Table For Two: T.F. Charlton and Tressie McMillan Cottom On The Aftermath Of The CHE Fiasco

T.F. Charlton: With the NSR debacle I’ve been thinking about the over-scrutiny of Black Studies and black scholars (and black people in general). It seems to me that in public and scholarly discourse we’re always on the defense, while by comparison whiteness is under-examined both in the public sphere and in academic circles. What are your thoughts on that?

Tressie McMillan Cottom: To the binary of offense-defense might I also add the third, implicit position: taken-for-grantedness. The idea that there is some knowledge whose superiority is assumed and, thus, is never engaged in playing either defense or offense is particularly interesting to me. In this way, Black Studies shares a similar subordinate position with many other disciplines (liberal arts, Ethnic Studies, language studies, etc.).

Charlton: I’ve also been thinking about who has access to important platforms like CHE and how they use them, who’s visible and has the weight and credibility of established media outlets behind them (like NSR taking her crocodile tears to Fox and WSJ, e.g.).

McMillan Cottom: This is what I really want to explore. It’s what I try to get at in my latest (and last!) post on the whole situation. I will add that I think the current decline of traditional media offers a narrow, but nonetheless present, opportunity to reconfigure the distribution hierarchy.

Also interesting: the way the framing of the story became about one white woman’s aggrieved feelings. I’m not sure if that is a function of modern media essentially cutting and pasting every previous story and calling it “news” or if it’s the phenomenon bell hooks and others term “white woman victimhood.” It’s likely both. And, again, those with different opinions have no recourse in reshaping the narrative.


Charlton: My sense is that scholars need to go more on the offensive in making a positive case for general audiences about the value of black audiences (and alternatively, questioning the privileged positions of “neutrality” and “objectivity” that white scholarship and “traditional,” usually disproportionately white departments get) rather than always having to answer the question of its legitimacy, which is a debate on white-centering terms. I think this ties in to the conversations you’ve had since this all blew up about creating independent media platforms for marginalized scholars and disciplines.

McMillan Cottom: I would agree. But going back to the issue of taken-for-grantedness, I’d also add that Black Studies scholars and scholars who value the scholarship of the discipline need to be present. There are things people have a harder (albeit not impossible) time saying about you when you are in the room. So let me go there: I continue to be saddened by the reticence of some black (Studies) scholars on this issue. Perhaps they’re long tired of this argument, but I think there’s still room to engage, to be in the room for these conversations.

But yes, I’d also like to see us build more equitable publishing platforms, cite each other (take for granted that we’re experts! imagine that), and assume the position of rightful authority. That’s less about [going on] offense maybe than…embodiment? Not sure what I’d call it.

Charlton: I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the marginalization of black scholars and scholarship on black people that takes race/racism seriously. If you’re comfortable sharing, have you had any personal experiences with that?

McMillan Cottom: I’ll talk a bit about my own graduate research. The genesis of my project is an article in Diverse Issues of Higher Education from 2009 that listed the Top 100 producers of black bachelors degree-holders. It’s a list they’ve done for ages.

As a product of the black college experience–both of my parents attended HBCUS, I almost grew up on the campus of A&T and Johnson C. Smith–I assumed that HBCUs would be the top producer. Historically, they have been with a few years where a PWI [Predominantly White Institutions], usually a large state school, would take the top spot.

The 2009 article listed the number 1 producer as the University of Phoenix, a for-profit school.

For me, that represented a huge structural change and no one was talking about it.

How does a for-profit school with no institutional history, no embeddedness in the black community or the Civil Rights struggle, no marching band, no black greek-letter organizations, nothing that symbolically represents the black college experience–how did it become the number one producer of black degree-holders in such a short period of time? I think we’re talking, at most, 20 years here.

So, my first research question was: why in the hell are all the black folks going to University of Phoenix? I mean, I clean it up for research purposes, but that was my question.

Fast forward a couple of years into my doctoral degree, and I feel the burden of explaining why that question matters to academia; why it’s not a social agenda; why it’s sociology and not, god forbid, education or African American studies. No one says that directly, but eyes glaze over when the question is about racialized patterns of attendance in a sector of higher education with questionable benefits.

If I change the question to something about class patterns in for-profit attendance, or gender patterns or an institutional analysis of field of higher education, people perk up.

That’s not lost on me. I know that the success of degree plan and my entry into the academic job market is, at minimum, partly correlated to the number of eyes that don’t glaze over when I start talking about my research.

In these subtle ways I think questions about black people are marginalized. And that’s just one question. Can you imagine if the entire raison d’etre is to study black people and black experiences?

I don’t have an answer for that. But that’s my experience.

Charlton: How does Black Studies go about proactively reframing the narrative around race, and scholarship on race, and what does that mean in terms of access to  existing media platforms, or the need for new ones altogether? And for younger scholars in particular? (It’s striking to me that NSR went after young scholars who aren’t established and don’t yet have a professional reputation or presence to draw on as capital).

McMillan Cottom:I am taking very seriously this idea of a new media platform for scholars. Very seriously. If we’re going to challenge the hold of dead white men on intellectual traditions, how can we not challenge the hold of media and academic publishing models that privilege the scholarship of people who study dead white men? Makes no sense.

Also, it boggles my mind that we have thousands of scholars in this country–some of them black–and not enough community to produce a platform. Not that this is a black issue. But as is often the case, black scholars are disproportionately affected by poor publishing models. So, I’m trying to connect with like-minded thinkers across fields, disciplines, and platforms to imagine a different model. It’s there. I know it is. I think I even have an idea of what it looks like. But I’m just one woman…and I’ve got comps! I need partners.

Charlton: Can you share some concrete examples of things U.S. black studies have contributed to our knowledge our history and culture?

McMillan Cottom: I think it’s critical to note that when we study black people, particularly in the U.S. context, we’re also studying women, Latin@s, the disabled, etc. Our  experience is particular but not specific.

The knowledge produced in Black Studies programs is directly relevant to the study of Women’s Studies programs, and newer movements for Disability Studies and Prison Studies programs. We have many examples of this. Urban Studies owes a debt to [W.E.B.] DuBois for spatial analysis, for example. Psychology owes a debt to double-consciousness in understanding identity formation and symbolic interactions. We have plenty of reason to expect that rigorous research from Black Studies departments contribute as much to a greater body of knowledge as does rigorous research from any other field.

Finally, this idea of knowledge created and restricted to silos is in direct opposition to everything we know about how knowledge works. Ideas can’t be restricted to one discipline. What we learn about anything somehow impacts what we know about everything else.

Of course, sensible people know this. We know that when we’re musing about how to fix the coffee-maker we often figure out how to finally resolve that issue at the office. Any arguments that restrict Black Studies or the black subject to a knowledge ghetto are already lost to reason.