Posted tagged ‘academics’

The Well Dressed Professor…

February 13, 2008

…has an agenda.

Foolishness abounds here. Brad DeLong takes down one Professor Erik Jensen’s suggestion that as a matter of community mores and taboos,

“faculty members shall, when on college grounds or on college business, dress in a way that would not embarrass their mothers, unless their mothers are under age 50 and are therefore likely to be immune to embarrassment from scruffy dressing, in which case faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother.”

DeLong gives this claptrap the sustained ridicule it deserves, while citing Cosma Shalizi — one writer whose scorn I would not wish to brave — as his inspiration.

I got two reactions. Hearing such nonesense, my mother, born in 1927, would have had its feckless author’s innards rendered into inferior violin strings.

Mum knew from proper dress, being as she was the daughter of the Colonel and niece of the Bishop of Birmingham (strange, for a nice Jewish girl, but there it was). Growing up, her set was rich in those who knew when morning suits gave way to the appropriate dress for dinner, and the circumstances in which decorations should or should not be worn.

And she got out as early as she could, a journey that took her into the American professoriat by way of marriage. xShe developed enormous gratitude for an institutional culture that rewarded, however imperfectly, accomplishment over appearance and the inbred knowledge of the correct fork and the four-in-hand. She certainly would know a pseud when she heard one.

And now I, happily resident at MIT, feel satisfaction that mine is an ecumenical institution. The brass wear their glad rags, but the rest of us do as we choose.

And most of us choose functional approaches, as defined by our particular interests — you can see my approach here, if you care. A lot of folks around campus do stuff, you know, and ties neither improve blood flow to the brain during a calculation, nor have we forgotten the hazards of dangling clothing around heavy machinery.

And in any event, I don’t need no stinking badge to remind me or my students that I profess. Nor do I need any help from Mr. Jensen, either, whose attempted light touch does little to obscure the deeper pathology involved here.

It’s not just the usual conservative faux nostalgia for a better, more golden age. This is an attempt to defend a particular vision of academic privilege from hoi polloi — and not just any polloi at that. If you read the dreary passages of his essay one thing becomes clear pretty quickly. The professoriat that needs to dress well shares a certain property — their Y chromosome.

To be sure, Jensen has noticed the presence of the odd strangely Y-less person who has somehow gained access to the Faculty Club. But those few misgendered anomalies are not, in his peculiar vision, required to dress well.

Rather, they must dress to emphasize their desexed condition, the better to preserve the fantasy of the way things ought to be. Jensen commands the rare woman brave enough to enter his strange world to attire herself thusly:

1. Avoid poufy sleeves.
2. Dress frumpily.
3. Act like an old fart.

All good advice, and about all you need to know.

To be fair to Jensen — actually, to hell with fairness — to tar Jensen with a gross generalization and the infamy of association, this seems to me to be part of a broader pathology, one that may have something to do with the dawning realization that the next president of the United States may very likely be either a charismatic African American or formidably efficient woman, two collections of attributes that folks in certain quarters still think are better seen and not heard.

Consider the nonsense John Cole ridiculed yesterday, (gruesomely illustrated just below on this blog). And then there is the roiling, can’t-keep-it-in racialism (that’s the nice word, and it is truly a euphemism in this case) of the National Review that Roy Edoroso mocks over at Alicublog.

The connection between all this and the science-public-square beat of this blog is the same one I’ve hit before: one of the things thinking about science even a little does for you is to enforce some rigor on your arguments.

By contrast, these guys aren’t thinking. They’re feeling, and they’re feeling kind of bad right now. Such painful experiences must be someone’s fault (that’s my seven year old’s interpretation, at least) and so we get demands like Mr. Jensen’s. He’d be happy if only we all wore patched tween and narrow ties, and if we don’t, his misery is our fault.

Alas.

Image: Fashion plate, caption: “1912. Costumes Parisiens. 2. Habit de soiree. Gilet de pique blanc. Chaussettes de soie blanche.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.