HEWN, No. 300

"Writing is always a brutally social process that is rude enough to masquerade as a solitary one" -- Tressie McMillan Cottom

I hadn’t cracked open a single book so far this year until Thick arrived this week.

Well, that’s not quite true. I am sitting at my desk, surrounded by books, open books — mostly books about B. F. Skinner as that’s what I’ve been writing about this week and last. I have open to various pages or bookmarked or dog-eared in some way all three volumes of his autobiography, a biography, a book on his “technology of behavior,” The Analysis of Behavior, About Behaviorism, and his anthology of articles on the “technology of teaching.” The writing is going as well as can be expected, all things considered, thank you very much.

Obviously, I was so looking forward to getting my pre-ordered copy of Thick, the new collection of essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Amazon informed me that the package was out for delivery, so I had my Tuesday evening all planned out: I’d drink some red wine (perhaps a lot of red wine — Skinner’s fault) and read it cover-to-cover. My iPhone told me, late afternoon, that the delivery was just three stops away. When I checked my phone an hour later, it was one stop away — just one block up and around the corner. And then nothing. No package. No book. I looked at my phone again after I’d made dinner, and the little blue dot that represented the Amazon delivery van was now parked miles away — in Los Angeles, that translates into hours and hours and hours away. I wouldn’t be getting the book by the promised 9pm deadline, clearly. (And hell, I’d be in bed around then anyway.) Some time in the middle of the night, I got a text message from Amazon: the package was lost. “Please contact customer service.”

If you use Amazon — and go ahead, it’s fine, you can lord over me if you don’t — you know that contacting customer service is next to impossible. If you need something more complicated than a refund or return, your task becomes the true, twenty-first century digital literacy test to figure out what to click on that will let you speak to or type at a human being. I eventually pushed the right button and chatted with someone — a helpful person who said he had to talk to the driver first to see what had happened and then who told me the package would be delivered Thursday. “So, it’s not lost?” I asked. “Oh, it’s lost. The driver will just pick up another one locally and bring it to you” — which sounded odd, I confess, but maybe the Amazon logistics work a little differently than I’d been led to believe. (Indeed indeed indeed. See also: “Mackenzie Bezos and the Myth of the Lone Genius Founder.”) Thursday morning, Amazon refunded the price of the book. “Goddammit,” I muttered, certain that I really should do the right thing and order from the publisher directly, but uncertain, as I’m going to be on the road (again) soon, that the book would arrive in time.

Then — hoorah — someone knocked on the front door (which never happens with the regular Amazon delivery); and sure enough, there was a small brown box containing a beautiful black book. And, so just two days later than originally planned, I could sit down and read it all in one sitting. Buy the book. Read the book.

There are plenty of things that I love about Tressie McMillan Cottom and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s writing. Thick exemplifies much of this. She has this way of assembling words and turning phrases and shaping provocations that is, all at once, casually conversational and deeply theoretical and absolutely fucking hilarious. “Sometimes you have to write densely because the ideas are so dense,” I remember a (white woman) professor once saying in graduate school, justifying the inscrutable prose of this or that postmodern (white woman) scholar. Most mostly, I’d contend, you don’t. You can be sharp and deep and nuanced. You can be committed to critical theory and “critical truth telling” and clarity. You can. You can.

There’s an excerpt of the book in Time — “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” — which is powerful and painful and necessary. The longer version of the essay deftly ties this problem of (in)competence to credentials, to LinkedIn and global, structural inequality. So the next time you hear someone make a call for “competency based education,” for example — one of the myriad of phrases that moves in and out of favor in ed reform and ed-tech circles — recognize that, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “the competency trap is a cumulative multifold iron cage of network effects in oppressive regimes” and recognize too that those who talk about new policies and new practices and new products without attention to the lived experiences of Black women speak with corpses in their mouths.

Speaking of corpses, I wrote about the “Fables of School Reform” in The Baffler. “When You Give Teachers a Gun” writes Jay Willis in GQ. “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success” writes Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker.Waiting for O Superman” by Rolin Moe. “Surely You’re a Creep Mr. Feynman” by Leila McNeill. “The Rise and Demise of RSS” by Sinclair Target.

This week’s pigeon is a Nun pigeon:

(Image credits)

Back to writing my book now...

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey