Thursday, 21 February 2013

Re. Clothes do not make the scholar?

This morning's interesting read comes again from Pat Thomson's excellent blog, in which today she comments on several articles that have focused on the dress sense of academics.  These articles, she points out, lean on "some rather hoary old stereotypes" which assume that academics simply don't live in the real world.  In contrast, Thomson argues, academic can indeed be real people too and perhaps it is the Harvey Nick's catalogue cronies who actually have the problem.

Don't know why, but I have a mental image of this idea being converted into a successful film - doubtless directed by Chris Columbus - in which a a beleagured academic sporting sandles and a bow tie is harried through a train station by bronzed TOWIE-types, until the emotional climax where the academic (doubtless played by Bill Nighy) is cornered and bellows 'I am not an ivory-tower anachronism!  I am a human being!'

Actually the reasons why this strikes home a little for me are twofold.  Firstly, in a couple of weeks NUC will be having it's first graduation ceremony - and of course I will be attending to cheer on our heroic students.  However, almost as a condition of attendance, I have had to be measured in countless uncomfortable ways in order that I can wear a gown and a ridiculous hat which seem custom-built to make me look like I belong to some secret sect that has absolutely nothing to do with the real world, or real human beings.  I understand all the arguments about it being 'for the students' and 'elevating their achievement', but frankly I cannot help the feeling that is all a little too much posturing.  As though 'academics' really are living in a bubble of Masonic-like closed ceremonial isolationism.

Not to mention it all makes me feel like an idiot.
Graduation: Welcome to the real world?


The second reason this strikes home for me though, is that it reminded me of an attitude to dress which I had when I began my academic career, but which I had forgotten.  When I started teaching my style of dress remained unchanged from my previous careers as a parking attendant, a courier driver, a furniture-mover, a security guard, a cleaner, a filing clerk and (least glamorous of all) a journalist.  In other words practical and sturdy, and generally indistinguisable from the generic garb worn by most of the lags making their weary way home to East London every day.  Certainly not particularly smart - and definately not a bow tie or tweed blazer to be seen.

One of the benefits of this mode of dress was that I kept getting mistaken for being a student:  Other students would ask me what I was studying;  Security guards would ask what I was doing in the building before opening hours;  Chairs of board meetings would stare dangerously at me as though I were a mouse deposited at the table by a cat.  This all kept me, of course, enormously entertained - but my reasons for maintaining this dress 'code' (for want of a better word) were not entirely for the fun of it.  It meant that my students saw me as being, if not exactly one of them, then at least not a model of impossible aspirations.  None of my students would have looked at me and thought to themselves 'I can never be like him'.  Indeed, I sincerely hope that their view was more accurately in the lines that 'if this numptie can acquire all these qualifications, then I sure as hell can too!'

This did have its down sides, of course.  Since many of my students were older than me, some found it difficult to accept the advice and guidance of such an uncouth upstart.  Other colleagues dressed differently though, and it was interesting to see how different students responded differently to them.  Some dressed immaculately, and these colleagues become a model of the things that students were striving for, and as an attainable image of genuine achievement - in other words while I might have seemed a model of the attainability of getting a degree, these other colleagues seemed to demonstrate that the degree was something worth having.

Lately of course, things have been changing.  I am too old now to be mistaken for a student in their 20s.  Pat Thomson is right to point out that the dress sense of academic should be seen as no different from any other profession - and yes, my choice of clothing these days is more often determined solely by locating the only items not smeared in porridge by one of my children.  In other words, I cannot really claim that my dress sense has anything to do with a consciousness of the appropriateness (or otherwise) of my clothing to my educational ideals or roles.

I do, though, believe that the way we present ourselves can send messages to students which can either encourage or discourage - that can motivate or (in the case of some of my colleagues) inspire with a sense of aspiration, or they can alienate and isolate.