A Double-Edged Sword

Elizabeth Warren has been criticized and praised for sounding like a professor -- which she is. How will her academic chops influence her presidential run?

June 28, 2019
 
Elizabeth Warren

As a woman running for president, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democrat, was bound to encounter the likability bias: assert yourself as a man and you're seen as a boss, yet assert yourself as a woman, and you're seen as bossy.

But a recent dig to Warren's likability came from a somewhat unexpected source, at a somewhat unexpected angle. In an interview with MSNBC, former Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, another Democrat, suggested that Warren was struggling with being "in command of the policy" and still being "relatable."

Then McCaskill defined Warren's fundamental "challenge" like this: "[F]rankly, sometimes she comes very close to that professor I just wanted to be quiet."

Beyond sounding like a professor, Warren is one -- the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, emerita, at Harvard University. But is sounding like a professor -- whatever that means -- a liability in politics? McCaskill has publicly supported former Vice President Joe Biden, another presidential candidate, in the past. So her comments may have been politically motivated. But in a political environment that is decidedly anti-academic, is she on to something?

Historically speaking, no. Nearly a quarter of all presidents served as teachers or professors (mostly of law) before assuming office. Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University before he ran the country. Many other policy makers teach before or after their terms.

Still, criticizing politicians for sounding smart -- if that's what sounding "like a professor" means -- isn't new. President Barack Obama, who taught law at the University of Chicago before he was president, was often criticized for being "aloof and cerebral," as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board once put it.

Tom Nichols, University Professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, said that "professorial" is "not a compliment."

To most people, he said, it means "long-winded gasbag pontificating on things that don't have a lot of relevance to the ordinary person."

Politics, meanwhile, "requires connection with a spectrum of people, not the ones that have self-selected to sit in your classroom. Unlike your students, they don't have to listen to you, and you have no ability to make them let you finish a thought."

No matter how educated one is, Nichols added, "voters hate politicians who come across as superior or better educated, or knowing more. That's just the nature of democracy in the U.S."

President Bill Clinton played down his Yale University and Rhodes Scholar past, for instance, Nichols said. And Warren and others have been known, he said, to "start droppin' their 'g' and tryin' ta sound like ordinary folks." 

Today, someone who sounds like John F. Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt "probably wouldn't stand a chance."

Warren, as a woman and a professor, might face a double-bind -- something like what female professors of color report facing in personnel decisions and in student evaluations of their teaching. That is, women in academe are judged more harshly in certain ways than are their male peers, and being underrepresented adds another layer of bias.

Does talking "like a professor" mean talking too much? McCaskill seems to define it that way. And Nichols said a TV news anchor once told him that the program didn't like to "use professors," because "professors talk in long paragraphs and answer the questions they prefer, not the ones they were asked."

Among those who thought that Warren talked too much at Wednesday night's first-round debate for Democratic presidential hopefuls was the sister of another candidate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Vrindavan Gabbard wrote on her sister's Twitter account during the NBC-sponsored debate, "It's clear who MSNBC wants to be president: Elizabeth Warren. They're giving her more time than all the other candidates combined. They aren't giving any time to Tulsi at all."

That wasn't true, at least not by the evening's end. According to NPR's accounting, both Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey and Beto O'Rourke of Texas talked more than Warren. Booker got just about 11 minutes, O'Rourke got 10, and Warren got 9 minutes and 20 seconds.

Elizabeth Warren "Facts"

At the same time, during the debate, Warren was getting love on Twitter for being a professor, and someone who kept to her allotted time. It started with this tweet from Patricia Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University:

Soon others began to offer their own idealized guesses at to what kind of teacher, mentor and conference-goer Warren is. The threads got tongue-in-cheek fast, with Warren being portrayed as a kind of academic unicorn, or even an academic Chuck Norris. (Recall the Norris "facts" from the 2000s: "There is no theory of evolution, just a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live," or "There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.")

Based on the threads, Warren as a professor and supremely decent human being never asks conference questions with a comment, only uses "Reply All" when necessary, defends the Oxford comma, pays for graduate students' meals and looks at the audience, not her PowerPoint slides. She brews a fresh pot of coffee when she takes the last cup, stands to the right on escalators, always rewound VHS rental tapes -- you get the idea.

Then someone who once worked with Warren weighed in to say that the fantasy wasn't far from reality:

What was it all about? Matthew said that despite Warren's "elite credentials," she's "always been struck by how [Warren] talks to folks as if they are smart, reasonable people who just need more information. And she respects our time." Warren "doesn't have time to waste on puffery because we have urgent problems that need fixing," Matthew added.

So maybe sounding like a professor means sounding substantive? Warren's go-to phrase is "I have a plan for that," after all. And Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation wrote a New York Times op-ed this week called, "To Back Warren Is to Treat Politics as a Matter of Substance."

Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, said that, given her own background, she loves Warren's "approach to data-driven policymaking. And I especially love that she recognizes, calls out and is interested in developing policies to address the underlying structures of inequality, rather than just looking for a quick Band-aid fix."

Calarco said Warren's "good" professor "vibes" have the potential to speak to a larger audience, too.

"They give people the sense that she is kind," Calarco said. "That she genuinely cares about others and making their lives better -- that she's not just in this for herself or what she can gain from being president. They give people the sense that she is smart but not pretentious."

Matthew Gabriele, chair of the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, said the "knee-jerk reaction when people say, 'Don't be a professor' means that people don't want to be talked down to."

Like Nichols, Gabriele said that people "have this image of professors as obnoxious blowhards" in tweed jackets in ivory towers. So the pro-Warren threads are reminders that "there are good, kind professors, too." The kind who aren't afraid of saying you're wrong but who then say, "I'll help you understand it better. You can do this, too."

As for McCaskill, Matthew said she was "disappointed" that she'd fallen "into the likability conversation. It's never a good idea and it's so short-sighted." Instead, Matthew said McCaskill "should be finding new ways to talk about this election cycle, ways that require the media to break the bad habits of how they talk about women."

Matthew foresees similar challenges for Warren ahead. But so far, Matthew said, "she's dealing with it the way most of the women I know deal with these judgments, by letting our work speak for itself."

Does sounding like a professor mean sounding prepared? Maybe. Dan Hirschman, an assistant professor of sociology at Brown University, said that there is "nothing inherent about being a professor that makes someone less -- or more -- relatable," he said. Some professors are bad at public speaking and others are good. But at their best, he said, professors are "passionate, dynamic, engaging and skilled at translating difficult and complex topics into something understandable by whatever audience they are speaking to."

As for the threads, Hirschman said the comedy is about Warren being "prepared, considerate and respectful of rules" in the debate -- even though he said that idea, too, is gendered.

"I think we academics are deploying the meme to make fun of inconsiderate things some academics do, while non-academics are taking it in other directions," he said. Over all, the threads suggest that "part of how Warren is relatable is that she is considerate and prepared and we all have fond memories of times we interacted with someone who was considerate, versus someone who was not."

Calarco said she has heard concerns, mostly from Democratic friends outside academe, that about "Warren being seen, especially in the general election, as too elitist. They worry about her Harvard pedigree."

That's a risk, Calarco said. "But I don't think it's as big a risk as McCaskill makes it out to be. And I don't think it's a reason to discount Warren's chances in the general election."

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