Face work and fashion.

I’ve been thinking on-and-off this week about a question posed to me by a teaching assistant: How should I dress when I’m working with the students (on behalf of your class)? My answer was that I did not want to prescribe her dress, but asked that she dress according to her role as a professional school student. At the time, I thought myself guided by the conventional wisdom that one should “dress for the job you want, not the one you have.”

I realize now what a confusing answer I provided, since a quick glance at sociologists attending this year’s ASA meetings demonstrates the wide range of attire donned by professionals. And my answer does not betray the serious problem I have with gender and sexuality codes applied to dress, and the ways in which they reproduce the status order. I certainly don’t want a male student wearing an earring to think I want him to remove it, lest future employers assume he’s homosexual. (That’s a dumb example, really, but I want something clear.)

What I actually think is important is that she is thoughtful about how her attire impacts her opportunities–specifically, her opportunity to feel like, and be treated like, the professional she is becoming.

That she asks this question suggests she is thinking about exactly this issue, but her asking also suggests she’s not quite sure she’s hit upon the ideal cost/benefit balance.

I haven’t got a better answer than I gave her–this is something I’m still mulling over–but let me throw up a few other passing thoughts, all events that were deeply unsettling to me:

1. I remember once being warned not to become “one of those older, female sociologists who wear big, wooden jewelry.”

2. A (female) colleague once commented of a female student: “I feel so uncomfortable seeing that much of her decolletage.”

3. I once met a student who both had rather poor grooming habits and was sloppily dressed.  I was later told his mentor was “gently breaking the news” about the impact of his odor and demeanor on others. His mentor had offered the gift of some new clothes and accouterments because he was from a desperately poor family. The events were compared to a television makeover show.

4. A colleague once recommended I wear a particular dress to a job interview because it flattered my figure.


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11 responses to “Face work and fashion.

  1. You’re on an interesting tip, lo these last few posts. I feel a bit of the itchiness I get with the grad skool rulz stuff, whereby the variability across individuals/schools/situations swamps the well-meant desire to provide a model that makes sense and creates a professional identity.

    Perhaps the main driver should be the self-critical question (which I think you hit on in the earlier post), ‘what kind of personal and professional identity do I want to be and convey?’ For some people, it’s jeans and a t-shirt – Bruce Carruthers used to wear a Chicago Homicide t-shirt while teaching (Our Day Begins when Yours Ends). Other professors wear suits or corporate dress-casual. No jeans. TAs/grad students are even trickier due to age, liminal status between professor and student, gender.

    I would add a little bit of dissent though. I think that despite the CU socialization (and, I think perhaps R1 socialization more broadly and over the last decade), graduate students are not necessarily professionals-in-training. Some are. Some will be by the time they end. But some – many – are not. I think it’s not unreasonable to say that the greatest benefits of graduate students conforming to a pre-pofessional model of identity accrue to universities (a cheap, striving to be professionalized labor force that approximates the labor of full-time faculty at some fraction of cost). Now, this worked for me, and for many, but I don’t know if it should just be the model.

    I actually don’t think this is exactly what you’re saying here, and I may be commenting across a number of ‘how to be a grad student’ posts here and elsewhere. Everything you say is reasonable about soap, impressions, and dress. But it leaves me feeling like graduate school has increasingly become corporatized/professionalized – and that assuming rather than thinking about that is something of a problem.

  2. In my experience, I have tried to remain approachable to students while making it clear that my positions held more authority than theirs. As a TA I didn’t have much authority and I wore jeans and t-shirts, basically what I would have worn anyway. I also had the “benefit” of looking older than most of the students, so there was some separation despite my dress. As an instructor in graduate school, I wore “business casual” types of clothing to designate my increased authority but had students call me by my first name. In my new job at a SLAC, my understanding is that there are closer relationships between students and professors (though not to the point that they go to bars together). As a result, I will probably dress the same but I will have my students call me “Dr.” to increase the social distance between us a bit. I think what I’m trying to say is that my advice is to choose clothing and actions that will send the message you want to convey, which is similar to, but not quite the same as, “dress for the job you want.” I guess I dress for the job I have, according to how I want students to react.

  3. Jenn Lena

    Your point about the limits of my experience, and therefore, the limits of the guidance I can provide to students is well-taken, Peter. My response is simply that I am not writing a column called, “Grad School Rules”, and that I have tried to cast these posts as descriptions of my week, and thoughts on those events. In other words, I thought about this issue as writing, and have tried to be thoughtful about it. If I fail, so be it.

    On your second point–your claim that some/many students are in graduate programs, but are not pre-professionals–I’d want to hear more before I came to any conclusions. If they are not pre-professional, what are they? And while I don’t disagree universities are increasingly corporatized/professionalized, I would disagree that any objection to these forces should be located at the level of graduate student pedagogy.

    John–I’m glad you pick up on the point of clothing as a way to manifest social distance in the classroom. And that you note “looking young” is a form of social closeness that can be offset with more “business style” clothing.

  4. “looking young” is a form of social closeness that can be offset with more “business style” clothing.

    Is looking (and being) old a form of social distance? And can it be offset with more casual clothes? If so, where can I get one of those Homicide t-shirts?

  5. I’ve never done the jeans and t-shirt thing as a grad student. I try to do casual on weekends and stuff, and still end up looking dressed up. Even in jeans and t-shirts.

    My friends and I talk about what kind of style we want to have as a professor. When we go shopping, we’ll see an outfit and be like, Oh, that’s totally a prof x outfit! Or those socks look just like prof y!

    There was a time I wanted to do the big wooden jewelry look (when I felt old enough to pull it off), but I think I’m more of a tweed and pinstripe gal.

    Someone should put together an academic fashion blog.

  6. I’d want to hear more before I came to any conclusions. If they are not pre-professional, what are they

    I’m going to be inchoate here, and you’re right that the best example is not grad student pedagogy (or grad student pres of self). Orgs more generally, and contemporary, corporatist orgs in for-profit/non-profit/government environments more particularly, take whole people and transform them into work units. Universities are no different. I didn’t go into graduate school so that I could become a professor.

    Or scratch that. I went into graduate school because I had fundamental questions about the world that I wanted to answer in systematic fashion, and being a professor seemed to be the vehicle to accomplish that. So it’s grad school->professor->be an ‘intellectual’. The occupation for me (and here is where I would also guess for more than a few, if not many, graduate students) is ancillary to the real goal of being a full-time intellectual while having a salary, health benefits, etc.. But when someone (I think of an earlier thread where it was D Stark or W Griswold or someone) tells you your first day that you need to treat graduate school as a job, I think there’s a subtle – or maybe overt – displacement of goals from the intellectual to the job.

    All of this goes without saying that an intellectual without a job is a raving madman/madwoman on a streetcorner or a sociologist-cum-office clerk (which I emphatically do not want to be). But that also describes some important intellectuals.

    And you are completely right, you have very much not posed this as rules, and pitched it in terms of your week. It is for sure me that’s writing as if you were doing a column of Grad School Rules. But on the other hand, this (and preceding post about grad student pres. of self) isn’t totally separate from that project either, no?

  7. Jenn Lena

    Peter: I guess I object equally strongly to the transformation of people into work units, and graduate students into Heroic Intellectuals. The “INTELLECTUAL”, born of elite, European parents, is the same kind of claptrap Romanticism that encourages drug use among artists.

    Okay, that’s a little strong, but I’m trying to point out I think you’re rejecting one work ideology for another without providing much defense that the latter is really any different (in its impersonalizing, monetizing consequences) than the first.

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  9. You speak Truth. But perhaps there’s someplace we can meet in the middle, where the aim of graduate school is neither to turn students into article-churning, well-dressed, professional, incremental automatons, nor to transform them into parodies of Toulouse Lautrec (or drunken, spongy, Marx).

    without providing much defense that the latter is really any different (in its impersonalizing, monetizing consequences) than the first.

    I do think the latter is different, perhaps most for the social distance it provides from the system upon which it should be casting a critical eye. Being ‘bohemian’ may be, but ideally isn’t, just about drugs and elitism, it is also about making the familiar strange and challenging the notion that highly institutionalized routines/work/living are inevitable. Yes, being an intellectual doesn’t make you free from capitalism or systems of race/class/sexuality/etc., but I guess I’m saying IMHO there is a defense there.

    All this from the non-controversial suggestion that dress is part of one’s pres of self…

  10. Great conversation. I’ve enjoyed just being the eavesdropper. I should probably say something of what’s on my mind though.

    I like Peter’s point about variability across schools, disciplines, etc. I think this truly matters when thinking about work ideologies and their effects on students and student-professor relationships. Some departments are very clearly operating under the model of “we are here to professionalize you as professors.” Students who think they’re there mainly to engage in the world of the mind may feel disappointed with their experience in those departments, and if the drop-out rates are any indicator, many just leave because they realize they made a poor career choice. In other departments the expectations are quite loose and students are encouraged to do whatever they would with the education that is provided them. I think you’d see a lot more variability in professional norms in those kinds of departments.

    My main point is just to convey that students who don’t take professionalizing experiences seriously in departments where professionalizing (for the professor career track, specifically) is a main function of the program will probably not do very well in those programs. Those programs are just like the universities Peter described earlier that are trying to transform people into particular kinds of work units. One interesting dynamic here is how the student adapts from being one kind of work unit in the grad program to being another kind of work unit in their eventual job setting, whether it’s a university or a government position or whatever else awaits that person. This shift is probably more difficult for some others, depending on the congruence of the two settings.

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