On October 26, Tressie McMillan Cottom was awarded the Joseph and Toby Gittler Prize. The Gittler Prize acknowledges and honors “outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic, and/or religious relations” (Brandeis University website). The prize was created by Joseph B. Gittler, a professor and sociologist who taught at a plethora of universities such as Duke University, the University of Rochester, the University of Georgia, etc (Brandeis University website).
The Gittler Prize award includes a $25,000 cash prize and a medal. Included is a ceremony and a reception to honor the recipient.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a prominent writer, sociologist, professor and Macarthur fellow/genius. McMillan Cottom is a current professor with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as a columnist for the New York Times. McMillan Cottom was nominated by Brandeis Sociology professor Sarah Mayorga, who cites McMillan Cottom’s book, “Thick,” as a key reason for the nomination, according to a BrandeisNOW article. Professor Mayorga uses “Thick” as the core text for her “SOC 1a: Introduction to Sociology” course at Brandeis. As well as being a staple in Professor Mayorga’s Introduction to Sociology course, “Thick” was a National Book Award Finalist in 2019 for its re-imagination of the modern essay form, according to the BrandeisNOW article.
McMillan Cottom’s website contains numerous past publications and projects, such as her 2017 book “Lower Ed.” McMillan Cottom has also held the position of New York Times opinion writer since the beginning of 2022. McMillan Cottom has also won several awards in the past few years, such as the 2017 Sociologists for Women in Society Feminist Activism Award, the 2019 Adweek Podcast Award for Podcast Hosts of the Year and the 2020 American Sociological Association Public Understanding of Sociology Award.
Tressie McMillan Cottom was in residence from October 25th to October 27th. On October 25th, McMillan Cottom spoke in professor Mayorga’s Soc 1a class, and also spoke about her book, Thick, to the public at the Heller School.
On October 26th, McMillan Cottom spoke in professor Adriana Lacy’s “Social Journalism: The Art of Engaging Audiences” course. She then spoke in professor Sarah Shostak’s “Sociology of Body and Health” course.
Later that day, McMillan Cottom was awarded the Gittler Prize medal by Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz at the award ceremony in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Professor Mayorga then spoke to McMillan Cottom’s character and work that urged her to nominate McMillan Cottom for this award. Mayorga referred to McMillan Cottom’s work as “godsend,” when speaking about her impact on Black women from personal history.
McMillan Cottom then went on to give her presentation and talk. In her speech, she highlighted how her work was inspired by prominent sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois. She notes that DuBois “understood and valued public knowledge as a vital equitable tool for the evolving program of freedom.” She then elaborated on her work surrounding public knowledge, and that we must work to make public knowledge more accessible and less risky.
She then went on to speak about body image and other social issues and posed the question of whether many systematic social issues are implausible or impossible. She offered solutions and suggestions to help mediate these discussions about possibility and plausibility. She suggested that, “the work is talking to people about what the work is,” and “opening up an elite body of knowledge to those that would truly benefit from these educated conclusions and discussions.”
Finally, McMillan Cottom moved into her last discussion about curiosity. She gave an example of book banning in various areas of the US and how it is an example of trying to strip curiosity from individuals. She argued that “if people are not free to ask questions, there is no point to scientific inquiry.” She encouraged students and faculty in the audience to continue being curious, as it is necessary to creating democratic foundations.
The day came to a close with a private reception with McMillan Cottom, Brandeis faculty and selected undergraduate and graduate students. There was dancing, music, food and ample conversation.
McMillan Cottom, in her time at Brandeis, made a strong impact on both students and faculty. She brought her work to life and made apparent why she writes the way she does. Her shared experiences are remarkably prominent in modern-day sociology. To learn more about Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom and her work, visit her website and Instagram.