Clothes Make the Humanities Professor

After 15 years as a college professor, it was time for a change.

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One of the great disappointments of my undergraduate years in college in the early 1980s was the number of classes taught by graduate students.

   

To give them their due, these graduate students were good enough teachers. My complaint about them had little to do with the quality of their teaching. What I hated was the way they dressed. They looked like slobs.

The graduate students who taught me wore old, faded jeans or frumpy, wrinkled corduroys. They donned tennis shoes of the sort worn by junior high students, only theirs were dirtier and scruffier. The women, as I recall, dressed better than the men, though only slightly so. Of all the graduate students who taught me, I recall only one — a woman who taught Introductory French — who looked good. She wore elegant blouses, pressed skirts, and polished pumps. I was surprised when I learned she was not a tenured faculty member. Her clothes spelled seniority.

These graduate students, I was convinced, were making a statement through their frumpy outfits, but what was that statement? Was it that highly educated people have to dress ugly? That the world was full of ugly and that my classmates and I needed to face that fact? Or was it that my fate in life would be controlled by ugly? In the end, I had to face a question of my own: Did I have to look like them when I grow up?

Let me clarify my terms here. The graduate students who taught me were not “casual” dressers. Casual, however relaxed it may appear, can be handsome and elegant. My teachers dressed at a level far below “casual.” Their style was careless, frumpy, and just plain hard to look at. I was sure my GPA suffered as a result.

So how was it that when I started to teach college 15 years ago, I quickly descended into the same frumpiness as the graduate students who taught me? One answer is that I was socialized into this mode of dress in graduate school. Another answer: because I could. Following close on the heels of “because I could” is what can be called “the great academic presumption.” Professors presume, though they don’t say this out loud, that their knowledge and brilliance are so great that slovenliness and drab clothes do not matter.  

My trouble is that I never thought I was that brilliant. Competent yes, but brilliant, no. Though I never let on to others or even to myself, I could not quiet the voice that disdained the way I dressed in the classroom. I secretly feared that my frumpiness lowered the quality of my teaching and cost me a certain amount of respect among my students. I feared that among my students were those who eyed me from their seats and thought: If I learn this stuff, do I have to grow up and look like him?

I might have continued in this sad state if it hadn’t been for the following event. About three years ago, after a workout at the gym, I sat on a sofa in the locker room and opened a copy of the Wall Street Journal that someone left behind and happened upon an article about the Medallion Fund. The Medallion Fund is a hedge fund established by Dr. James Simons, an award-winning mathematician and former professor at SUNY Stony Brook. This was long before the financial meltdown. Simons, drawing on his math background, had hired a staff of quantitative analysts (“quants”) trained in theoretical math and physics. The Medallion Fund had compiled a stunning record (a record that has continued, I might add, despite the economic slump) earning a yearly return of about 35 percent after fees. A 35-percent return means investors roughly double their money every two years.

So there it was: the Medallion Fund. If only I could scrape together $10 million. But it got me thinking. If I were wealthy would I run off to the Bahamas? Would I sit around my apartment all day? Would I quit my job as a freshman writing teacher? The answer I quickly determined was no, I would not quit my job. I enjoy teaching and the exchange of ideas I have with colleagues and students more than I can say. And I would continue to teach because I struggle when I have large blocks of unstructured time. I fight each summer to get myself on a schedule and engage in productive reading and writing. The results are usually mixed. Teaching is central to my life, both because I love it and because I need it.

But, upon reflection, I realized that there was one change the Medallion-Fund version of me would make in my work life. I would drop the frump and dress like an executive — a rich executive. Strangely enough, this idea excited me. Wouldn’t it be great, for both my students and me, to break out of the drab English teacher persona? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to step into the classroom in a pin-striped suit; a stylish tie and dressy; polished shoes? And wasn’t this the real reason students didn’t respect the humanities — not because of the material seemed irrelevant but because the people teaching it looked like hopelessly irrelevant, misfit slobs?

That’s when it hit me. I didn’t need to have millions invested in the Medallion Fund to accumulate a decent wardrobe of suits, shirts, and ties. If I saved and planned and watched for good sales, I could stand before my classes as a rich man without actually becoming rich. And so I did.

As the start of fall term approached, I became excited and deeply curious about the effect of my new uniform. To forestall any slipping, I set a few guidelines. I decided I would wear my suit jacket at all times and never casually take it off and place it on a chair. I would keep my tie tightly fastened around the neck. I would keep my suit jacket buttoned.

The school year has just ended, and I can report some results. Do my students respect me more? Well, they certainly seem to. In the fall term, I had a record number of students come to office hours for help with papers. These students had the best attitude toward revision suggestions of any students I have ever taught. They didn’t resist or object. They brought questions and sought help.

Classes this year seemed more relaxed, in the best sense of word. Student discussions have been livelier, and comments and questions have seemed more probing and sincere. Where I had thought the suit would create distance, it turns out it has created more trust. Of course, these judgments are uncertain as students change, classes change, and how I act in the classroom is always changing.

And how have I reacted? Quite well, I can report. I am by nature chronically time-challenged, but this year I was on time far more than in previous years.

Perhaps the best aspect of wearing suits is the pickup I get on those days when my mood isn’t so great. It is hard to don a nicely tailored suit with a stylish tie and nice shoes and show up someplace without experiencing a bit of a lift.

More than anything, I have felt a kind of relief in my new uniform. The paradox is that wearing a suit allows me to not think about how I look. I can’t help but feel that my students can better appreciate me — and what I teach — when they see a guy who looks like he could be a member of the Medallion Fund at the front of the classroom. • 20 June 2011

Robert Anthony Watts is an associate teaching professor in Drexel University’s Department of English and Philosophy.

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