The story of Elizabeth Warren’s career in education — at least in legal education — begins with one word: assumpsit. It is literally the first word of the first case she had to read for the first class she ever took as a 24-year-old law student at Rutgers University in 1973. She has recalled, in vivid detail, the fear and confusion she’d felt as a young mother, former public-school teacher, and unlikely law student when her first law professor walked into the room and called on a student whose name began with A, asking her, “Ms. Aaronson, what is ‘assumpsit’?” Ms. Aaronson had not known, and neither had the next several students he called on after her. Ms. Warren also had not known what assumpsit meant, despite having done the reading for the day.
Since her last name was at the end of the alphabet, Warren was spared public humiliation, but she left her first law-school class badly shaken, with a degree of clarity about how she must move forward: “Read all the words and look up what you don’t know.”
In the following years, Warren became a law-school professor: first teaching night classes at Rutgers and eventually landing at Harvard, where she worked for 16 years before becoming a U.S. senator from Massachusetts in 2013.
In 1999, more than 20 years after Warren attended her first law class at Rutgers, Jay O’Keeffe, who now works as a consumer-protection lawyer in Roanoke, Virginia, attended his first law class at Harvard. It was taught by Warren. “She did not say anything like ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m Liz Warren, and welcome to Contracts,’ ” O’Keeffe recalled. “Instead, she put her books down, looked over her glasses at her seating chart, and said, ‘Mr. Szeliga, what’s ‘assumpsit’?’ ”
Assumpsit — which, Warren told me, “means that the action is in contract rather than in tort” — became Professor Warren’s calling card, though she says no matter how widely advance warnings spread, 96 percent of new law students would walk in unprepared for it. When Joseph Kennedy III introduced Warren at the Democratic National Convention three summers ago, the Massachusetts representative and grandson of Robert Kennedy recalled his “first day of law school, my very first class” in 2006, during which he had been the unlucky mark: “Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people do when they don’t know what a word means; they look it up,” he recalled her saying during his public immolation. “I never showed up unprepared for Professor Elizabeth Warren ever again.”
“Yes, I do to my students what my teacher did to me,” Warren said gleefully, as she drank tea on her Cambridge sunporch in July. She spoke in the present tense, as she often does, about her teaching career, even though it’s been more than eight years since she has commanded a classroom.
Rebecca Traister and Elizabeth Warren discuss Warren’s history as a teacher, and how it influences her presidential campaign, on this week’s episode of The Cut on Tuesdays.
So much of Warren’s approach to pedagogy can be understood via the assumpsit gambit: With it, she establishes direct communication and affirms that she’s not going to be doing all the talking or all the thinking; she’s going to be hearing from everyone in the room. By starting with a question that so many get wrong but wind up learning the answer to, she’s also telegraphing that not knowing is part of the process of learning.
Warren’s work as a teacher — the profession she dreamed of from the time she was in second grade — remains a crucial part of her identity, self-presentation, and communicative style. Her 2014 book, A Fighting Chance, opens with these sentences: “I’m Elizabeth Warren. I’m a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. For nearly all my life, I would have said I’m a teacher, but I guess I really can’t say that anymore.”
But just because she’s not in the classroom these days doesn’t mean that those she’s talking to can’t smell it on her from a mile away. Leading up to the first round of debates, the Onion ran a headline reading, “Elizabeth Warren Spends Evenings Tutoring Underperforming Candidates.” And during a June episode of Desus & Mero, the two Bronx hosts did a riff on how Warren “definitely gives you teacher swag, but the teacher-that-cares-a-lot swag,” imagining her being the kind of teacher who comes to your house to tell your mom you have potential. “You came all the way to the Bronx for this? Wow … that blanquita cares.”
Warren has won multiple teaching awards, and when I first profiled her in 2011, early in her Senate run and during what would be her last semester of teaching at Harvard, I spoke to students who were so over the moon about her that my editors decided I could not use many of their quotes because they were simply too laudatory. Many former students I interviewed for this story spoke in similarly soaring terms. One, Jonas Blank, described her as “patient and plainspoken, like an elementary-school teacher is expected to be, but also intense and sharp the way a law professor is supposed to be.” Several former students who are now (and were then) Republicans declined to talk to me on the record precisely because they liked her so much and did not want to contribute to furthering her political prospects by speaking warmly of her.
Yet it remains an open question whether the work Warren does so very well — the profession about which she is passionate and that informs her approach to politics — will work for her on the presidential-campaign trail.
Plenty of our former presidents have been teachers. Some of them, including William Howard Taft and Barack Obama, taught law; some, including Millard Fillmore, primary school. Warren has been both law professor and primary-school teacher, and as a person who ran for office for the first time in her 60s, her four decades as a teacher define her in a way Obama’s stint as an instructor in constitutional law never did. Here, as in all else, it matters that she’s a woman. Teaching is a profession that, in post-agrarian America, was explicitly meant to be filled by women. That means teachers historically were some of the only women to wield certain kinds of public power: They could evaluate and punish, and so it was easy to resent them.
In 2019, we have a historic number of female candidates in contention for the Democratic nomination. But many of them have approached politics via traditionally male paths: Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar were prosecutors, Kirsten Gillibrand worked at a white-shoe law firm, Tulsi Gabbard was in the military. Elite law schools were historically the domain of powerful men, but on the campaign trail, Warren is determined to establish herself not simply as an educator of the elite but also (with an anecdote she trots out often) as a kid who used to line up her dolls and pretend to assign them homework. The candidate’s presentation of her teaching career — from kids with disabilities at a New Jersey public school to fifth-grade Sunday-schoolers in Texas to Kennedys in Cambridge — as key to her identity means she is hurtling toward the White House as a specific kind of feminized archetype.
It’s a risk. Schoolmarm, after all, is a derogatory descriptor, one that was deployed against Hillary Clinton, also a former law professor, and one that flicks at the well-worn stereotype of the stern lady who can force you to recite your times table. The phrase has already been used to critique Warren’s political demeanor, perhaps most memorably by Boston Democratic consultant Dan Payne. In 2012, Payne wrote a radio segment quoting women complaining about Warren’s “hectoring, know-it-all style”; he claimed she treated delegates to the Democratic convention “as if [they] were her pupils” and advised her to “stop the finger-wagging; it adds to her strict schoolmarm appearance and bossy manner.” Back in 2005, when Warren was testifying in front of the Senate on bankruptcy reform, challenging then-Senator Joe Biden on stripping protections from families, Biden dismissed her with a slick, back-row smirk: “Okay, okay, I got it; you’re very good, professor.” More recently, Democratic adviser David Axelrod observed to The New York Times Magazine’s Emily Bazelon that one of Warren’s drawbacks is that “she’s lecturing … people feel like she’s talking down to them.”
Much of this is uncut, misogynistic claptrap, but Axelrod’s swipe edges toward a legitimate concern: If the election of our current president makes anything clear, it’s that many Americans do not want high-minded talk from their leaders. There is fair reason to worry that a candidate who is literally a professor runs the risk of alienating rather than energizing voters. In the primary field, Warren polls far higher with college-educated voters than she does with voters without a college degree.
And that doesn’t begin to touch on what would happen should she get out of the primary: In February, Donald Trump Jr. offered a preview of how his father will likely frame a fight against an educator, telling the young conservatives at one of his father’s rallies, “You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers.” It’s obviously a broader Republican line of argument. In July, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker tweeted about “left-wing college professors” embracing socialism and showing “disdain for America.” Of course, Walker lost his 2018 gubernatorial reelection bid to former public-school teacher and administrator Tony Evers, in the same election cycle that Jahana Hayes, once named Teacher of the Year by Barack Obama, became the first black woman to represent Connecticut in the House of Representatives.
In fact, with waves of teachers’ strikes politicizing voters in many states, it seems possible that 2020 could easily be framed as a contest between teachers coming for Republicans and Republicans eager to vilify teachers. The role our current president would play in such a setup takes no imagination: He is the ultimate back-of-the-class bully, mocking and menacing the woman with the answers standing at the front. We have seen this before.
When I asked Warren whether these are dynamics she worries about, she answered with an emphatic no: “Nobody wants to be talked down to — nobody. That’s true whether we’re talking about big national audiences or law students or fifth-graders or little tiny kids.” But, she said, this is not at all at odds with the work she has done as an educator, because “that’s not what teaching, good teaching, is about.”
Instead, she said, “good teaching is about starting where you are and the teacher having the confidence in you to know that if you had a little bit more information, a little bit more time on this, if you thought about this from a little different perspective, you might move a little bit.”
It should probably go without saying that, as a child growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Warren, then called Betsy Herring, loved school. It was an era in which not many paths were open to ambitious young women. But her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lee, “of ample bosom and many hugs,” Warren said, took her aside and said, “‘You know, Miss Betsy, you could be a teacher.’ And bam! I was sold. It changed my whole vision of myself.”
Mrs. Lee put the 8-year-old in charge of a less advanced reading group.
The experience of helping struggling readers string letters together into words was intoxicating. Speaking to me in Cambridge, wearing an oversize button-down and baggy chino shorts, her hair bobby-pinned out of her eyes, Warren recalled the process of breaking words into their parts until “that flash, that spark, that I went from not knowing to knowing. It happens in their face, and it happens then in my heart, instantly. My brain. It’s enormously intimate.”
After that day with the reading group, Warren has written, “I harassed the neighborhood children to read out loud so I could play teacher, and when I couldn’t get any takers,” that’s when she began to map out that rigorous curriculum for her dolls.
But just because Warren’s ambitions had been electrified didn’t mean her path was clear. “My mother wanted me to get married to a good provider and have babies and be safe; she didn’t want me to do anything else,” Warren said. Her three older brothers joined the military, worked in construction, started a business. “But me? My fortunes would be tied to the man I married.”
By the time Warren was in high school, whenever her mother heard her discussing a teaching career, she would, as Warren tells it, “break into the conversation and explain to whomever I was talking to, ‘But she doesn’t want to be an old-maid schoolteacher … Right, Betsy?’” The mother-daughter battle was so intense that one night, after interrogating Betsy about why she thought she was so special that she should go to college, her mother hit Betsy in the face.
Warren won a full-ride debate scholarship to George Washington University, where she majored in speech pathology and audiology so she could teach students with speech and hearing impairments. But her mother’s dire view of the world for unmarried women had a deep enough impact on Warren that when her old high-school boyfriend proposed to her just before her junior year, she promptly said yes, dropping out of school and giving up that scholarship. “For 19 years I had absorbed the lesson that the best and most important thing any girl could do was ‘marry well,’ ” Warren has written. “And for 19 years I had also absorbed the message that I was a pretty iffy case — not very pretty, not very flirty, and definitely not very good at making boys feel like they were smarter than I was.”
Warren and her husband settled in Texas, where she finished her undergraduate degree, then moved to New Jersey, where she found a job as a special-needs teacher for public-school students with speech and learning disabilities. But at the end of one term, she was visibly pregnant with her first child, Amelia; the principal did not ask her back. She enrolled at Rutgers University Law School in Newark, then one of the most diverse and progressive law schools in the nation.
Warren graduated nine months pregnant with her son, Alex, and there were no firms eager to hire a new mom of two. That’s when one of her Rutgers professors suggested she might teach a night class at the school. That first year of teaching law school, she has recalled, was the second-grade reading group all over again: “I watched faces, and it felt like a victory every time I saw the click! as a student grasped a really hard idea.”
From Rutgers, Warren secured a tenure-track job at the law school at the University of Houston and taught Sunday school. She divorced her husband and later married Bruce Mann, a law professor and historian whom she had met at a law conference. Warren proposed to Mann in a classroom after watching him teach a class in property law. “It was the thing I needed to know,” she explained to me. “I couldn’t be married to another teacher if I didn’t respect his teaching. And watching him teach, he was good and engaged, and he cared and he was cute and I was already pretty crazy about him. But it was really important for me to know that.” What Warren especially appreciated while watching Mann teach was his clear belief in his students. “That’s the heart of really great teaching,” she said. “It’s that I believe in you. I don’t get up and teach to show how smart I am. I get up and teach to show how smart you are, to help you have the power and the tools so that you can build what you want to build.”
The pair’s struggle to find double teaching appointments led them from Houston to the University of Texas at Austin to Penn and finally to Harvard, where she was hired in 1995 and where Mann came on as a professor of law and history in 2006. By the time she arrived, Harvard Law School was in the midst of a controversy over diversity in hiring; Professor Derrick Bell had taken an unpaid leave in protest of the fact that none of the school’s 60 tenured professors were women of color (in 1990, only five were women, all of them white). And while much attention has been paid to the question of whether Warren’s self-identification as Native American on a variety of forms during her career had any impact on her hiring trajectory, it is quite likely that, as a white female law professor in a massively male-dominated sphere in the 1980s and ’90s, she did benefit from affirmative-action policies. White women have been affirmative action’s disproportionate beneficiaries.
Warren was an odd duck at Harvard, not just because she was one of only a handful of female professors; she was also among the only faculty whose degree had been issued by a public university. She began to speak to the masses in more direct ways, about the research she was doing on why families were going into bankruptcy, on television programs like Dr. Phil and The Daily Show. She didn’t publish academic books but ones about bankruptcy and personal finance co-authored with her daughter Amelia.
Warren believed that the law and its remedies should not be simply the domain of the already powerful, and her approach to communicating with her students — and later, as a more public figure, with a wider audience — came back to her drive to make seemingly complicated concepts available to those who didn’t already have an expertise, specifically by decluttering the language she feels is meant to drive people away from engagement with the policies that shape their lives, rather than drawing them in and making them full participants.
A perfect example, she told me, was the lead-up to the financial crash in 2008, “where the smart boys, as the economy is tumbling over the edge, only wanted to talk in terms of reverse double-half-nelson derivatives and said, in effect, ‘The rest of you aren’t smart enough to understand this. We the elite will take care of this.’ And they were wrong.”
In the wake of that crash, Warren stepped into her role as America’s teacher, defying those “smart boys” by explaining to big audiences what had happened with a clarity that felt as comforting to some as Mrs. Lee’s hugs had felt to Warren back in the second grade. In 2010, Bill Maher told her, “I just want you to hold me,” before putting his head in her lap and embracing her. The same year, Jon Stewart took a hot-for-teacher route, telling her, “I wanna make out with you.” In fact, for all the reasonable concern about how men especially may rear back from schoolteachers, the reception Warren has sometimes earned offers plenty of evidence that some of them take deep solace, in perilous times, in the plainspoken educator who can tell a straight story about how we got here and where we need to go next. After her second debate performance last week, CNN commentator Van Jones told Warren, “You make me feel like help is on the way … You make me feel good.” What she’s offering is belief — in her students, the audience, voters.
It’s the same, in Warren’s view, as nudging people to understand that they can read: “We can all understand this, and we can all demand some oversight and accountability and then make some real changes so it doesn’t happen again.” Conveying information; inviting in people who feel shut out; making stories, syllables, letters clear and legible — this is precisely, Warren says, “what a good teacher does.”
Chrystin Ondersma was a second-year transfer student at Harvard Law School in the fall of 2005 and did not feel at home. The working-class daughter of a waitress and a father who filled vending machines, she had grown up in the conservative Dutch Christian Reformed community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attended Calvin College (alma mater of Betsy DeVos), and taken her first year of law classes at Arizona State. Ondersma had come to Harvard to take classes in constitutional law and civil rights, with an eye to becoming a gender-studies professor. She’d also hoped to study with the civil-rights theorist Lani Guinier, who in 1998 had become the first woman of color appointed a tenured professor at Harvard Law and, in the 1990s, had levied a critique of how law-school classes were taught. Guinier particularly took issue with the Socratic method — whereby professors cold-called students in large lecture halls, asking them to cough up information about case law in front of their peers — as being fundamentally unfriendly to the least-privileged students in a classroom.
Ondersma agreed with Guinier about the limitations of the Socratic method, and when, during her first semester at Harvard, she saw a notice about a lunchtime lecture on the Socratic method offered by Elizabeth Warren, a professor she’d never heard of, she decided she’d go and argue her case. By phone, Ondersma remembered how, in a small conference room packed with students, Warren had laid out a case “for how, if you really care about equality in the classroom, if you care about racial justice, gender justice, and you just rely on voluntary discussion in classrooms, you’re only going to hear from the two white guys that love to talk.” For Warren, the Socratic method did not further inequities; it was a tool to mitigate them.
Warren reiterates this argument today, suggesting that “what Lani was criticizing was the Socratic method done really badly.” She said to me, “The reason I never took volunteers is when you take volunteers, you’re going to hear mostly from men. ’Cause they have a lot more confidence, and they’ll get those hands up.”
Several of her students mentioned the rumor that she targeted only guys with the assumpsit query because Warren was determined not to kick off her class by putting her more vulnerable students on the spot. (It was, perhaps, not accidental that Joseph Kennedy III found himself her prey.)
Troy Schuler, a tutor now working on an education start-up, took Warren’s contracts class the last semester she taught it, in 2011. He remembered another way she obsessed about equal access: In the run-up to exams, when people came to her office with questions, “she made everyone write up those questions and send them to her, then she wrote up her answers and sent them back out to the entire class. Because if one person has a question, it probably means that a lot of people had the same question, and it was very important to her that people were not going to have any structural advantage because they were the kind of person who knew to come to talk to a professor in office hours.”
Warren’s argument about her commitment to inclusion was so persuasive that Ondersma put aside her plans to challenge her on the Socratic method and, as soon as the lunchtime session was over, wrote Warren an email that began, “I went to your lecture and feel like a convert.” Warren responded right away, asking her to come to office hours and noting, “I always love to talk to students interested in commercial law.”
Ondersma was slightly embarrassed — she had zero interest in commercial law — but was so grateful that a professor who didn’t know her would take time to meet her that she went anyway. She explained herself to Warren. “I didn’t care about how corporations were structured, and I didn’t care about financial intricacies between creditors and debtors,” she related to me recently. “I didn’t think that was crucial to the mission of social justice.”
Warren listened for a long time, Ondersma remembered. “And then she said, ‘If you really care about social justice, you should think about focusing on commercial law and bankruptcy.’ ”
The professor told her it was a shame that so many of those who were committed to fighting injustice went into public law, leaving private, commercial practice dominated by more-conservative young lawyers. (Warren had herself been a conservative and moved to the left through her research into how Americans were going bankrupt.) “ ‘Economic law has a huge impact on women and folks of color,’ ” Ondersma remembered Warren telling her. Ondersma ended up taking every class Warren offered and became her teaching assistant in the first-year contracts class.
In this position, Ondersma remembered, she had one job: to make sure everyone got called on equally. “The whole idea was that she wanted everybody in the classroom to participate.” Ondersma would sit with the class list and check off every student who’d gotten a cold-call question. Then, in the last ten minutes of the class, “I’d hand her a notecard with the names of all the students she’d not yet called on,” and Warren would try to get to them all.
Jed Shugerman, now a law professor at Fordham, recalled coming to Harvard as a brand-new hire in 2005. He had been advised to attend other teachers’ classes to get a feel for how things were done. Observing Warren, he said, was a little scary: “She knew every one of 80 students by name. She used no notes. She had the day’s material memorized in her head as she walked around the room and asked detailed questions about the cases.”
It sounds impossible, Shugerman said, to call on more than two dozen people during a class. “Calling on more than 50 people sounds absurd, and like the questions and answers must have been superficial,” he said. “But she was so responsive and such a good listener that she could build on the last person’s answer with someone else afterward so it would build up to more complicated and sophisticated points that would go deeper.”
After class, Warren asked Shugerman to lunch. When he told her that watching her had intimidated him, Warren asked him, “Do you think I could do that when I was your age? I had no clue. It takes years to find your own teaching style.” But she explained to him the thinking behind hers: 90 minutes, she said, is a long time to sit and be talked to. The Socratic classroom as she handled it forced everyone in it to pay close attention not only to what she was saying but also to what their fellow students were saying. She was not the leader of conversation; she was facilitating it, prompting the students to do the work of building to the analysis.
It’s a pedagogical approach that Warren sees as linking all of her experiences of teaching. “It’s fundamentally about figuring out where the student is and how far can I bring them from where they are.” Her biggest lesson in this, she said, came not in a law school but in teaching Sunday school to fifth-graders in Texas. Asked by her Methodist preacher to take over a group of unruly kids, she thought it would be simple: “You teach them a little lesson, you do a little art project, you give them cookies and juice, you say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ and then the hour’s over.” But for weeks, things were bad: “They cut each other’s hair, they cut each other’s clothes; the boys climbed out the window.” So she thought to herself, Okay, you know how to teach. Teach them like you teach them in law school. She brought in a kids’ version of the story of Noah and told them to read it, because she was going to ask them some questions.
Her first question was “How do you think Noah felt when he heard this voice?” They giggled. “‘He thought he was going crazy. He had a worm in his ear.’ But they actually got interested in the question: What would it be like to be somebody who had a job, who had a family, and hears God talking to him? Does he know it’s God? Would you really sell your stuff? Before you knew it, it was time for juice and cookies and then everybody went home,” she said. “I thought, Dang, that worked. I loved my fifth-graders. They showed me, in all my cases of teaching, it’s about figuring out where they are, adding a little to it.”
Ondersma sees Warren’s Socratic approach at work on the campaign trail: “There’s a lot of listening happening. I saw that in classrooms, and it happens in town halls, too. She’s telling them her ideas, but I bet she gets ideas from them, too.” Among other things, Warren has vowed, if elected president, to appoint a public-school teacher to be secretary of Education, an idea she said she first heard from a voter — a public-school teacher — at a town hall.
Of course, presidential debates aren’t a forum that lend themselves to the Socratic approach — she doesn’t get to tussle at length with moderators or opponents (let alone the audience) to really break down ideas or build a case. But you can see her applying it around the edges, and watch her expertly poke holes in bad arguments. After the second debate, Warren was pressed by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to say that her health-care plan would raise taxes. Warren refused again and again to cede to Matthews’s frame, which takes as its basis a right-wing obsession with taxes as the only measure of costs to voters.
Warren has not enjoyed a warm relationship with the political press.
She has too often been clipped, defensive, uneasy — the experienced teacher who cannot for the life of her figure out how to get a room full of fifth-graders to listen to her. She is perhaps coming closer to finding her footing, in part by engaging reporters with more assuredness, honed via her Socratic training: Her ability to wrestle through an argument with Matthews made her seem authoritative and in control.
Warren agrees that her belief in Socratic dialogue informs how she instinctively engages with people professionally. In part, she said, Socratic teaching is about that back-and-forth, a breaking down of ideas and examining them from all angles. So when she and her policy team began discussing a wealth tax, she said, “I kept taking the side of the opposition: Wouldn’t this create a problem? … We’re pulling it apart to stress-test it, see if it would work.”
When she was first doing town halls, after proposing a wealth tax, she said, “I’d look at the faces and think, I don’t think everybody is connecting. It’s not quite gelling. So I tried a couple of different ways, and then it hit me. I’d say, ‘Anybody in here own a home or grow up where a family owned a home?’ A lot of hands would go up. And I’d say, ‘You’ve been paying a wealth tax forever. It’s just called a property tax. So I just want to do a property tax; only here, instead of just being on your home, for bazillionaires, I want it to be on the stock portfolio, the diamonds, the Rembrandt, and the yachts.’ And everyone kind of laughs, but they get the basic principle because they’ve got a place to build from.”
Warren has also remained a “cold-caller” in other corners of her professional life, running offices as she ran a classroom. Corey Stone, a former assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, worked with her for six months as she built the agency; he recalled that her former students who worked at the bureau had warned him that she was “the queen of the cold call and had high expectations that people have their facts in order.” In small meetings, he said, she’d ask direct questions of the people present, “and if we didn’t have the answer, it was not necessarily that we were dumb, just that there weren’t data to answer those questions. So it made us make sure that we had the research to answer the questions we couldn’t answer.”
Consider too that, by some measures, Warren has brought the process of cold-calling into her fund-raising strategy: After vowing not to do closed-door fund-raisers with big donors, she began phoning small-dollar donors at random, mercifully not to ask them about case law. But it’s the same principle: The people coming in with structural advantages — money, confidence, experience navigating intimidating institutions or plying the powerful — should not have more access than those who don’t.
One of Warren’s former students who declined to be named had a theory about the seeming paradox of a woman known as a bold political progressive adhering to an old-fashioned, rule-bound approach to teaching. It reminded him, he said, of Thurgood Marshall, who was known for being punctilious about civil procedure even as he broke revolutionary ground on civil rights. This student talked about how Marshall understood that rules could be used to enforce equality, and that as soon as you introduced flexibility and discretion, those with more power would take advantage of the wiggle room. Regulations, calling every name in a classroom, could serve as a set of guide rails, a system it would be harder to take advantage of. It’s easy to see how Warren’s fondness for just this kind of formal system jibes with her view of regulations in the financial industry. It is also true that teachers love rules.
Along with the rules, there were the dogs. Good Faith (given to her by students and named after “good-faith purchasers,” those who didn’t use a contract and who, she had explained in class, were like golden retrievers: “empty head, good heart”) used to sit with Warren during office hours. After Faith came Otis. Alison Schary, who graduated in 2008 and is now an intellectual-property lawyer, recalled that Warren used to post office hours for Otis. “You could sign out Otis and take him for a walk around campus.”
Her current dog, Bailey, has become a staple on the campaign trail, doing the work of any good politician’s pet: making the candidate more accessible to those she might otherwise intimidate.
For years, Warren served on Harvard Law School’s admissions committee. Shugerman briefly served alongside her and noted “how focused she was on giving special consideration to people who’d been first in their families to go to college, students who had been in the military, who’d had work experience outside of the academy.” Shugerman said it was striking that Warren chose the admissions committee, since big law-school muckety-mucks often preferred the hiring committees.
This is part of how Ondersma came to Harvard and wound up in Warren’s office hours. It wasn’t pure serendipity: Warren headed the committee that had decided to admit Ondersma as a second-year law student from Arizona State. Warren knew exactly whom she was talking to when Ondersma first came to her office and, once she was there, took great satisfaction in persuading the young radical to focus her fight against injustice on the study of commercial law.
When I asked Warren about her wooing of progressive students into her own traditionally more staid field, she rubbed her hands together, a cheerful spider in full command of her web. She told me a story about how she performed the same trick with Katie Porter, a student who flubbed an early answer in class, came to beg Warren not to give up on her, and blurted out, “I don’t care about any of this bankruptcy stuff!” Porter not only went on to study bankruptcy with Warren; she wound up teaching it as a professor and, in 2018, flipped an Orange County California House seat blue. Warren wants progressives, she said, “armed with maces and spears and sticks” in their fights for economic equality. Porter now performs viral eviscerations of bankers and bureaucrats on the House floor, reminiscent of what her mentor does in the Senate.
Porter isn’t the only elected progressive to have emerged from Warren’s classes. Boston city-council member Michelle Wu was a Warren student; so, of course, was Joe Kennedy. And both Warren’s chief of staff, Dan Geldon, and her former policy director, Ganesh Sitaraman, are former students. She has, by some measures, used her time in the classroom to build a small army, which also includes prominent bankruptcy professors Dalié Jiménez and Abbye Atkinson.
But there’s another student of Warren’s who now sits alongside her in the Senate: the bloodred Tom Cotton from Arkansas. Cotton once told Chuck Todd that, while he knew from her scholarship that she was a liberal, he hadn’t been able to divine her politics in class.
Warren and Cotton appeared together at a 2017 panel at Harvard for senators associated with the school (at which Warren was the only woman and the only panelist without a Harvard degree in the all-white group). During the discussion, Warren was describing why she’d come to teach at Harvard, how “every day I got to walk into the classroom where [there was] such privilege, such opportunity, such incredible tools, but to say to people, ‘Come on, get better at what you’ve got and widen it out, because the only mistake you can make is not to get out there and do something with passion.’”
Cotton interrupted her: “That’s not exactly the way I remember it,” he deadpanned, explaining that “she was teaching us that lesson by being very hard on us.”
Warren leaned over and looked at her former student. “And are you sorry?” she asked him.
Cotton backed down. “She was probably the best professor I had,” he conceded.
Writing about Warren in the Times Magazine earlier this summer, Emily Bazelon, herself a lecturer at Yale Law School, wrote that “Warren didn’t sound to me like a law professor on the trail, but she did sound like a teacher.” Bazelon worried, a bit, that “trying to educate people isn’t the easiest way to connect with them.”
In a presidential context, the question of how women might make themselves “likable” looms large and perpetually unsolvable. Warren, like every other woman who speaks loudly in public, has already been tagged for being imperious and inauthentic, for faking her love for beer, for being too elite or too folksy. Male paths to presidential endearment — academic genius, a facility for languages, shows of muscularity, business acumen, bellowing, football jokes, and the plausible enjoyment of beer—are apparently off the table. So what are women going to do?
The conviction that teaching — being a literal teacher — might be an answer feels, on some level, far-fetched. First, it is hard work when part of the education means schooling the public on the bias and exclusion that have left non-male, nonwhite candidates on the margins to begin with. Warren’s colleague and competitor Kamala Harris recently observed — after engaging in a back-and-forth with Joe Biden over the history of busing — “there’s still a lot of educating to do about who we are” and acknowledged that those efforts can be draining. “In my moments of fatigue with it all, I’m like, ‘Look, I’m not running to be a history professor,’ ” Harris said.
Then there’s the fact that it’s a very short step from clarifying truth-teller to the emasculating scold who shames you or puts you in a time-out. I felt a shiver of dread when, during the second debate, she stared at a distracted and giggling audience in the midst of her story about activist Ady Barkan’s struggle to pay for his ongoing ALS treatment and admonished, “This isn’t funny. This is somebody who has health insurance and is dying.” Eep, I thought. But everyone shut up and listened.
Here’s the thing: Since there aren’t a lot of other easy models for powerful women to authoritatively communicate with masses of people they’ve never been encouraged to lead, why wouldn’t it make sense that the model by which a woman could emerge in a presidential sphere might be the same as the one that permitted women entry into the public sphere to begin with?
It is, after all, no coincidence that many of the few women to have made serious approaches toward the presidency in the past found their first professional foothold in a classroom: Shirley Chisholm was a director of nursery schools and an early-education consultant who made early education central to her political agenda; Hillary Clinton was the second female law professor at the University of Arkansas; Margaret Chase Smith and Elizabeth Dole also did stints as teachers.
It’s true that people may resent teachers. It’s also true that people are primed to resent teachers, because they resent women who might wield power over them, and it is still new and uncomfortable to think about women having political — presidential! — power. And yet: People who have had great teachers love them in ways that are intense and alchemical and irrational and sometimes difficult to convey — which is also, oddly enough, how some people love the politicians they believe in and choose to fight for.
Ondersma, who was going to teach women’s studies and critical race theory, now teaches bankruptcy and commercial law at Rutgers, where many of her students are working-class children of immigrants and were first-generation college students. She cold-calls them, using the Socratic method to draw them in. Ondersma is still in touch with Warren, whom she talks about the way many people talk about the teachers who changed their lives. “Every time I messaged her, she always wrote back and said, ‘I’m proud of you,’ ” Ondersma said, calling those “the four most important words I’ve heard from almost anyone in my life.”
It may be true that we don’t want a president who asks us to do homework. But we might want one who manages to see in us, somehow, potential.
Rebecca Traister and Elizabeth Warren discuss Warren’s history as a teacher, and how it influences her presidential campaign, on this week’s episode of The Cut on Tuesdays.
*This article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!