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Student Corner: Tressie McMillan Cottom inspires gVIP Fellows to find their public voice

May 9 2018

Tressie McMillan Cottom had a powerful message for the Clayman Institute graduate Voice and Influence Program (gVIP) fellows: Don’t be afraid to go public, both to develop your voice and to share your expertise to advance equality and create positive social change.

Cottom’s message resonates with the core goals of Clayman Institute’s gVIP. Sponsored by Stanford’s Vice Provost for Graduate Education since 2013, gVIP was established to bring together over two dozen high-achieving women graduate students from all seven of Stanford’s graduate schools to learn skills for long-term success in their academic careers through trainings, workshops, and cohort-based learning. A major focus of the program is helping women graduate students discover their voices and to assert themselves in professional contexts. Cottom not only shared valuable practical lessons for fellows on these points, she is herself a powerful and inspiring example of what a female scholar with an influential public voice looks like. 

She addressed how the fellows can simultaneously cultivate an academic career and a public voice, and how to professionally navigate both endeavors at the Institute’s gVIP event, “Translating Your Academic Research for a Broad Audience.”

Cottom spoke from experience: She is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a seasoned public writer, with publications at mastheads like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. Her academic publications notably include Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, which garnered acclaim outside academia after Oprah tweeted about it.

At her presentation, Cottom offered insights to the gVIP cohort about how to secure academic standing within their field while also expanding their voice more publicly. She encouraged fellows to “find their story of [their] research” and “remember that [their] legitimacy” comes from their research and academic foundations. Through sharing her own story, Cottom gave a powerful example of how her own research story is rooted in lived experience. Before attaining her Ph.D., Cottom was a recruiter at two for-profit colleges in North Carolina. She decided to leave the industry when she realized that the schools pressured underprivileged minority students into buying an education they often could not afford in order to turn a profit—with little regard for students’ actual success. When beginning her Ph.D. at Emory University, she noted in Lower Ed, she “intended to study anything but for-profit colleges,” but eventually she came back to the subject and made it the focus of her graduate thesis, and soon after,her book, Lower Ed.

Cottom told the gVIP audience that colleagues cautioned her about turning her dissertation into a trade, rather than an academic, book—for fear of the impact on her career. While she took this advice into consideration, she did publish the dissertation as a trade book, and she felt that was the right move for her. The lesson that she imparted from this experience was listening to oneself, despite the doubts of others. For Cottom, that also means disregarding the comments section on her online articles, because “reader comments are not peer reviews.” It also means acknowledging the possibility that racial and gender biases can inhere in negative feedback from other academics and have little to do with competence. 

Cottom encouraged fellows to acknowledge they would likely face similar implicit bias, but she advised them to be persistent. “The more you write, the better you will become,” she said. By taking advantage of “the full ecosystem of media,” including “podcasts, association blogs, professional organization publications, LinkedIn stories, and white papers,” researchers will not only become better writers and communicators, but they can also exert a “positive influence on public discourse and social problems” and build a formidable professional reputation. 

“I had a really stimulating visit to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research this week,” Cottom excitedly shared on Facebook after the event. “Get this: they actually invest in public engagement training for graduate students!” She continued, “we talked about reasons for public scholarship, ways to do it for different bodies with different oppression structures, the media eco-system, and academic careers.” 

Like Cottom, the Clayman Institute believes in and is committed to the translation of research to audiences outside academia. The Institute’s commitment to translation extends to its programming, especially to the gVIP and, as Cottom astutely noted, the “public engagement training” to scholars early in their career. Learning the skills and know-how of the translation of gender research not only allows gVIP fellows to think more expansively about their knowledge, ideas, and scholarship, but it enables their research to have a broader, more meaningful impact.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.