The Washington Post is being justly criticized for its ridiculous so-called exposé of Elizabeth Warren earning reasonable attorney/consultant fees for her legal work. There is a debate about whether this display of poor journalism can be attributed to sexism. Though I struggle to imagine a man being criticized for similar earnings, I think it has more to do with a deep misunderstanding of my line of work.
To be clear: I am so very fortunate and grateful to be a tenured professor with a named chair at a time when excellent academics are driven to economic precarity by the corporatization and adjunctification of higher education. I teach a reasonable load, have time and space to research and publish, live comfortably, and want for nothing. These privileges enable me to spend a considerable chunk of each workweek doing public service. As many of you know, I’m on TV several times a week; when there’s some novelty with Trump, Barr, Mueller, et al., it’s sometimes several times a day. Every week I spend several hours consulting with journalists, civil rights attorneys, activist organizations, and others. I write amicus briefs. I speak at public events, not all of them academic, and most of which do not directly advance my professional career. And there’s nothing special about me–I have many colleagues who do things like this.
What seems to be at the root of Warren’s critics is that they perceive this public activity–which requires skill, hard work, time to stay on top of current events, cultivating media savvy, and yes, because this is a lookist society, investment in appearance and in reputation management–not as volunteer work, which is what it is, but as something that we somehow owe to the world to provide for free. This comes either from the perspective that we are cynical, underworked exploiters (“you have the summers off!” “you teach six hours a week and that’s your entire job!”) or obligate servants of The Movement who, for some reason, must do for free a lot of things that everyone else in the universe charges for, in the form of salaries, stipends, or honoraria. Many of us, especially women and people of color, internalize these critiques, mumbling when we should ask for honoraria, lowballing our fees because we don’t know what to charge, muttering “of course” when we’re told to do things for the greater good.
It is entirely reasonable to respond to requests that eat up considerable time and effort, especially when made by clients who can afford to pay, with this:
If anything, we should learn something from Warren’s laudable example. If she managed to have an illustrious academic career and, at the same time, put her impressive skills and industriousness to good use, good for her! The culture of sacrifice and deprivation that sometimes peeks through this critique seems to suggest that the endgame is for people to be paupers so as to lead by example. If that’s the endgame, it’s not worth the fight. The endgame is for people to live with dignity and have what they need, and there is no greater champion for this than Elizabeth Warren.
Thank you, WaPo, for helping me make up my mind about my preferred presidential candidate through your irresponsible journalism. CCC endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic candidate for President of the United States.