February 09, 2008

Clothes Make Working for the Man Easier

Attention conservation notice: 700 words on a stupid op-ed about how academics dress. Contains ludicrous over-generalizations about the rhetoric of cultural criticism. Don't you have paint to watch dry?

I have just had one Prof. Erik M. Jensen's op-ed "A Call for Professional Attire" referred to me by multiple sources (none especially pointedly, thanks), and I find myself greatly irritated. Jensen says that contemporary American academics generally fail to dress up, in the modes that are supposed to reflect seriousness and status, and spends about 2000 words bemoaning this; longing for a lost "golden age" (his phrase); and trying to ridicule, brow-beat, and shame his audience into complying with his wishes. The closest he comes, in all of this, to present an actual reason for doing so is saying this: "People generally act better when they're dressed right. If a professor is sending a signal of seriousness, of civility, students will pick it up." This is backed up by a casual, second-hand reflection on how "in DiMaggio's day ... [t]he men wore white shirts and ties under coats and hats, the proper attire in public, even at a ball game."

This is a style of cultural commentary which drives me up the wall, so I try to avoid it. It is not that hard to think of an actual rationale for what Jensen wants; it would go something like this. (These are, of course, my words, not his.)

Academics are supposed to impart knowledge and skills to their students, to critique their work, to direct their intellectual and to some extent their moral development; in all these tasks they are supposed to exercise authority over students. They may also be called upon to supervise student or other employees, which is another exercise of authority. They will do so more effectively if they display the recognized external markers of high status and of seriousness, which includes dressing in certain ways and adopting certain demeanors. In fact, if they do this, their authority is more likely to be accepted as legitimate, leading to fewer occasions on which it must be explicitly insisted upon and made into naked acts of domination. Furthermore, academics are often called upon to represent their schools and/or their scholarly communities to the outside world, and this, too, will be done more effectively if they dress in ways which their audiences take to convey seriousness.
This is a reasonable argument for what Jensen says he wants. It refers to consequences, rather than insinuating some mythical intrinsic desirability; it is also an argument with empirical premises, and one susceptible to balancing — how much extra effectiveness is the extra expense, hassle, restriction of personal choice, etc., of this mode of dress worth? Supposing that, at the margin, I would be a slightly more effective teacher if I wore a tie, is that worth enough (to me? to my students? to my university?) to make up for wearing something so utterly ridiculous, an arbitrary self-sustaining convention made silk? One could imagine a reasonable essay which went into these points, backed them up, thought through the trade-offs.

Jensen, on the other hand, just wants to take his internalized norms, however transparently parochial ("faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother"), and pretend that they are the maxims of universal laws, as well as purporting to tell us what various cultural changes mean or signify. This is by far the more common rhetorical mode when people try to criticize manners and customs, and it strikes me as deeply stupid. Or at least deeply stupid to be moved by, since it gives you no reason to believe that acting as the author wants will make things better. However, I must confess that it relies on the strengths of East African Plains Apes (emotionally manipulating conspecifics, devising intentional explanations) and not their weaknesses (establishing quantitative cause-effect relationships, balancing diverse objectives). I have no idea whether this mode of argumentation (if it can be called that) achieves its object, supposing that to be persuasion, and not, e.g., making the like-minded feel better about their shared views.

John Dewey once wrote that, so far from their being no point arguing over tastes, there are actually few things so worth arguing about; but I don't think Jensen's essay was the kind of thing he had in mind.

Update, next day: I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Jensen could also have tried to persuade us that the way academics dress is just plain ugly, and the world would be at least a bit more beautiful if they adopted his dress code. But I think it's fair to say he doesn't attempt that, either.

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Posted at February 09, 2008 19:26 | permanent link

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