Writing a column on faculty fashion is no small task. Indeed, the first thought that comes to mind is, "Faculty fashion? Isn’t that an oxymoron?"
It’s no secret that faculty members are famous for dressing poorly, outlandishly or, even at their best, in styles that lost popularity a decade or two or even more ago (the length of that time lag is dependent primarily on the year the professor in question entered graduate school). What is it about academia that seemingly produces an inability to pay attention to dress and hair styles — styles that are a ubiquitous presence in the media and our daily encounters with normal people? Does graduate school somehow produce the superpower of resisting the conformity pressures of society? Or, as we like to say in the social sciences, perhaps this really is the result of a selection effect: academia doesn’t produce the fashion faux pas tendency; rather, people with a stunted sense of style are somehow inordinately drawn to the profession of teaching and research.
My favorite explanation: Perhaps we just aren’t paying these people enough and so they have to continue wearing the subsistence sweatshirts from their grad school days.
Really, I don’t think it’s any of these — and particularly not because they can’t afford a trip to Hermès, Gucci or at least T.J. Maxx or the outlet mall. These people, contrary to what a casual observer might infer, are making conscious choices about what they wear, and those choices are intended to convey something. Now they might be mistaken about what message the viewer of their outfits receives, but we are all, professors included, constantly and purposely sending messages to others through the way we present ourselves.
What message might academics be trying to send when they flout the dictates of fashion and good taste, and ignore the color-clash pain they inflict on others? Well, it flows from the same reason we drive beat-up cars (rust-buckets that are still only automobiles in the academic sense) and refuse to edge our lawns. These choices are rarely driven by financial necessity, but rather because we take some kind of perverse pleasure in conspicuously displaying our disinterest in the material world. We wish to demonstrate that we just don’t care about these kinds of mundane trappings because we are so engrossed in the ethereal, all-consuming life of the mind.
Ah, it’s a lovely image, isn’t it? So taken with our own deep thoughts, we don’t even notice that our pants haven’t fit for 10 years, our belts don’t match our shoes, our collars aren’t buttoned down and maybe even that our shirts are inside-out. As long as we don’t get arrested for indecent exposure, well, then, that’s just good enough. The slobs, in fact, sometimes look down their noses at those who do dress more fashionably, as if to say that anyone who actually coordinates their shirt, pants and socks couldn’t possibly be very serious about their scholarly work.
Now that I’m spending more time doing administrative activities, I’ve encountered a different set of messages sent by clothing choices: Efficiency and formality conveyed by the suit — an industrious and hardworking demeanor reinforced when we take off the blazer and roll up our shirt sleeves, and, my favorite, the loosened-tie look that seems to say, “I had to dress up for something important today, but it wasn’t you!”
The question, though, is whether the messages sent are in fact the ones received. I'm afraid in the case of university faculty (who, it has been proven, can be pretty clueless about social interaction and norms) this often is not the case. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that students are considerably more fashion-conscious than their teachers. And believe me, they notice what you are wearing. I’ve heard many a snarky observation by students traipsing out of other people's classes and have even had comments written on my teaching evaluations about how that student's other professors dress! (Really, the half-page tirade I once received about some misguided soul who wore the same outfit — a red sweater and black slacks — to class every day was something to behold.)
Their reaction, by and large, is not, “Professor Doffsweater must be brilliant!” More likely it’s, “What a schmo” or “Wow, is she out-of-touch.” Or more pointed and problematic, “He doesn’t even care about himself — he clearly can’t give a second thought to me.” One thing is certain: While they are labeling the prof as a dweeb in their heads, they aren’t likely to also be thinking, “This person is just like me; I want to be just like her when I grow up!”
And let’s not leave us administrators out. When we refuse to stoop to even business casual, the message to our colleagues can often be something different than efficiency and industriousness. More likely, distance and inappropriate status display are inferred, neither of which is likely to help produce a genuine or productive interaction.
What to do to correct all of this? We’ve got a long way to go, judging from the sartorial sensibilities displayed at the most recent faculty gathering I attended. But before we call in Joan Rivers to critique what happened last week, ask Professor Blackwell to create a worst- and best-dressed list at the annual President’s Dinner, or create a hot-or-not voting website to accompany course instructor feedback evaluations, we could just start small. Spend a few moments thinking about what kind of reactions might result from the following small set of faculty fashion flops. Then go, and sin no more:
Twenty popular faculty styles **
1. I’m not an Oxford professor, but I play one at Notre Dame.
2. This outfit worked at IBM in 1957, so why not wear it every day?
3. Why tuck in my shirt? I’ll just have to do it again tomorrow.
4. Bow ties say “intellectual,” are not the slightest bit nerdy and, as a bonus, they emphasize my growing midsection.
5. Versace Monday, Armani Wednesday: I’m sure to get a red hot pepper on ratemyprofessors.com.
6. I don’t have time to iron. I was up all night changing how we understand the fundamental building blocks of the entire universe.
7. That hole burned by 18 molar hydrochloric acid isn’t that bad. Why waste a perfectly functional pair of pants?
8. If you can get it at Sears, it’s still in style.
9. Suspenders and a belt. I teach security studies after all.
10. No one will notice I’m wearing black tennis shoes with this suit.
11. I need those elbow patches. Reading is hard work!
12. Polyester is the new black.
13. My gigantic glasses from 1987 are still in perfectly good shape. I think I’ll just replace the lenses.
14. Peace and love. It’s still the ’60s, isn’t it?
15.This leather jacket will let them know that I’m cool, man... I mean, dude.
16. I’m a low-level administrator, but I really, really, really want to be a high-level administrator.
17. I wanna wear jeans! But I’d better make it formal by adding a blazer.
18. It’s not that dirty. It was on the top of the laundry hamper.
19. My black pants aren’t too short. How else am I going to show off my new white socks?
20.To tweed or not to tweed? That is the question. And the answer is: To tweed!!
**Fictional composites of well-known stereotypes — any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However, if you resemble one (or more) of these descriptions, you might want to reconsider your fashion choices.
Daniel J. Myers is vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs and a professor of sociology at Notre Dame. This piece appeared first in Notre Dame Magazine.
Christopher Hayes probably finished writing most of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown) before assuming his current duties as talk show host on MSNBC. Television is not a medium that fosters the kind of argument that requires parentheses -- much less the application to American social and political problems of ideas originally developed by any dead European thinker not named Alexis de Tocqueville. (Even then, you shouldn’t overdo it.)
Hayes uses the term “elite” as a social scientist might -- as a label for the leading stratum of an organized group -- rather than in its usual capacity, as a snarl word. His criticisms of the American status quo are clear enough, and harsh enough. Given that status quo, however, the book’s measured, non-hyperventilating approach may be a problem. There’s big money in professional ranting, and the audience for cable TV punditry usually wants catharsis, not concepts.
Twilight takes as its starting point the unmistakable collapse of public confidence in most American institutions, political and otherwise, that has been going on for decades now. Even before the financial heart attack of 2008, a Gallup poll showed that trust in 12 out of 16 institutions had reached an all-time low – with the ones that lost the most being “also the most central to the nation’s functioning: banks, major companies, the press, and, perhaps most troublingly, Congress.” Hayes points out that the approval ratings for Congress were lower than those for either Paris Hilton or the prospect of the country going communist.
Other studies show that trust in the presidency surged for a year with Obama’s election, but by 2010 “had plummeted back down toward Bush levels in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
The least trusting cohort, the author notes, “are those who came of age in the aughts.” In 2010, the Harvard Institute of Politics surveyed 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 “about whether they thought various institutions did the right thing all of the time, most of the time, some of the time, or never. Of the military, the Supreme Court, the President, the United Nations, the federal government, Congress, traditional media, cable news, and Wall Street executives, only one – the U.S. military – was believed to do the right thing all or most of the time by a majority of respondents.”
As striking as the decline of public confidence in major institutions is the collapse (or at least severe dysfunction) of institutions themselves. We have the examples of Enron, Lehmann Brothers, public schools, and the athletics program at Penn State, as well as… actually, that’s enough for now. To extend the list just seems morbid.
So a lack of confidence in authority figures and leading institutions is not groundless. But it can be generalized (and pandered to) in irrational ways. “From 1970 to 2000” notes Hayes, “the number of annual reported whooping cough cases in the United States hovered at around 5,000 a year. In 2010, it spiked to 27,500 cases.” The change reflected the rise of a movement premised on the idea that vaccinations cause autism, even if those know-it-all scientists say otherwise.
Here, again, examples could be multiplied. Every time it snows, for example, the same old sarcastic remarks about global warming get jotted out. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, it sure does know self-defense.
“When our most central institutions are no longer trusted,” Hayes writes, “we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal…. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely to be the largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on this planet.”
So, it’s bad. The word “twilight” in Hayes’s title is Götterdämmerung-y for good reason, although the book itself is much less gloomy than it certainly could be. From time to time, many of us, I assume, try to extrapolate from current trends to how things might develop over the next 10 or 20 years -- only to have our brains freeze up and shut down, probably to avoid picturing it too vividly.
Instead of futurology, Hayes digs into what he calls “the crisis of authority” with ideas borrowed from Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto – two of the three classic sociological theorists of elitism (the third being Gaetano Mosca). In this context, “elitism” refers, not to a set of attitudes or behaviors usually judged as more or less obnoxious, but to the general principle that any given society has a layer of people with disproportionate power over others. The thought that there will always be such a layer may be exceptionally disagreeable, although Pareto took it as more or less given.
For Michels, it came as an unwelcome realization that “a gulf which divides the leaders from the masses” emerges in even the most democratic of organizations, because they end up with knowledge and the tools giving them advantages over the rank-and-file. He called it “the Iron Law of Oligarchy.” The best-case scenario involves keeping that governing layer as accountable as possible.
The distinguishing feature of the contemporary American social pyramid, in Hayes’s account, is that efforts to check the power of earlier elites (insert cartoon of Ivy League WASPs making deals at the country club here) have boomeranged. The meritocratic principle is that knowledge and skill, rather than inherited advantage, should determine which personnel should be in positions of authority.
It sounds like a reasonable accommodation with the Iron Law of Oligarchy -- as anti-elitist an arrangement as possible, given the complexity of 21st-century problems. But what it’s actually created is a set of “interlocking institutions that purport to select the brightest, most industrious, and most ambitious members of the society and cultivate them into leaders” who have “a disposition to trust [their] fellow meritocrats and to listen to those who occupy the inner circle of winners.”
Since career mobility is one of the perks of meritocratic life, the camaraderie has a dark side, exemplified by a bit of in-house lingo from the hedge-fund world: IBGYBG, which stands for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” And we’ve seen how that works out. It is the nature of this elite, Hayes writes, "that it can't help but produce failure" because "it is too socially distant to properly manage the institutions with which it has been entrusted."
There's much else in Twilight of the Elites that I've scanted here in the interest of finishing this column, but one final point seems important to make: The book's title is a nod to Christopher Lasch's posthumous collection of essays The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), while Lasch's title in turn alluded to that of Jos Oretega y Gassett's classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930). One way to look at it is that all three reflect a set of ongoing, unsolved problems about authority and legitimacy -- always crisis, never a resolution. And here a cynical voice chimes in to say, "So why even bother thinking about it? Even if things do get worse, IBGYBG. Lol." I don't know whether the Devil exists or not, but if he did, that's what he'd sound like.