019, which pulls together eight essays centered on topics of beauty, media and money. The essays' analyses are guided by the sociological principle known as thick description, which attempts to present quantitative sociological data without simplifying the complexity of the human experience.

"When we say ‘thick’ in hip-hop culture, we are signaling to something historical, deeply rooted and nuanced," she notes. "We're saying the same thing when we say ‘thick description’ —that it should be historical and nuanced and contextual."

Abiding by the thick description principle is an ongoing tension for Cottom when she's communicating research to the public. This principle aims to help the general public understand that what happens within our social structures is not as simple as we might initially believe.

"It's a constant tightrope exercise, but I find it to be a stimulating one," she says. "If I look at a snapshot of data that I have, how do I communicate it so that the typical person understands? Every sentence must offer another detail, another layer … by the end, you may not agree with it, but you had to think about why you disagree."

Understanding a changing world 

Cottom also received the American Sociological Association's 2020 Public Understanding of Sociology Award, which recognizes sociologists who make exemplary contributions to advance the understanding of sociology, sociological research and scholarship among the general public. 

"That award is a great honor," Cottom says. "It is an acknowledgment of the fact that sociological research, as well as the sociological imagination, which is a way to think of the world, is very urgent … especially when you have so much social change happening." 

"Tressie is an amazing scholar," says Emory professor Timothy J. Dowd, chair of the Department of Sociology. "While dealing with important and complex issues, she offers explanations and insights that are compellingly nuanced — and she has a unique ability to translate her scholarship in a way that is illuminating both to researchers and the general public."

While expressing gratitude for her many achievements and accolades, Cottom recognizes the challenges of communicating sociological research to general audiences. One such challenge is helping the public appreciate how different groups of people have competing ways of understanding the world, even if some points of view are deliberately designed to create misinformation and confusion.

"I think that can seem overwhelming for public audiences," she says. "Not all points of view are designed to help bring clarity. Sometimes sociologists will step into a space and say, 'there are multiple ways of understanding this,' and that's the last thing the public wants to hear."

Cottom says the fact that sociology cannot provide, with absolute clarity, a singular narrative of understanding calls attention to a second challenge. 

"As societies become more complex, we become more aware of how complex society is," Cottom explained. "That is where I think sociology excels. We examine prior understandings and recognize the plurality of ways of understanding things. That is particularly useful when there are so many stories being contrived and sold to us for understanding a changing world."

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