Joan Donovan: Alright. Hello every­body, and wel­come to Two Geniuses Walk Into a Zoom, And Then Joan Shows Up. We are so excit­ed to have Mary Gray and Tressie McMillan Cottom for a dis­cus­sion about their incred­i­ble work, and a cel­e­bra­tion of being named McArthur Fellows, which is known as the Genius Fellowship if you did­n’t know. Which is a pret­ty big deal. I’m not gonna lie. Every year this list gets put out, and every once in a while I know some­one on it, or I’ve heard of some­one on it, and I’m pret­ty excit­ed to have had a moment in time with them. But this…this hits dif­fer­ent cause these are two of my favorite schol­ars. And the pub­lic recog­ni­tion of their work is some­thing that I…I’ve always you know, tweet­ed about and been real­ly delight­ed to hear them at con­fer­ences and oth­er social spaces as well as at home, at work, at play. 

And so by way of intro­duc­tion, I’m not going to flat­ter them too much by read­ing these very long and labored bios that are on their web sites, but I do sug­gest that you check out marylgray​.org. The L” of course, stands for…lesbian? I don’t know. I’m just jok­ing with you. We’re gonna to joke a lit­tle bit today. And tressiemc​.com. I high­ly rec­om­mend you check out their web sites, which have all of their work and every­thing. And I told them there would be a lit­tle bit of embar­rass­ment, a lit­tle bit of cheese here for today. 

On the MacArthur Foundation web site, I’m going to read just the sim­ple text here under their awards, but I want you to know that they are just path­mak­ers and ‑break­ers in their field. There’s a way in which you’re taught to be a schol­ar and you’re taught to be prag­mat­ic in the choice of your projects, you’re taught to be care­ful in the ways in which you speak in pub­lic, and these two do it bet­ter than any­one I know. Not like, to demean every­body else I know, but, I mean…pretty big shoes to fill. 

So Tressie is known for shap­ing dis­course on high­ly top­i­cal issues at the con­flu­ence of race, gen­der, edu­ca­tion and dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy for broad audi­ences. And I high­ly rec­om­mend if you haven’t got­ten a chance to read her book Lower Ed to take a look at that because it is a phe­nom­e­nal, close ethnog­ra­phy of the way in which pri­va­tized edu­ca­tion and the busi­ness of edu­ca­tion as it becomes dig­i­tal takes big advan­tage of the most vulnerable. 

And Mary’s bio here says, Mary is known for inves­ti­gat­ing the ways in which labor, iden­ti­ty and human rights are trans­formed by the dig­i­tal econ­o­my. And her book Ghost Work was some­thing of a labor of love as she put it togeth­er and craft­ed the dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives around how we should under­stand where humans fall into the loop between tech­nol­o­gy and how work gets car­ried out. She also has a real­ly great body of work ear­ly on about gay youth, LGBTQ youth in rur­al con­texts, and I think that’s where I first got to know her pub­lic schol­ar­ship, because nobody was study­ing that at the time. It was just not a huge field. And as well with Tressie’s work in sociology—I’m sure none of the soci­ol­o­gists will be shocked to hear this, but study­ing things that hap­pened online ten years ago? sound­ed real­ly far afield from what you would want to do if you want­ed to land your­self a job. 

And Tressie’s work has­n’t just been about low­er ed or the edu­ca­tion­al trans­for­ma­tion through the dig­i­tal world, but it’s also been real­ly about build­ing a field of dig­i­tal soci­olo­gies and bring­ing every­body to the table that has been doing this work for quite some time despite, you know, chair com­mit­tees and Reviewer 2 ask­ing the very same ques­tion over and over, which is does social media even mat­ter? Does tech­nol­o­gy even mat­ter for the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety? Can’t we just do this with­out tech­nol­o­gy?” And I think that Mary’s work also has been con­front­ed by very sim­i­lar cri­tique with­out evi­dence, where in anthro­pol­o­gy you know, the way in which you study tech­nol­o­gy has to be con­nect­ed to the every­day prac­tices of peo­ple as they deal with regimes of digitization.

Welcome, my friends. How’s it goin’?

Tressie McMillan Cottom: Goin’ pret­ty good. Hey, Joan. I tell peo­ple when they ask me that late­ly, I’ll go, Are you kid­ding? What do you mean how’s it going?” [laughs] It’s great! Everything’s great! Even the things that aren’t great are great. I’m not an opti­mist by nature, but even I wake up on the right side of the bed these days.

Donovan: Good.

McMillan Cottom: It’s good to be here. Good to see y’all.

Donovan: Yeah, it is. Mary?

Mary L. Gray: This is what I have to do to get in a room with Tressie, and Joan, at the same time. I man, this is a real­ly high bar. I can’t keep this bar.

Donovan: Yeah? No? No? I had to embar­rass you first, but there’ll be plen­ty more to come. 

I actu­al­ly think it’s impor­tant, though, that we do talk a lit­tle bit about the ways in which our iden­ti­ties are part of our entry into our fields of schol­ar­ship. Especially as we talk about ear­ly careers and our choic­es that we make in deciding…you know, I’m sure there’s a lot of grad­u­ate stu­dents lis­ten­ing, and they’ve received dif­fer­ent kinds of advice about you know, fol­low­ing your pas­sion ver­sus fol­low­ing trends in the fields, and how impor­tant cer­tain kinds of meth­ods are going to be. Like in my day it was big data. If you did­n’t know how to do big data, you weren’t going to get a job. And I was like, I don’t real­ly care. Like it’s not dri­ving me to want to know more. I want to know peo­ple in their indi­vid­ual situations. 

So I’d love to hear a bit about your ear­ly career research choic­es, and the bal­ance of pick­ing a project that you’re going to, you know…really love to hate by the end of it. And how that has real­ly shaped part of your entry point into your new work, which we’ll get to in a lit­tle bit. Whoever wants to go first.

Gray: Tressie. Do you want me to—

McMillan Cottom: Mary, you go. I’m thinkin’ it’s that ques­tion, I mean, we get a ver­sion of this a lot. I know Mary does. Who frankly has been out there sort of you know, cre­at­ing a sub­dis­ci­pline con­ver­sa­tion cer­tain­ly longer than I have. And I’ve been in the rooms where stu­dents have come just to ask Mary basi­cal­ly that ques­tion. Which is how do you sur­vive,” right? And then when you ground that in iden­ti­ty, the ques­tion of sur­vival is actu­al­ly about more than just pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess. I think peo­ple are quite lit­er­al­ly ask­ing us, How do I sur­vive? Me, the per­son,” before we even get to like, being the thinker or whatever. 

And you know, my answer for that is a real­ly com­pli­cat­ed one which I’m not sure peo­ple real­ly like. I think peo­ple want a you know, Chicken Soup For the Soul kin­da answer? And there isn’t one, I don’t think. So the first thing— I had a dis­ser­ta­tion advi­sor, Rick Rubinson, at Emory and he told me very ear­ly on… He’s just a real­ly prac­ti­cal guy, which was per­fect for me. He’s very prag­mat­ic. He was just very like, Eh, you’ll be fine.” And as some­one, when you’re liv­ing in a con­stant state of high anx­i­ety that’s so…thrilling.

And so I go to Rick’s office you know, spin­ning out, and he’d go, Eh, you’ll prob­a­bly be okay.” And that was just so nice to hear, but one thing he told me about you know, choos­ing a project… And I can’t say he was think­ing about the iden­ti­ty piece. But he did help me under­stand what a com­mit­ment it was to choose your project. 

Gray: Mm.

McMillan Cottom: I mean, when you choose a project by committee…I tell peo­ple it’s like choos­ing a spouse by committee.

Gray: Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: Cause that’s how you’re liv­ing with it. And Rick was like, No, you need to choose some­thing. Because peo­ple are going to ask you about this for twen­ty. years.

Gray: Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: And nobody had sort of put that frame of ref­er­ence togeth­er for me. And that, you know, that kin­da helped me a lot. It helped me under­stand the risk of choos­ing what I was going to do. Because it’s a dif­fer­ent risk assess­ment, to my mind, if you’re say­ing it’s some­thing I’ll do for three or four years. I’ll get the project out of the way and move on. But when you tell me it’s some­thing I’ve got to live with? for twen­ty years, that changes the game for me. And I wish we talked about career not as your first job but as like your last job. 

Gray: Yeah. That’s—

McMillan Cottom: What do you still want to be doing in your last job?

Gray: Yeah. I like that refram­ing of it, because I think in many ways I have maybe the ben­e­fit… And now it feels like a ben­e­fit, but going into grad­u­ate school before I under­stood this was a job, or was a career path— Like the pro­gram that I went to, UC San Diego Communication, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion depart­ment, for the most part was a set­ting for mis­fit toys. Like it was folks who were com­ing to grad­u­ate school because they had polit­i­cal ques­tions they want­ed to answer, or to address at the very least. But I don’t know how many peo­ple…at the time, how many of us thought we’re being devel­oped for a career track. I think some peo­ple were just more aware of that than I was. And so I feel like, in a good way through most of my grad­u­ate train­ing, I did­n’t under­stand that I was mak­ing a deci­sion to live with some­thing for my natural-born days. I mean it’s like Free Bird, you know, when peo­ple con­tact you and want to talk about your ear­li­est work. I love that work, but…I like your point. Like I can’t even imag­ine set­tling on a top­ic based on fol­low­ing what I think a com­mit­tee might be warm to? 

And at the same time when I start­ed my aca­d­e­m­ic career it was quite star­tling to real­ize I did need to explain it in terms that were going to be palat­able. That would have a clean nar­ra­tive about this is why I study what I study. Because I also think that when you fol­low those trends, that nar­ra­tive is kind of hand­ed to us, right. So it’s real­ly work­ing with­out a net to fol­low what feels like…per­son­al­ly, Joan, to your ques­tion and point like, these ques­tions are deeply per­son­al, incred­i­bly impor­tant to me. And that means I’m always pur­su­ing them with a cer­tain kind of heat and charge, then I take it per­son­al­ly when peo­ple aren’t you know, invest­ed in them in the same way. And that can mean I’ve got enough ener­gy to keep going. But it’s also quite drain­ing. So I think— Tressie I love your point, like when peo­ple approach you and say like, How do I sur­vive this?” they real­ly are think­ing, I think, about that sim­i­lar sense of you’re doing this because you know it’s impor­tant, and there are folks who don’t think it’s impor­tant, and how do you deal with that con­stant fric­tion of push­ing and pulling these top­ics along.

Donovan: You know, and I ask you this because I think it’s impor­tant to set expec­ta­tions for peo­ple that are in these fields that want their work to be seen, want it to be read, and to know that it’s okay to ques­tion the advice that you get along the way. It’s okay to think about what paths are going to be impor­tant to you. And you know, I’m one of the unfor­tu­nate soci­ol­o­gists that have nev­er been able to real­ly land an arti­cle in a soci­ol­o­gy jour­nal because they just don’t— You know, there’s just like, this kind of way of writ­ing, kind of way of doing things, the approach. Our award-winning arti­cle on white suprema­cist’s use of DNA that I wrote with Aaron Panofsky was reject­ed sev­er­al times from very promi­nent jour­nals before we found a place to pub­lish. And I do think, though, there is an expec­ta­tion in some respects, espe­cial­ly when you’re doing work that mat­ters, is that it’s going to defy some of the con­ven­tions of the dis­ci­pline. It’s going to make the dis­ci­pline have to think about where it grounds its pri­or­i­ties. I’m think­ing here too about Biella Coleman’s work on hack­ers, you know, and how that fits into the anthro­po­log­i­cal land­scape, which I’m sure it’s very uncom­fort­able, right? 

But you do have to bal­ance that curios­i­ty with also think­ing about every­body else, and how your work is going to land in this world if you are doing things that are both inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and may even­tu­al­ly end up affect­ing either cor­po­rate pol­i­cy or gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy. Can you speak a lit­tle bit to that bal­ance of—I have some ques­tions, some maybe more eso­teric than oth­ers, but how do you bal­ance that study where you think about where do I go deep, and how do I then take what I’ve learned and make it gen­er­al­iz­able and under­stood well enough that peo­ple who are prac­tic­ing in these fields could take this knowl­edge and poten­tial­ly even redesign the way they operate?

McMillan Cottom: I nev­er imag­ined talk­ing as much as I do to pol­i­cy peo­ple, which may have helped. I mean, I just— You know, it’s just not my jam. I mean, God bless the peo­ple who do that work, but…you know, it’s just not my jam. But my first job was in Richmond, Virginia. And so I was with­in like a stone’s throw of DC. So I think there was one thing, like it was just a geo­graph­ic convenience. 

And then the sec­ond thing is that I was doing this thing that was just real­ly present, you know, it was a present-tense sort of project? And so much of it was unfold­ing in the pol­i­cy world. So I end­ed up talk­ing to pol­i­cy peo­ple? And I would say it was a learn­ing curve. There was prob­a­bly less of a learn­ing curve for me talk­ing to publics, and even maybe talk­ing to oth­er soci­ol­o­gists. Well talk­ing to soci­ol­o­gists is always going to be weird and stilt­ed? Like I got—you know I even­tu­al­ly I think got that genre of how you do it. 

Speaking to pol­i­cy­mak­ers was actu­al­ly not as nat­ur­al to me. The things that I thought—and what I final­ly fig­ured out is that even when we agreed on the ends, we were start­ing from such dif­fer­ent…ide­o­log­i­cal points of view that—there are dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies under our shared ide­ol­o­gy of like, yeah we might be pro­gres­sive and yes, we believe in these sort of like basic demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples or some­thing. But let me just be even just more con­crete than that because I’m try­ing to be kind and maybe it’s okay if I’m not. [laugh­ter] You know, I walk into a room and I’ll think I’m there to talk about the work that I do. And my work is absolute­ly just ground­ed in a set of basic assump­tions. Which is that black peo­ple are human; black women are ratio­nal; that wom­en’s eco­nom­ic lives mat­ter; that con­strained choic­es are polit­i­cal deci­sions and we can just make dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal deci­sions. Right? So they would agree on the parts where like, yes, you know, prof­it extrac­tion is preda­to­ry. But then I’d get into the room and real­ize that they did­n’t share any of my oth­er priors.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: [laughs] So it took me a while to under­stand that even when we were shar­ing the lan­guage? we were not shar­ing ide­o­log­i­cal pri­ors and I had to make some deci­sions about how much of that I want­ed to do. And I do it now not because I feel respon­si­ble to the pol­i­cy world, I do it because I feel respon­si­ble to the peo­ple whose lives I’ve used you know, as data. It mat­ters that I’m in that room on their behalf to the extent that I can be. And so, you know, I’ll take a L” for the team. But I still am not always sure about speak­ing to pol­i­cy peo­ple but…you know, Joan, we’re soci­ol­o­gists and I get it. I don’t want to be one of those peo­ple that becomes pre­cious about power.

Gray: Mm hm.

McMillan Cottom: This is how it works. And I’m always befud­dled by soci­ol­o­gists espe­cial­ly who want to pre­tend that sta­tus and pow­er don’t shape our own work. So I real­ly try to like, you know, keep a check on myself about becom­ing too pre­cious to deal in pol­i­cy cir­cles and con­ver­sa­tions. Because that is where pow­er is often nego­ti­at­ed. And that is shap­ing peo­ple’s lives about the things that I have said I care about. So I do it and try to learn the genre, and try to par­tic­i­pate in that dis­course and con­ver­sa­tion to the extent that I think that I can do it in a way that’s valu­able and does­n’t com­pro­mise me too much. 

But yeah, I do it because I just think that’s our fun­da­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty when we extract peo­ple’s expe­ri­ences from them. Like I can’t always—because of the nature of what I do, I can’t always have you know…do some of the full-circle research process­es where you bring the data back to the com­mu­ni­ty and etc. I do it to the extent that I can but I can’t always. So I have to think about sort of like, broad­er pub­lic way of hav­ing a check on the ethics of my research. And that’s one of the ways I try to do it, by going out into like pub­lic pol­i­cy circles. 

But yeah I’ll be hon­est with you, I’m still a lit­tle uneasy about that but I hope I stay uneasy about it, I’ll be fair. I don’t want to get…comfortable in those rooms.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah. Actually, I love— I mean, I think it’s mak­ing sure those rooms still feel unset­tling to me, is my way of check­ing where I’m at? And I think like, Tressie, for me… I know how much I owe the peo­ple that I’ve learned from for all of my work. Like I owe them to be able to be in a room and rep­re­sent their inter­ests and voice their con­cerns. Like that’s always in the back of my mind. Like I have what I have, and I’m able to do what I’m able to do because they gave me their time quite lit­er­al­ly. To share their expe­ri­ences, to let me in their lives. And so I do feel a sense of not just…probably respon­si­bil­i­ty and debt, quite literally. 

So, I feel like…certainly that’s my sense of Tressie’s pow­er in these con­ver­sa­tions, is that she’s bring­ing the pub­lic into set­tings where they real­ly are exclud­ed by struc­tur­al oppres­sion. And so, being able to come into— And pol­i­cy­mak­ers should res­onate with publics and they don’t. They often don’t share those pri­ors. They real­ly do have— It’s still quite sur­pris­ing how much they work with an assump­tion that’s demean­ing and belittling—

McMillan Cottom: Yeah.

Gray: —of the peo­ple they’re there to either rep­re­sent or to serve in some capacity. 

And…yeah. I feel like being able to be in those set­tings and not leave them unset­tled with their own assump­tions is actually—maybe that’s part of the job? But yeah. I could­n’t agree more. Like, folks who feel like that they’re some­how out­side of those cours­es of pow­er, or that they can rise above it all, or that like—that just dri­ves me bananas.

McMillan Cottom: Me too. The above it all is what— I can almost kin­da get to like, you know, absent-minded maybe, you know, and don’t notice it. But the peo­ple who think they’re above it I… That one’s the per­son­al affront to me. Of course because you know, not all of us can choose to be above it.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah.

Donovan: No, I agree with you and I feel that same uneasi­ness when I am called into rooms that aren’t…you know, flu­ent in the debates that I’m flu­ent in, with the kinds of dis­ci­pli­nary com­mit­ments that we make, and then also…they haven’t done their home­work. I mean they lit­er­al­ly have not read. 

Gray: No.

Donovan: But some of their aides and some of their staff have, and that’s why we end up there, which is—

Gray: Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: Yeah. Oh, the aides save it for me, by the way. Let me just say. So if it was­n’t for— Because the aides tend to be…younger and more diverse than the can­di­dates or the—you know, in the pol­i­cy world you know, the talk­ing head or the lead researcher. Yeah, it’s the aides. It’s—really—they…who often get—and who’ll be hon­est with me. They’ll go, Listen, we are try­ing to get them to see X.”

Gray: Yeah, yeah. And these are our stu­dents, right? I mean these are often like…these are our stu­dents who—

McMillan Cottom: Yup, yup, yup. They’re usu­al­ly fresh out of a pro­gram— Yeah. That yeah.

Donovan: What I often tell my stu­dents at HKS in the pol­i­cy school, I say you know, pow­er real­ly lies in that mid­dle range with the peo­ple who get you in front of the peo­ple who say they mat­ter, right. And even with cor­po­ra­tions, too. If you want to move pol­i­cy with­in cor­po­ra­tions you real­ly wan­na talk to peo­ple who’re in that mid­dle range that under­stand the com­plex­i­ty and then also know which levers they got­ta pull to make things happen.

Before I get to the next ques­tion I do want to let peo­ple know we’re using the chat func­tion. Feel free to drop a Q&A in, and I will ask the ques­tion if it’s gonna help us move the con­ver­sa­tion along as we do this. So please feel free and you two, sit tight. You don’t have to read those things, I’ll take care of it. It’s my job as mod­er­a­tor. [laugh­ter]

McMillan Cottom: Ignoring the com­ments is [inaudi­ble; crosstalk]

Donovan: Ignore the com­ments, you know.

Gray: If I go in there I just start trolling.

Donovan: I know, right. Yeah, Mary in the back­ground is like post­ing as Anonymous Attendee with, What kind of sham­poo do you use? Why does your hair look so good today?” Yeah. Really. Or you know, our spous­es some­times will pop up in the com­ments with, Can you come out and put this [inaudi­ble; crosstalk] away.”

Gray: Come down and feed the cat.

Donovan: Yeah. You know. Let’s piv­ot a lit­tle bit to talk about your new works, and the new places you have found your­self. Especially as we think about… We’ve talked a lit­tle bit about the sup­port that you’ve got­ten from men­tors and col­leagues, but both of you are in you know, dif­fer­ent posi­tions. Tressie just made a very big move over to UNC, is going to be real­ly push­ing that insti­tu­tion to think more deeply about the work that is foun­da­tion­al to her schol­ar­ship but also be men­tor­ing prob­a­bly some of the best schol­ars in the field as they learn from her. 

And Mary, you’re sit­u­at­ed at Microsoft Research where you do quite a bit of teach­ing and edu­ca­tion around ethics and get­ting peo­ple to under­stand that you don’t just drop a new tech­nol­o­gy in this world with­out real­ly think­ing about you know, how to land the plane. And so I’d love to talk a lit­tle bit about these new projects, things that’re hap­pen­ing or on the hori­zon, ways in which you know, your cur­rent book Ghost Work for instance, how that has changed the direc­tion and the course of the research mov­ing forward. 

So I’ll start with you Mary, and then we’ll go to Tressie.

Gray: Yeah, so that work is a col­lab­o­ra­tion with com­put­er sci­en­tist Siddharth Suri. And it was real­ly the first time, you know, I real­ly moved out of the com­fort in some ways of doing eth­no­log­i­cal, ethno­graph­ic work and you know focused on folks expe­ri­enc­ing tech­nolo­gies that were clear­ly not built for them, they were clear­ly not who tech­nol­o­gists had in mind, to shift­ing to this world of dis­trib­uted labor… And again, where the folks who built these tech­nolo­gies did not have work­ers in mind. They were think­ing, We’re just going to build soft­ware that can you know, man­age what work­ers might be doing and then sell it as soft­ware that does­n’t involve peo­ple at all.”

So much of the what fol­lows from that project is to keep rais­ing this ques­tion of what assump­tions are we mak­ing about who can val­ue these tech­nolo­gies, who can get some­thing out of them, and what are the oblig­a­tions of com­pa­nies build­ing tech­nolo­gies to the folks who they imag­ine will be either end users”—I hate that phrase—or con­sumers, and to see more broad­ly you know, these are not objects. These are not…you know, tech­nolo­gies aren’t CD-ROMs in shrink-wrapped box­es on a shelf any­more. They’re real­ly social envi­ron­ments. And so what are the oblig­a­tions that come with build­ing social con­nec­tions and envi­ron­ments? I mean, I think we are gen­uine­ly at the begin­ning of that col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion, to see tech­nolo­gies as con­duits con­nect­ing us. That’s now main­stream­ing? I mean I think we’re still stuck in these con­ver­sa­tions about it being it—it being addic­tive. Like I will be so hap­py when we turn a cor­ner and start talk­ing about us. What did we want to do with these oppor­tu­ni­ties to con­nect in dif­fer­ent ways? But that…you know, for me that means con­tin­u­ing to push what are the ways in which work envi­ron­ments that are hap­pen­ing through ways of dis­trib­ut­ing contract-based work are done with aware­ness of the employ­ment con­di­tions, the work con­di­tions, the oppor­tu­ni­ties that they are going to pro­duce and con­strain. It won’t be one or the oth­er. It’s always going to be both. So what are we doing here when we think about tech­nolo­gies as sites of employment…and not go to easy answers. I hate easy answers. Like some­thing that real­ly keeps us on the hook for what that means as com­pa­nies decide their pro­cure­ment of for­mu­lae. Like, bor­ing stuff like that, that I find fas­ci­nat­ing. Like what is this new sup­ply chain, that lan­guage. You know, how do we real­ly think the ways in which we’ve treat­ed con­tin­gent labor as dis­pos­able. How do we rethink every­thing about our valu­ing of ser­vice to each oth­er, if we’re in a world of ser­vice economies. 

And the more imme­di­ate thing I’m work­ing on is actu­al­ly around COVID-19 and what it means to think about tele­health from this per­spec­tive. If we think of…you know, whether it’s car­ing for an elder­ly par­ent an prompt­ing them to take their med­ica­tion, that that can now be a kind of work that cre­ates oppor­tu­ni­ties and cer­tain­ly serves a need in soci­ety. So what’s going to max­i­mize the way in which that becomes sus­tain­able for the peo­ple doing it and for the per­son who’s receiv­ing the con­sum­able ser­vice of that kind of care. Like what does that look like in the thick of this pandemic.

Donovan: And you know, I can’t appre­ci­ate more the ways in which you’re able to make sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies sound so…digestible? Especially as you just talked through that project, in my head I’m just hear­ing echoes of Susan Leigh Starr as well as Tom Boellstorff and oth­er friends and fam from the field, and that atten­tion to the ways in which we’re shaped by the study of bor­ing things, right? If I told peo­ple all I real­ly care about is how infra­struc­ture con­nects togeth­er and how that changes the way peo­ple do things in the world? People would be like, Your schol­ar­ship is so bor­ing,” right? But the point is to fig­ure out how to con­nect those the­o­ries and ideas and con­cepts and then evolve them as con­di­tions change, like the dif­fer­ent kinds of study that we have to do in the midst of a pan­dem­ic that feel non­nego­tiable in the sense that if we don’t deal with the ways in which peo­ple are relat­ing to one anoth­er through tech­nol­o­gy, then we’re sus­cep­ti­ble to all kinds of oth­er prob­lems, includ­ing cap­ture by the mar­ket. And one sto­ry about when I first met you, me and Kevin Driscoll drove down from LA to the big con­fer­ence being host­ed by Geoff Bowker and Tom over at UC Irvine— [crosstalk]

Gray: Oh, my gosh, that’s right.

Donovan: —and it was just a great day You had an amaz­ing slide deck that day, just chef’s kiss. And you talked about data being peo­ple, and not to for­get that. And it’s just been some­thing that I’ve kept with me as I think about those moments around we should­n’t treat peo­ple as data being cir­cu­lat­ed through these tech­nolo­gies, we do have to move from the it” to the us” if we are gonna make a difference.

Gray: Can I just say it’s even more press­ing in the thick of a pan­dem­ic? Because watch­ing the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for data cap­ture that’s in the name of we’re in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic” is gut-wrenching. That we are still so able to fall for the sto­ry that if we just have enough data, that that will solve the prob­lem means that we’re not pay­ing atten­tion to peo­ple who are sick. We’re lit­er­al­ly just try­ing— And try­ing to make them, you know, healthy again. We’re focused on can I get the data from those three hos­pi­tals that seemed to be the site of you know, huge events” and they’re not even see­ing the peo­ple and the fam­i­lies con­nect­ed to those bod­ies. And it’s just like…I can’t even talk about it with­out get­ting angry. But that’s— You know, I think for me right now that’s the most press­ing thing, is to get peo­ple to stop repeat­ing this belief that oh, you can just divorce data from peo­ple, and that’s the clean­er way of learn­ing what you need to do next. That there’s some abstrac­tion that lit­er­al­ly means we’ll get to the bot­tom of things because we don’t have to inter­act with peo­ple. It’s—

Donovan: You should blame soci­ol­o­gists for that. 

Gray: Uh…no.

Donovan: That’s on us for some of it, anyway.

Gray: No. It’s a tee­ny bit. But you know [indis­tinct; crosstalk]

Donovan: There’s a whole field that loves to play that game of mak­ing indi­vid­u­als into aggregates. 

Speaking of soci­ol­o­gists, Tressie I’m not going to let you off the hook here. You just made a big change. You are now a host, a cohost, of an incred­i­ble pod­cast. You have a new book out, Thick: And Other Essays. And you’re at a new insti­tu­tion. So, I’d love to get the update on you from you know, where things are tran­si­tion­ing and how you’re think­ing about your research in this moment.

McMillan Cottom: At the end of Lower Ed, I talked to a few hun­dred stu­dents in for-profit col­leges about how peo­ple per­ceive their cre­den­tials. Which was real­ly ques­tions about their aspi­ra­tions and their con­strained choic­es and the gap between what they think they’re doing and what they can ascer­tain oth­er peo­ple think that they are doing, because some­where in between the two are where con­strained choic­es become mate­r­i­al and struc­tur­al lim­i­ta­tions. And they’re over­whelm­ing­ly women, because most stu­dents in that sec­tor are women, and then they’re dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly black. So basi­cal­ly I was talk­ing to a lot of black and brown women. 

And they would say to me you know, they’ve got $190,000 stu­dent loan debt. They’re in an online for-profit PhD pro­gram in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy, or orga­ni­za­tion­al psy­chol­o­gy, or any of the health sci­ences, or in education—those are the lead­ing ones. All the health degrees and edu­ca­tion degrees, we cre­at­ed that mess. And they would say, Oh well, if peo­ple don’t think you know, I’m qual­i­fied for a job, I don’t get the pro­mo­tion I’m going after, if this thing does­n’t turn into the occu­pa­tion­al mobil­i­ty I think that it should, I’ll just go into busi­ness for myself.”

At the same time I’m going back and forth to DC and all these oth­er pol­i­cy places. And struc­tural­ly, the way pol­i­cy is made is that you do high­er edu­ca­tion and you do work­force devel­op­ment, and the two actu­al­ly rarely speak to each oth­er. They’re rarely the same peo­ple. But one of the things that tech­no­log­i­cal change does, and it hap­pened with the tele­phone, it hap­pened with the railroad—this part isn’t new. Scale and effi­cien­cy are new. But the under­ly­ing social rela­tions, which is any­thing that net­works the globe more tight­ly to each oth­er, one of the things that that tech­no­log­i­cal change does is more tight­ly cou­ples things like cre­den­tials and work. So the way that we gov­ern and make pol­i­cy and under­stand those things as being dis­tinct is a holdover from like the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry mod­el, where you either go to school or you go to work, right. You’re either get­ting a cer­tifi­cate that says you are qual­i­fied to do this thing at a school, or you’re going to work and get­ting hands-on expe­ri­ence. And those are even some­times thought of as sep­a­rate sub­di­vi­sions of the labor mar­ket, right. As if they are gov­erned by entire­ly dif­fer­ent rules and assumptions. 

But one of the things that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies had done is it was col­laps­ing this—what had always been a kind of false divide, or had been for quite some time, and was col­laps­ing. And I just kin­da could­n’t let go of the idea that I won­dered what hap­pened to those women when they went out there and decid­ed to work for them­selves.” Because here’s the sto­ry about women try­ing to work for them­selves: You don’t do it— Women by and large don’t go into busi­ness for them­selves, no mat­ter what the nar­ra­tives about girl­boss” are, you know, all those kinds of things. We’re usu­al­ly pushed into entre­pre­neur­ship. It is not the pull of entre­pre­neur­ship. It is the push out of the paid labor mar­ket. The push gets stronger the brown­er and poor­er you are. You know, by the time you’re like, a black trans woman, you’re actu­al­ly being kicked, you know. The shove becomes you know, a kick in the ass out of the paid labor mar­ket. And so entre­pre­neur­ship is doing some­thing very sim­i­lar to my mind to what high­er edu­ca­tion attain­ment had been doing the last twen­ty years. Which is we had writ­ten this nar­ra­tive of eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty to cov­er up a more effi­cient regime of pre­da­tion and extrac­tion. So what we told peo­ple for thir­ty years as it became almost struc­tural­ly impos­si­ble to move from the income quin­tile of your cir­cum­stances of birth, or basi­cal­ly to earn more than your par­ents over your life­time, to move up a quin­tile or two, become almost struc­tural­ly impos­si­ble for many peo­ple the last 30 years because we just told every­body to go to col­lege. [crosstalk] You need a degree.

Gray: Right.

McMillan Cottom: So we’ve writ­ten a nar­ra­tive of eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty out of what was poten­tial­ly a struc­tur­al prob­lem of extrac­tion and pre­da­tion. And then we’re doing the same thing with these con­ver­sa­tions of entre­pre­neur­ship. And when I talk about it, one of the things I want to do is move this conversation—one of the things I’m work­ing on doing—is mov­ing that con­ver­sa­tion so nar­row­ly out of job work? You know, job-focused work. As impor­tant as that lit­er­a­ture is, the gig econ­o­my lit­er­a­ture is to that work, I come from you know, a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of black polit­i­cal econ­o­my, where all of the under­ly­ing social rela­tions of some­thing like Uberization has been true for black work­ers since they entered the paid labor market.

Gray: Yup. Yup.

McMillan Cottom: So I call it the hus­tle econ­o­my, and that’s just to try to get at a broad­er set of social rela­tions, and par­tic­u­lar­ly to try to cap­ture the work that women are doing. Because what wom­en’s work increas­ing­ly looks like—espe­cial­ly dur­ing COVID, we’re just see­ing a sort of dis­til­la­tion or crys­tal­liza­tion of it—is as women are being kicked or pushed out of the paid labor mar­ket, there’s also a pull at them back into the pri­vate sphere. 

Gray: Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: So the eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty is hap­pen­ing in these places that aren’t marked as eco­nom­ic plat­forms, right? So when you’re mak­ing mon­ey on eBay, this we under­stand. It’s an auc­tion, right? And we’ve got all the eco­nom­ic rules; we know how that goes. 

Well, what hap­pens when that eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty hap­pens on Instagram instead? Which, by the way, hap­pens a ton. Instagram is actu­al­ly one of the most pop­u­lar eco­nom­ic plat­forms for women who’re doing microen­tre­pre­neur­ship. And we do not think of it as an eco­nom­ic plat­form. So one of the things that we’re doing with that work, my move to UNC, is sort of build­ing on what the hus­tle econ­o­my looks like. We’re doing a study right now. Our tim­ing was just for­tu­itous in that we start­ed speak­ing to women the week before the very first shut­downs hap­pened at the start of the US response to COVID. And so what we’ve been able to do is kind of fol­low them through the cycles of grief, as we call it. The cycles of grief that are basi­cal­ly hap­pen­ing. Because every­body was gung-ho the first cou­ple weeks weeks, by the way. Talking to women who’ve total­ly bought into you know, I work for myself.” Again, girl­boss, lady­boss, boss­boss, boss up, all these won­der­ful terms. Somebody should do a paper on those, by the way. And you know, this is their time to shine. They’re get­ting ready to rock n roll. They hustle! 

You catch them about three weeks lat­er when that child­care’s kicked in. Three more weeks after that when it becomes increas­ing­ly clear that social pol­i­cy is not com­ing. Right? That there will not be anoth­er stim­u­lus check, etc. When the part­ners that they had in their lives who maybe under­stood their hus­tle six months ear­li­er sud­den­ly become less under­stand­ing. And the gen­der divi­sions of labor become more stark. And so we’re just fol­low­ing those right now over time. But as part of sort of a big­ger project of what hap­pens if we under­stand wom­en’s eco­nom­ic lives as being indi­ca­tors of how all of our occu­pa­tion­al lives are chang­ing, and are delim­it­ed by these struc­tur­al changes in how lit­tle occu­pa­tion­al mobil­i­ty and income mobil­i­ty is pos­si­ble. And we’re start­ing you know just with the nar­ra­tives of the lies we start to tell about that, first of all. Because what hap­pens is the minute that becomes brand­ed as eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty, it mobi­lizes a whole set of pol­i­cy assump­tions, but also intel­lec­tu­al assump­tions, about who’s doing it and how that works and what the rules are. And I think much like Lower Ed, I just think the rules have changed, and nobody was keep­ing their eye on the ball. 

So, I’m doing that. More impor­tant­ly I think in the short term is I think I’m writ­ing about Dolly Parton, and that’s super important.

Donovan: Say more. Like, you don’t leave— You’re just like, this is how you end your pod­cast, right? Is like, and tune in next week.” [Gray laughs]

McMillan Cottom: If I’ve got­ta explain why writ­ing about Dolly Parton is critical—

Gray: There’s no need.

Donovan: I’m with you. [crosstalk] I’ve got albums. She’s got albums full of truth. Like I’m ready. I’m ready.

Gray: There’s no need to explain. There’s no rea­son to explain it.

McMillan Cottom: I real­ized I’d nev­er done it. And I thought I should do that.” So one of the first things that hap­pens when— You know, or the sec­ond or third thing any­way that hap­pened to me after they call you is I was like, Damn, I can do any­thing I want to do.” And…so what do I want to do? And what I want­ed to do was write about Dolly Parton, so that’s what I’m doing.

Donovan: That’s amaz­ing. I think that it’s impor­tant too that we not rule out the role that cul­ture plays in set­ting those ideas of what our goals can be, what peo­ple do. I have a friend and col­league Kelly Nielsen who’s got some new research out about edu­ca­tion (I think Tressie you prob­a­bly blurbed the book) and this idea that if you’ve got a bunch of nurs­es in your fam­i­ly? You’re prob­a­bly going to grow up to be a nurse, right. And so the ways in which peo­ple learn and have role mod­els and have inter­ac­tions with dif­fer­ent cul­ture, the way in which they’re moti­vat­ed by music, espe­cial­ly, is a real­ly impor­tant way of under­stand­ing how peo­ple end up in these posi­tions and how they ratio­nal­ize what’s hap­pen­ing around them and how they can com­mu­ni­cate with their friends and fam­i­ly about that. 

We have some inter­est­ing ques­tions in the chat. I’m going to try to roll some togeth­er. One from a per­son who could very eas­i­ly take any one of our roles here, Lisa Nakamura, who is ask­ing about—

McMillan Cottom: What? Hi, Lisa!

Donovan: I know, right. Like, Lisa’s watch­ing. Everybody get— You know…straighten up in your chair, you know. Lisa has been sort of one of those peo­ple that’s been doing this for­ev­er and has inspired us. 

But one of the ques­tions is about this notion of like, how do you cen­ter peo­ple who are unseen in your research, and how do you take account of the way in which their practices…you know, inform oth­er pol­i­cy or oth­er ways in which we should be pay­ing atten­tion, right? This is a ques­tion about the ways in which we often over­look and want to get at things that are a bit more main­stream, but if you study peo­ple that are not mar­gin­al but liv­ing on the mar­gins that are doing—that are liv­ing in a kind of brico­lage world where they’re tak­ing things and repur­pos­ing them and mak­ing it work, how do you trans­late that into more bigger-picture stakes in the work that you do? 

And then we have a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ques­tions about COVID, but I’m going to hold off on those. But think­ing about that you know, mak­ing the folks that are often less vis­i­ble, putting them in the cen­ter of the work that you’re doing. How does that real­ly impact both the field and poten­tial­ly, at least in the US any­way, our way of doing things?

Gray: I mean, it’s fun­ny because I used to… I don’t know if I joked about it but I feel like part of my career has been find­ing the peo­ple that peo­ple think are hard to find? And they’re not hard to find. We don’t look for them. And so you know, I think in many ways the pol­i­tics of vis­i­b­li­ty for me, and I cer­tain­ly learned this from my advi­sor, it’s about look­ing at the con­struc­tion of who’s seen and not seen. Like, how is that ampli­fied, how is it mut­ed? And to see that as pow­er moves, all the way through? And peo­ple con­tend­ing with those pow­er moves. Sometimes being less seen is a safer place to be. 

So, cen­ter­ing… And I love that ques­tion, Lisa, because I feel like cen­ter­ing their expe­ri­ence, it starts with draw­ing the read­er’s atten­tion to reflect on why they are hear­ing some­thing or hear­ing from some­one they’ve nev­er heard from before. That’s about them. That’s not about those peo­ple. So par­tic­u­lar­ly for the most recent project, like— And I real­ly got a lot out of com­par­ing the US and India, because in so many ways, being able to draw atten­tion to these work­ers who know each oth­er, are con­nect­ed to each oth­er, that was prob­a­bly the most mind-blowing thing for my col­leagues and for my co-author was wow, they con­nect with each oth­er. And that is the most obvi­ous thing that peo­ple would con­nect with each oth­er to be able to sur­vive and nav­i­gate work set­tings where they are not just dis­cour­aged from con­nect­ing but tech­ni­cal­ly blocked in most cas­es from con­nect­ing. That they would see each oth­er, and that they would be form­ing as many oppor­tu­ni­ties as pos­si­ble to con­nect with each oth­er. They are not invis­i­ble. There’s noth­ing invis­i­ble about them. It’s the con­struc­tion of see­ing right through them, of not see­ing their expe­ri­ence. Like, that’s the thing. Like draw­ing— Like I think that’s, for me what I’m cen­ter­ing, is atten­tion to…for again, the read­er, to see the assump­tions they’re mak­ing about who is there, who they expect to see, what they expect to see from them. 

And I want­ed to cir­cle back. Like I think from Lower Ed I real­ly learned from Tressie think­ing, skill—I stopped real­ly using that word in any uncrit­i­cal way after your work. Precisely because… You know, espe­cial­ly the idea that edu­ca­tion is about skilling up and what peo­ple are miss­ing is they haven’t skilled up enough—how insult­ing. How com­plete­ly we are miss­ing the con­struc­tion of who achieves and where they move in life, and how we’ve hooked it to this idea of self-improvement. That edu­ca­tion is this way of get­ting the right skills, and that that some­how can lead to par­tic­u­lar out­comes. Well, it’s the whole sto­ry we’ve been telling about how con­crete skills are as lit­tle blocks we acquire that is the prob­lem. Like how do we…how do we chal­lenge that? So center—I feel like that to me is…for any project I think I’ve done, that it’s cen­ter­ing that, through the expe­ri­ence of peo­ple who them­selves are liv­ing that and are swim­ming in that sto­ry as well. And not dis­miss­ing their sense that they’re lack­ing some­thing or that they need to acquire these skills. Like I take at face val­ue their belief that that’s true, and I can still cri­tique that we all are asked to believe these things. And, yeah.

Donovan: Love that idea too of like, find­ing the peo­ple that peo­ple say you can’t find them. Because…yeah, they’re every­where, it’s just nobody’s ask­ing, right. Nobody’s look­ing. Tressie?

McMillan Cottom: Yeah, I say the same thing. That I think that there’s some­thing about the idea— I hate this whole con­struct of the hid­den his­to­ry of X, or the secret we did­n’t know. Which of course is a pop­u­lar­iza­tion of the idea that there’s such a thing as an offi­cial archive, and that the archive is defin­i­tive and author­i­ta­tive. When all of it is of course just a nego­ti­a­tion of social con­struc­tions and ide­olo­gies and mon­ey. I always like to throw that one in there because I don’t want to get too far away from the fact that the mon­ey mat­ters. I know, right. The mon­ey matters. 

And when I talked about— I said to some­one yes­ter­day like, it’s not hard for me to cen­ter black peo­ple in my work because I think black peo­ple are human beings. And so— [Gray laughs] And so my job is to study— That’s actu­al­ly the eas­i­est part of my work. I think the ques­tion for me is like, why is that so hard for you?

Gray: Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: Which gets to Mary’s point that it is not about the cen­ter­ing of the peo­ple so much for me [as] about cen­ter­ing the eyes that are see­ing. In that if I focus on why is this so phe­nom­e­nal to you…that you get to sort of like the every­day life of social dis­tance, and the every­day life— That to me is like— You know, we talk about how we make and remake racism and sex­ism and clas­sism, and I go you know, it quite lit­er­al­ly is in your choice of see­ing.

Gray: Yeah.

McMillan Cottom: And so, yeah— Yeah, it’s just so not ever hard. It is hard­er for me to locate in others—the pre­sumed read­er, or who I’m try­ing to con­vince with the argu­ment, it is hard­er for me to locate the weak­ness in their assump­tions than it is for me to cen­ter peo­ple that I think are human beings in my own work. That is for me the intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise. I mean you know, it is kind of what makes it chal­leng­ing, and there­fore enjoy­able to me because I’m eas­i­ly bored—I’m so eas­i­ly bored. So I have to find a chal­lenge. And one of the chal­lenges for me cre­ative­ly is when I find that [snaps fin­gers], when I find that moment, when I find that weak­ness in the pre­sumed read­er’s ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tions and argu­ment and I worm my way in there. I mean one of the greatest…I don’t want to say com­pli­ment because there are oth­er com­pli­ments that mean a lot to me per­son­al­ly. But one that I will say the most grat­i­fy­ing read­er respons­es I get is that white men love to write me. I mean…I just can’t fath­om how much free time they have. I mean God bless them. But they’ll…you know, I get so many let­ters. Not a week has gone by that Thick for exam­ple has­n’t come out that— And they over­whelm­ing­ly start the same way. I know I’m not your audi­ence, but.” I know I’m not your audi­ence but you actu­al­ly taught me some­thing. I know I’m not your audi­ence but, you made me consider. 

And it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to me how sim­i­lar the con­struc­tion of that is across a cat­e­gor­i­cal group of peo­ple. Because I think what they’re fun­da­men­tal­ly say­ing is you made me care about some­thing that I have a lot of incen­tives not to care about. And what it usu­al­ly sig­nals to me is I found the most basic unit of shared human­i­ty in an argu­ment. That means I kind of got the—I found the weak­ness in their own ide­o­log­i­cal scaf­fold­ing. And so that often means that the craft of the argu­ment worked. And so it’s enjoy­able for that rea­son. And also just like real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing how sur­prised they are to have found in them­selves—they think they’re flat­ter­ing me but they’re flat­ter­ing them­selves. They have found some new dimen­sion of their own human­i­ty by acknowl­edg­ing that oth­er peo­ple are human in the same way they are human. 

So that’s the rea­son why it’s worth doing. And then it’s also just I think worth doing if I do noth­ing else in the pub­lic any­way. In pub­lic what I try to do is mod­el what it looks like to take us seri­ous­ly. What does it look like if we actu­al­ly lived the prin­ci­ple of human­ism? What does it actu­al­ly mean for me to think that black lives mat­ter, or that black intel­lec­tu­als are worth­while. Or you know, that wom­en’s lives are worth­while, and their intel­lec­tu­al ener­gies are worth­while. And if I just mod­el that, then that’s always worth it for me.

Donovan: I could­n’t agree more, and it’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to hone an argu­ment style? and that’s one of the things that I find both very com­pelling and admirable almost to the point of envy of the works that you put togeth­er, is that the sto­ries feel like you’re being led along a jour­ney around a very par­tic­u­lar lived expe­ri­ence. That then it becomes incred­i­bly illu­mi­nat­ing for how struc­ture and agency tend to strug­gle with one anoth­er, right. 

So I’m not going to close out by ask­ing you to fix soci­ety and just tell me exact­ly what we need to do to make sure that like, peo­ple start read­ing you more, or get­ting this. I think soci­ety has always been a process, not a prod­uct. And the way that we approach this world should be with the pos­si­bil­i­ty for change. And so I would love to hear from you a lit­tle bit though as we close about grat­i­tude. And to talk maybe about one or two peo­ple in your lives that have real­ly sus­tained you as a schol­ar, has fed you when you refused to put the com­put­er down and go to bed. And just you know, speak back to folks about rec­og­niz­ing the unseen labor in our lives that makes sure that we do hang up the phone even­tu­al­ly and come to bed. Just because I think that it’s an enor­mous and…I could­n’t agree with MacArthur more, an enor­mous recog­ni­tion of the work that you all have brought into this world and cul­ti­vat­ed over years and years and years of deep think­ing. But, I know. It ain’t all about you. And so, if you wan­na just rec­og­nize some­one or a few peo­ple in your life that have real­ly made sure that you are able to do that work. We’ll start with you, Mary.

Gray: My part­ner Catherine Guthrie, who’s read every word I’ve ever tried to write. And not always…in most cas­es not that will­ing­ly, but was will­ing to do that. And we’ve been togeth­er twenty-two years. I feel incred­i­bly hum­bled and for­tu­nate that I’ve had that sup­port, and I feel like I fit that sta­tis­tic about aca­d­e­m­ic part­ners who have some­body in the back­ground who’s sup­port­ing them. Like I’m painful­ly aware that you know, it’s a priv­i­lege to have that support. 

You know, Social Media Collective has been incred­i­bly nur­tur­ing, pre­cise­ly because it lets me roam. So I have to give a shoutout to the folks in that collective. 

And hon­est­ly, a group of old friends who you know, at dif­fer­ent moments, I real­ly did­n’t know this was a job, and I real­ly did­n’t think it was a job for me. And hav­ing peo­ple along the way who said, We’re gonna love you, you don’t—” They weren’t in this job rack­et either and they lit­er­al­ly said, We’re gonna love you the same. You don’t have to keep doing this.”

McMillan Cottom: Yeah.

Gray: And I think one of the most valu­able things I ever heard was from real­ly good friends who said, You don’t have to fin­ish your dis­ser­ta­tion. That’s not impor­tant, that does­n’t tell us to love you less.” So I could fin­ish the dis­ser­ta­tion. And the same thing hap­pened with the first book, the same thing hap­pened with the next book, the same thing hap­pened with book after that. So like, you know, there but for the grace. Otherwise I would­n’t be doing any of this.

McMillan Cottom: One of my moth­er’s favorite say­ings, I’d hear that once a week. There but for the grace of God.” Okay. [laugh­ter]

You know, I’m a product—I come from a com­mu­ni­ty peo­ple. I come from a vil­lage peo­ple. That’s just the way we get down. I don’t under­stand myself as a… I mean, some of this is also about you know, I’ve recent­ly moved home. North Carolina’s home for me. My par­ents are get­ting old­er. So I’m very emo­tion­al about these things right now. I think I feel in just a very con­crete emo­tion­al way my ties to gen­er­a­tional lin­eages and gen­er­a­tional com­mu­ni­ty, to my fam­i­ly and to place. So like, I am a prod­uct of an inher­it­ed set of ideas and beliefs and like, women who just made deci­sions at real­ly impor­tant polit­i­cal junc­tures that just changed every­thing. That just changed everything. 

And I think about— I have a book upstairs that’s a… And in the book is a— It’s a 1919 copy­right, a 1919 geog­ra­phy book, and it was my great-grandmother’s that she’d got­ten from one of the chil­dren’s schools, I think, because she her­self did­n’t fin­ish the eighth grade. And so she was clear­ly tutor­ing her­self at home through her grand­kids’ school books. And you can see her notes through­out the geog­ra­phy book. And in the back is a let­ter that was sent from an employ­ment agency in New York, Harlem, to poor black rur­al com­mu­ni­ties through­out the South, through­out the Great Migration, encour­ag­ing the women to come north and do domes­tic labor to change their fam­i­lies’ eco­nom­ic lives, and it’s the let­ter that was sent. And my grand­moth­er and her sis­ter answered that call and went to New York. And I just think about these, like, real­ly por­ten­tous moments when the deci­sions that were made that made me pos­si­ble? were made that seem like they’re indi­vid­ual choic­es, but like, every sin­gle one of those shaped and made me pos­si­ble. So I think about them a lot, so much these days. And what a kick they would get out of how those choic­es man­i­fest­ed in me. They would just think it was remark­able that so many white peo­ple lis­ten to me. They would cer­tain­ly think that’s hilar­i­ous. But I also think they would just be deeply proud of the fact that their choic­es had lived on in these sort of gen­er­a­tional ways, and I hope I’ve paid those forward. 

And my friends that’s held me down. I mean, I do have some of the best friends, and my friends are like my fam­i­ly, which is what hap­pens when you’re an old child as I am. And so to call them a friend is actu­al­ly maybe a bit of an under­state­ment. In many ways my clos­est friends are my sib­lings. And who said to me at every point in this junc­ture when it was not clear that the deci­sions I just knew were the right deci­sions for me were the deci­sions that oth­er peo­ple would hon­or. Who just said to me every step of the way, and they still say to me, You have nev­er made a wrong deci­sion for your­self. Why are you doing this today? Like, you’ve nev­er made—” And they keep me ground­ed in this sort of like…my own his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, right? And so often give me the con­fi­dence when it’s most lag­ging to make the choic­es that I think are the best choic­es for me, that hon­or what I believe in. 

And then you know, I’d be run­nin’ out of here if I did­n’t name my moth­er Vivian and all of those peo­ple. But—

Donovan: She’s a bit of a meme.

McMillan Cottom: Yeah. A bit. A bit of a meme. Yeah. There’s going to be a doc­u­men­tary about that woman one day becom­ing a meme. She’s…yeah. I’d be run out of town if I did­n’t acknowl­edge her. 

And if I did­n’t acknowl­edge and I had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see some of them recent­ly because again, one of the great things about being home is see­ing so many of the peo­ple who played impor­tant roles in your life. And one of them is a pro­fes­sor at my under­grad­u­ate insti­tu­tions, the first per­son who forced me to go online. So actu­al­ly you can blame Collie Fulford for every­thing that has hap­pened after that point. She forced me to start a blog for a group writ­ing assign­ment. And look what the hell hap­pened. [laugh­ter]

Gray: She’s going to get thank you notes now. 

Donovan: Exactly. Exactly. I mean yeah. Way ahead. Way ahead of the rest of em. I want to say thank you to you both for enter­tain­ing me for this hour, and to Berkman Klein Center for host­ing us. I think it’s real­ly impor­tant that your work is acknowl­edged for what it real­ly is, which is a big…steaming…pile…of intel­li­gence. Okay. I know it’s so hard to take a com­pli­ment. [laugh­ter]

But I tell you, I can’t rec­om­mend your work enough to peo­ple in the field, and then also just the ways in which you com­port your­selves at con­fer­ences and are avail­able to grad­u­ate stu­dents, the men­tor­ship that you pro­vide to peo­ple in the field, the oppor­tu­ni­ties that you open up for every­one. It does­n’t go unno­ticed. I being one of the ear­ly ben­e­fi­cia­ries of a flight out to Social Media Collective so many years ago. 

And I just want to say that as you’re, you know, now ful­ly rec­og­nized as geniuses…you know, let Catherine and Vivian know, as they’re telling you polite­ly to take out the garbage and keep­ing you ground­ed in your worlds. Thank you—

McMillan Cottom: Is that what it is, keep­ing us ground­ed? Is that what we call it?

Donovan: Yeah, I mean. Well yeah. I often think about like, what peo­ple would think of me if they saw me sleep­ing on the floor of the air­port as often as I’ve had to do it. [laugh­ter] You know, they’d be like, Oh, John Donvan, world-renowned schol­ar and air­port sleep­er,” right? So, there’s always a lit­tle bit of humil­i­ty with the humor. But again, thank you so much for spend­ing this hour with us. I could­n’t have had a bet­ter per­son to cheers. And so thank you, and I will see some of you soon­er than lat­er. And let’s keep it live online. Everybody feel free to put in their men­tions, com­pli­ments, and that you enjoyed the talks today. Thank you.

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