• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The Ties That Bind

Will the pandemic do to ties what JFK did to hats?

October 15, 2020
 
 

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, legend says, he made going hatless socially acceptable for men. He did it to emphasize his youth and vigor -- a word I can’t hear in my head in any other accent but his -- but it caught on; soon, men of all political persuasions routinely went around hatless.

When Barack Obama ran in 2008, and Andrew Yang ran in 2020, they often went tieless. I admit hoping that they would do to ties what JFK did to hats.

Reader, a confession. I hate wearing ties. Since we went remote in March, I haven’t missed them. They hang in my closet, unused and vaguely ridiculous.

They’re kind of silly, if you think about it. They’re vulnerable to stains, they require uncomfortable collar buttoning to wear, and they serve no function other than to signal that you’re wearing a tie. (Veblen argued that their uselessness actually was their purpose. By wearing a tie, you told the world that you don’t have to work with your hands. That implied status. Now, status is conveyed with hoodies.) I’ve worn them dutifully for many years, on the theory that they come with the office. But over the last several months I haven’t worn them at all, and it hasn’t seemed to matter at work.

Hmm.

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When we start doing more in-person work again, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the pandemic did to ties what JFK did to hats. Ties are an annoying historical holdover that survive solely through inertia, and the pandemic broke the inertia. That's nowhere near a worthwhile trade, of course, but in 2020 it's best to take the wins where you can.

Something similar may happen with office hours. I’ve heard repeatedly from many faculty that office hours over Zoom are better attended than office hours in physical offices. Some who don’t especially like teaching over Zoom have enthused over Zoom office hours. It makes sense, and not only because Zoom was originally designed more for meetings than for classes. With virtual office hours, you’ve taken the logistical variable out of the equation. At a commuter campus, that’s significant. Virtual meetings can be much shorter, and the professor can accommodate large groups when necessary or have real privacy when necessary. When we finally get past the pandemic, I could imagine some pretty compelling arguments for combining in-person classes with remote office hours. For faculty, it could provide much greater flexibility, privacy and ability to move office hours around the week. For students, it could provide much more access to faculty. For institutions, over time, it may provide an opportunity for a more efficient use of space.

As with hats, I don’t foresee either ties or physical office hours vanishing entirely. Men with hats can still be spotted in the wild. But now a hat is a choice rather than an expectation. Ties may become something like what tuxedos are now: something to wear so rarely that it’s cheaper to rent than to own. I’d be fine with that. Where physical office hours make sense, I have no issue with them, but the abrupt runaway success of virtual office hours should probably tell us something.

I’m guessing that my wise and worldly readers are having similar observations in the pandemic, but applied to other things. I’d love to hear about them, whether on Twitter (@deandad) or via email (deandad (at) gmail (dot) com).

I will read the responses while my ties sit in silence.

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