Feb 2


The Chronicle of Higher Education has struck again with another of its first person columns this week.  When these columns first started (perhaps ten years ago now) I used to enjoy reading them for their often intriguing insights into a world which I in my naive graduate student mind believed to be beyond my ken (or Barbie, actually.  I was still confused by radical feminism and how many Judith Butlers could dance on the head of a pin in those days.).  But two things changed as the years progressed: I grew older and theoretically wiser, at least in terms of the academic world, and the columns grew younger and definitely more juvenile.  That's perhaps a bit harsh–there are still some interesting ideas which get bandied about in the first person columns from time to time, and certainly the writers usually intend to be helpful to their readers.  But for the most part the subject matter of the columns has grown progressively less relevant to actual academic life.  Exhibit A: Thomas William Pannapacker Benton's account of fashion in academia.  With book recommendations.

Now that you've had a chance to pick your jaws up off the floor, I'll continue.  Yes, Benton (the pseudonym for William Pannapacker–I don't know why the guy decided to maintain his pseudonym after he revealed his real one, but maybe he likes getting to wear two name tags at conferences), who's come under fire before for some rather odd opinions he's expressed in his column on "academic culture," decided this time around to take a look at the fashion sense of academics.  Some of this is expressed with the appropriate amount of deadpan humor (or what passes for it: "Male professors do tend to dress casually at my college.  And it was my plan, you see, to assimilate–at least until I received tenure.  Dear reader, you must know that I have since trimmed my mullet, shaved my mutton chops, and donated my Carhardtt duck-billed overalls to Goodwill."  Bentapacker may not have been aware that "casual" did not mean "ZZ Top.")…but a lot of it seems to be trying to strike a serious tone:

"…I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment…I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with 'Dear Professor' instead of 'Hey.'" 

And he wraps up his survey of academic attire by proclaiming that "the most important thing about clothing is contextual appropriateness, in addition to quality and fit…Above all, when I dress, I pay careful attention to context, including my age, rank, and the nature of the task at hand, even if that means adjusting my clothes in the middle of the day–like superman in a phone booth–as I change from professor to counselor to administrator and back again."

Well, that's a relief.  I used to wonder why I always got in trouble for wearing my snorkeling outfit to my committee meetings.

Sarcasm aside, I'm genuinely puzzled how Boilermaker (I know, and I have the nerve to call other people juvenile!) believes these platitudes about the dress code to represent some kind of revelation to people within the academic field.  All academics do is think about situational context, often to a crushingly boring degree.  And it's not just academics; if you're told that you have casual Fridays, and the rest of the time need to dress "in accordance with company decorum," it's a pretty damn good bet the default outfit isn't jeans and a T-shirt (not even the classy kind with a different colored collar).  Test it out for yourself if you're feeling lucky.  Is this something which is seriously in dispute?  Someone somewhere was about to walk into a classroom wearing a "Joss Whedon is my master now" shirt and was stopped by ThomWill's warning just in time?

Boy, I hope not.  Now don't get me wrong: there's no doubt that some academics' vision of appropriate attire can be a bit blurry at times.  The Paper Chase world of elbow patches and well worn tweed coats is still alive and well at many institutions of higher learning to this day, springing about equally from positions of defiance and desperation; some professors wear their suit pant/sneaker look with the appropriate amount of Vietnam protest pride, and others just didn't have a plan B after the bell bottom era.  But in the majority of these cases the person in question is well aware that his/her outfit isn't quite blending in with the baggy jean/baseball cap look of his/her students, and would probably nod sheepishly and a touch helplessly (or angrily) if the subject was brought up.  For those of us who straddle generations, neither world is particularly foreign; we can enjoy hanging out with friends in soccer jerseys and jeans on Friday evening and comfortably show up for work in suit pants and button down shirt and tie the following Monday. 

But we also don't stress quite so much about the implications, and I think this is pseudo-Packer's biggest problem: he reads far too much into what should be second nature and forgets what's really important in the process.  I myself begin every semester with a vest, tie, pocket watch, formal pressed pants, the works.  In part this is to portray the image of confidence and establish a certain educational distance which my manner and behavior will constantly reduce (I'm not a big fan of the massive "lecturing for lecture's sake" theory of instruction); the more competent and confident I can appear early on, the easier it will be throughout the course of the semester to pull back, when necessary, on the discipline and straight-ahead approach.  My default teaching outfit, meanwhile, is a button down shirt and business-quality pants, no tie: comfortable but appropriate.  Clothes may be a "complex negotiation," but I think mine send a simple message: I take the class seriously, but have enough levity to have a fighting shot at relating to my students who won't think I'm cool just because I wear no belt and a backwards baseball cap.  Where my class will ultimately be won over, though, is in the attitude I express–humorous, light, but also serious and disciplined–which signals to my students that they're worth the challenges I'm giving them.  Benton/Pannapacker, on the other hand, seems to want to rely on pressed clothing and "French cuffs" as the backbone of his instructional paradigm, and you'll excuse me if I find that approach a bit…limiting.

Ultimately, of course, clothes don't really make the man (or woman), and TWPB may simply want to suggest a few good books on academic fashion to get those of us who still love paisley out of the psychedelic age.  Fair enough.  But I think his take says much more about what academics too often value–appearance, outward show, and projected image–than it does about some fresh new look at the classroom environment.  As for me, I'll stick with my vest and pocket watch to button down shirt and dress pants transition.  And if Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ever does decide to give me the full makeover treatment, I've got this awesome Joss Whedon T-shirt that would be a sweet addition to any classroom outfit.  Hey, man, I hear they're just ahead of the trend!