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Elizabeth Warren as a law teacher

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Meagan Day, who writes for Jacobin, is criticizing Elizabeth Warren for having the temerity to characterize herself as having been a teacher:

A few comments:

(1) In Warren’s case, the fact that professors teach students is not merely a technical detail: I have encountered many of Warren’s former students in various parts of legal academia and the legal profession, and I’ve been struck by how many of them describe her as the best teacher they had in law school.

The top researchers at American law schools, especially elite law schools — and Warren was one of the leading persons in her fields — often include people who are indifferent or flatly terrible teachers, because in legal academia there are almost no significant professional rewards for outstanding teachers, as opposed to outstanding researchers.

From everything I’ve ever heard about her, it seems Warren always put a tremendous amount of effort into her teaching, because she thought it was an important aspect of her work. A little anecdote about this: I once heard how a certain law professor, who had just joined the faculty of a certain hyper-elite law school located in New Haven, CT, was welcomed to the institution by then-dean Guido Calabresi. After a long talk about his research agenda, the young fresh fellow asked Calabresi about teaching. Calabresi smiled and said, “Teaching is like hitting a home run at the faculty-student softball picnic. Your career here will be judged by what you publish. And if you can hit a home run at the picnic, well that’s nice too.”

In other words, Warren’s attitude toward her teaching was not merely praiseworthy, but counter-cultural, in a way that should be emulated throughout academia. It was the precise opposite of the “folksy” pose that Day assumes it represents.

(2) Speaking of the counter culture, it’s difficult to convey how far upstream Warren had to swim to get hired onto the HLS faculty. Legal academia is positively obsessed with elite credentialing: the vast majority of tenure track professors at HLS got their law degrees at either Harvard or Yale, with the academic diversity component being provided by places like Columbia and Stanford. For a Rutgers law school graduate to become a chaired professor at HLS is roughly equivalent to someone who grew up in Bronx public housing to become a member of the Porcellian Club.

In addition, Warren entered legal academia when there were still very few women on law school faculties: In 1978, when she got her first job, most of the elite law schools had hired their first woman faculty member ever within the last decade, and the large majority of tenure track law professors — the men deciding whether to allow Warren to join them — had never had a woman colleague, let alone been taught by a woman when they themselves were law students.

Unlike almost all people who actually use this phrase (Warren herself doesn’t) Warren really did “come from nothing,” at least relative to the typical Ivy League law professor: her family was barely hanging on to the lower middle class for much of her childhood. She was an Okie Sunday School teacher and former waitress who dropped out of college to get married at age 19 to her high school boyfriend — that is, someone who might as well be coming from the Andromeda galaxy in comparison to the backgrounds of almost all her colleagues.

(3) Finally, it’s worth noting that Warren took the exact opposite of the easy path to legal academic success. Warren began her scholarly career writing in the conventional law and economics genre, which in the 1980s was the ideal venue for young law professors who wanted to climb the rungs of academic success, as it combined interdisciplinary cachet with libertarian politics. But Warren soon veered off that path altogether, because her empirical research convinced her that her fundamental ideas about the relationship between law and economics were actually mistaken:

Warren soon became a proponent of on-the-ground research into how people respond to laws. Her work analyzing court records and interviewing judges, lawyers, and debtors, established her as a rising star in the field of bankruptcy law.[25] According to Warren and economists who follow her work, one of her key insights was that rising bankruptcy rates were caused not by profligate consumer spending but by middle-class families’ attempts to buy homes in good school districts.[26] Warren worked in this field alongside colleagues Teresa A. Sullivan and Jay Westbrook, and the trio published their research in the book As We Forgive Our Debtors in 1989. Warren later recalled that she had begun her research believing that most people filing for bankruptcy were either working the system or had been irresponsible in incurring debts, but that she came to the conclusion that such abuse was in fact rare and that the legal framework for bankruptcy was poorly designed, describing the way the research challenged her fundamental beliefs as “worse than disillusionment” and “like being shocked at a deep-down level.”

Suffice it to say that, at least in the legal academy, this sort of conversion experience represents a rare triumph of intellectual scrupulousness over careerist considerations.

Warren, in short, is an authentic example of someone from a humble background actually storming the gates of America’s most elite institutions, because she was so superbly talented at every aspect of her work that she overcame the massive class and gender barriers designed to keep people like her out of those places.

To treat her authenticity as some sort of faux-populist pose is either ignorant or dishonest in the extreme.

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