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Cosma Shalizi Criticizes One of the Sartorial Geniuses of Our Age

Cosma Shalizi is driven into shrill unholy madness by Inside Higher Ed the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Clothes Make Working for the Man Easier: 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, long 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 causal 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.... 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... [about] consequences... with empirical premises, and one susceptible to balancing --- how much extra effectiveness is the extra expense, hassle, infringement on personal choice, etc., of this mode of dress worth?... One could imagine a reasonable essay which... thought through the trade-offs.

Jensen... just wants to take his internalized... transparently parochial... [norms] and pretend that they are... universal laws.... This is by far the more common rhetorical mode when people try to criticize manners and customs, and it strikes me as deeply stupid... since it gives you no reason to believe that acting as the author wants will make things better...

A professor's clothes--supposed to lie somewhere on the spectrum between total nudity and the purple-red dress of a Byzantine emperor--need to serve four purposes:

  1. To make the appropriate people envy, in an appropriate way, the professor's (actual or counterfactual) spouse.
  2. To make the professor comfortable.
  3. To make the students more willing and eager to learn.
  4. To take a particular stand on the great debate between the courtier Lord Chesterfield on the one hand and the intellectual Samuel Johnson on the other, summed up in Johnson's remark that Chesterfield's fashion-centered advice to his illegitimate son taught the boy "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master."

I will pass over (1) as requiring a knowledge of evolutionary biology and a working aesthetic sense--which disqualifies me on both counts. I will pass over (2) as requiring a knowledge of biological thermodynamics which I do not have, save to observe that the traditional tweedy professor male academic clothes are, from a thermodynamic point of view, appropriate only for some British or New England campus without effective central heating. But I will say:

With respect to (3):

  • I have found that wearing my doctoral robe to class is counterproductive. It
    • is hot pink, and
    • leads my students to think that I may be crazy, or
    • am making fun of them, unless
      • the class is on the medieval university, or the middle ages more generally--then wearing the doctoral robe can be very effective at focusing the class
  • I have found that running shorts and a t-shirt is also counterproductive. The students think that:
    • I was too self-absorbed to figure out it was time to leave the gym, or
    • I am too self-absorbed and eager to get to the gym
    • But Matt Rabin achieves great success with his tie-died t-shirts and shorts
      • Matt Rabin, however, won the Clark Medal
  • I have found that wearing a suit and tie is very effective if done occasionally with non-math-oriented students. It tells them that I care because it shows that I have taken sufficient time to prepare and teach the class even though I am a busy person whose schedule requires meetings with:
    • some powerful political figure,
    • some powerful economic figure,
    • some powerful university administrative figure, or
    • some TV interviewer
  • With math-oriented students, however, a tie tells them that I spend too little time thinking about isomorphisms
  • And if done too often, a tie tells even non-math-oriented students that I am not focused enough on the life of the mind to be worth paying much attention to
  • My National Journal "I won a budget battle" federal budget expert t-shirt and my 1993 Clintona administration "budget victory" t-shirt (awarded to all those who worked in Roger Altman's rapid-response room) are very effective with students interested in policy or politics
  • Otherwise, there is no discernible pattern

With respect to (4):

  • The most important signal of expertise that a professor can send is that he or she is so monomaniacally focused and on intellectual task as to be completely outside the normal status hierarchies
  • Thus it is very important that their values and tastes appear visibly different from those of either the striving poor or the smug rich
  • And the best way to do this, from a sartorial point of view, is to make it appear that the professor had better and more important things to think about than mere appearance while getting dressed that morning
    • There is a faction that thinks that the best way to appear to have had better and more important things to think about is to never care at all about appearance--so that whatever one thinks of is automatically more important than how one looks
    • There is another faction that thinks that true unconcern is too risky, and that one must utilize great art in appearing artless in one's dress
      • But systematic artful artlessness is an impossibility
      • Pulling things at random from one's closet may, however, come close