Those Really Smart Clothes
Maria Shine Stewart offers her two cents to recent discussions about academic couture.
I taught a transitional course this summer for students on the cusp between being placed into basic writing and their first college composition course. I thought of it as writing boot camp. And, coincidentally, I had just bought a pair of sassy ankle boots with my favorite gem, rhinestones, studded on them.
Did I wear these to class? Of course not. I do have some sense. On the same shopping trip, I bought sensible brown clogs. But as I joined into the first-day writing exercise with students, I had to confront my own assignment. They had to create three paragraphs about themselves -- one, on physical appearance; one on the “inner person” not perceptible to the naked, so to speak, eye; and the third, on personal goals. Thus, I was reminded of the personae we create in the classroom.
And whether readers were teaching all summer or involved with other tasks, fall is the time to take stock of one hundred other things beside your wardrobe. But luckily there is plenty of guidance on the latter, including lively columns on Inside Higher Ed on what to wear to class. Nate Kreuter’s “Why I (Usually) Wear a Tie” got a spirited response this past academic year, as did the more recent “Faculty Fashion” by Daniel J. Myers, complemented by insights from the business world, Jessica Quillen’s “The Well-Dressed Academic.”
I offer my two cents to this discussion.
The Cognitive Domain: Be Practical
Facts are facts, unless – of course – “the opposite is also true,” a favorite adage of one of my professors in graduate school, an adage I never figured out. But on the contentious topic of faculty fashion, perhaps the opposite is sometimes true. We all had a favorite, perhaps demanding professor whose fashion was irrelevant. Or whose personality was endearing. Or whose insights were trenchant. And if not in the actual movies, in vague films of memory.
One faculty member, from whom I learned both academic rigor and kindness when I was in college, was unconventional and independent. She wore pantsuits that had been the rage a decade before. Her scholarship spoke for itself, and her clothes were neat and undistracting. Another faculty member wore pleated skirts and pumps of a fashion a full two decades earlier. I grew up in a frugal family, so these teachers’ habits did not trouble me. I admired their nod to the past and their fitness.
Paradoxically, one risks seeming outdated in some people’s eyes if wearing the clothes of one’s youth; yet, a savvy H.R. specialist told me that when job hunting, she would sport a youthful look if the work team – particularly the hiring manager -- is younger than her. Yet, innovators are omnipresent in academia, people (like Einstein) whose ideas have a staying power much longer than their clothes.
Readers are too polite to ask, so I’ll just share. My own practical attire must help me be reliable. For me, that includes pockets to stock my post-it notes of ideas – plus allergy medicine and analgesic, as fall headaches are doozies. Without pockets, I run the risk of misplacing keys. A lanyard is essential to tame a slippery flash drive. I am sometimes referred to as an adjunct, an adjective that has morphed into a noun. An adjunct to one’s wardrobe would be a scarf or a tie, perhaps, but no one’s accessories can afford to blow away. As when traveling, layer: I advise all colleagues, regardless of job title. If the air conditioning plunges low or heat spikes, we’ll be ready.
The Affective Domain: Put Some Heart in It
When the documentary of my teaching life is made, it may be half-humor, half-horror. Who knows which will prevail? When my son was quite young, I took him along to buy back-to-school shoes. “Which shoes should Mommy get for class?” I asked. He pointed to orange track shoes I resisted, though I wish I had taken the risk. He still remembers his reasoning: “They would stand out and the students would like them.”
It’s good to bend a rule now and then. I am a cautious person, but I would have never learned that all hell would not break loose if I never colored outside the lines. One day of my career, I wore jeans to class. Drained from grading almost all night with barely two hours of sleep, my resistance to fashion dictates lessened. Head foggy, I reached for casual clothes and wore them to school, determined to head right back home for a nap. I was astounded at what happened. A previously chilly class warmed up at last, weeks into the semester. Was formal attire one more thing not to have to rebel against, one less barrier to take down? Was it the circles under my eyes?
When I was a T.A., the department head was always in shirt and a tie, and his training stuck. He told us we should dress like the professionals we would hope to consult, and he felt this was especially important for those close in age to students.
A source shares what may sound unlikely, but truth can trump fiction. A professor was lecturing brilliantly, and the room grew cold. He put on his blazer, or rather tried to, somehow missing the hanger inside. The class watched as he twisted, then stopped trying to wriggle. The show must go on. It may be difficult to visualize this without Eugene Levy in the title role.
But clothes have to move -- on our bodies, and sometimes out the door to charity. I did this during the summer, though I hate to part with anything. Some of my clothes were tired and some not – but in either category no longer suit me. That’s fine. That leaves more room in my closet for books.
A few more tips:
1. Academia demands body-mind synchrony. Consider who you are as well as your setting. Suit up accordingly.
2. Don’t take a hammer to your shoes without the advice of a trained professional.
3. Utilize your range of motion. Stretching beneath the cabinet that houses wires and switches for your classroom computer console requires garment flexibility. It might also make you wish you had a plumber’s visor with a light. (Let me know if you find one on sale.) That might come in handy when you drop your flash drive in the crevice between your car seat and the door one exhausted night.
4. Despite the drought, prepare to stay reasonably dry. That includes freedom from the sweat that whatever is your Achilles’ heel will inevitably trigger. (Lost book order? Computer meltdown? Last-minute course cancellation?) And the elements deserve respect. Rain gear, galoshes: Swallow your pride.
Few wail: “I wish I had left my umbrella at home” when sun breaks through, but the universal language of regret is audible in a downpour. Humans have not yet mastered the full-body shake so effortless for dogs.
5. “Teachers are what inspire the student!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I did not. One of my composition students wrote this in an impassioned letter to the editor arguing for more emphasis on on-ground instruction and healthy skepticism about e-learning. May I propose an amendment: “Teachers are what inspire the student … not their clothes.”
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