Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What not to wear

Coming to terms with clothing. 

I first entered the classroom as a teacher in the Fall of 2000. I was a 24 year old college graduate who was being allowed to teach college in order to help pay for graduate school. At the time that made perfect sense to me. Now I wince at the idea of a person in his or her twenties, who doesn’t even have a Master’s degree, being allowed to teach college classes. Besides the university at which I taught during graduate school, I’ve never worked at a place that made extensive use of graduate students in the classroom. I dressed pretty much the way I’d dressed in college with the exception that I now tucked my flannel into my jeans and buttoned it up instead of letting it hang open. That was also basically the way they dressed.

I did a lot of things like they did. I went to the same bars and coffee shops and never felt weird about that. I enjoyed the same websites and television shows as they did. Sometimes, during a lull in the semester I’d walk the streets where the “party houses” were and walk in and have an enjoyable time. I was also a student, albeit a “graduate” student, so I still complained about professors, worried about grades and due dates and got frustrated with the requirements of my program. I didn’t act or dress that differently than my students because I wasn’t that different from then.

While I was in graduate school, styles changed, but I didn’t. I was still pretty much dwelling at the nicer end of the grunge era. Students’ choices in clothes were changing. Off the rack designer clothes became more popular. Hoodies, with the name of the designer, fraternity, sorority or sports team replaced flannels for every day wear. Students also started to wear what they deemed “nicer” clothes from time to time too. That was where the problem came in.

I’ve never cared a huge amount about clothes. I prefer not to be seen in public wearing a pullover t-shirt. I still, however, love flannel. However, any button down shirt is fine with me. I wear jeans or comfortable, casual slacks. I often wear a suit jacket or sport coat nowadays, but not really a “suit” as it would be understood in a business context. I’ve always understood the need for ties and dress shoes for job interviews and big presentations, but would never spend a huge amount of money on such things. My very “best” clothes all come from thrift stores. The rest come from big box retailers. I almost never set foot in a traditional “department store.”

My students, for almost a decade now, really do spend a lot of money on clothes. It is nothing for them to spend $15-$25 on a t-shirt. $80 pants are common. The amount they say they spend of shoes blows my mind to the point that I don’t actually believe them. I know how much they spend because every once in a while they mention it. Generally one compliments another and then the other explains where they got the clothes and how much they cost.

That’s all fine and dandy. My students spend more money on clothes than me. They also drive more expensive cars, eat at more expensive restaurants, have more expensive phones and computers and refuse to make use of the free, public transportation offered to them. They’re idiots, but they’re young.  I used to blow a lot of money on cigarettes. Clothes are healthier.

The thing about clothes, however, is that it is one area where it puts me in an awkward position as a speech teacher. I deal with clothing three times during the semester. When I hand out the syllabus, I explain that they should make sure that they have clothing that is “a little better” for speeches. When I talk about delivery and nonverbal communication, I talk about “what your clothing communicates.” When I talk about decorum in the context of ethos, I talk about “fitting and appropriate” clothing.

Then students give their speeches. Inevitably, there will be many who wear a t-shirt and jeans. I don’t really dock them for this exactly, they just don’t get any extra points. In many ways, I see a t-shirt and jeans as fitting the classical rhetorical concept of decorum when speaking as a college student in the early part of the 21st century. Then I have some who come in wearing their pajamas or workout sweats. I generally dock them just slightly. Then I have a few who will put on the sport coat, the tie, the dress shoes. I tend to give them extra points.

Then I have one other set. They are usually women. On normal class days, they wear jeans and a t-shirt. Then, for the speech day, they decide to “dress up.” Dressing up, however, does not quite mean what I expect them to mean. Let me describe for you a student who did this today. She wore makeup, which she doesn’t usually do to class. Her hair was done in a braid across the front to hold the rest back. She was wearing earrings and a matching necklace. She wore a blouse with a deep v-neck. The blouse was designed so that the three buttons right at her chest were to be buttoned. The lower half of the blouse was designed to be tied in a knot, in order to expose the midriff. She had her belly button pierced and a chain, which matched her necklace and her earrings, dangled from the piercing down to her belt. The belt surrounded a tight-fitting, black, shimmering skirt that did not entirely cover the thigh. Thus, bare skin was exposed until just below the knee when a pair of long, black, high-heeled boots, made out of the same material as the skirt, covered her calves and feet completely.
Not my student, but you get the idea

I rewrote the previous paragraph four times before I realized a philosophical trap in even writing about it. I was trying to objectively describe her clothing without objectifying her. Unfortunately, “objectively” and “objectify” sound similar for a reason.  Describing something objectively is the means by which one objectifies it. A more subjective description, saying that the clothing was “more appropriate for the nightclub than the classroom” (which is what I wrote on her evaluation) would not have conveyed the precise difficulties with the clothing in question.

And that becomes the difficulty in explaining to the student a couple of points docked for clothing. I know that it will be a difficulty for the student because she obviously was wanting extra points. She was thinking about “dressing up” for the extra points that she knew others had gotten when putting on better clothes than jeans and a t-shirt.  I don’t know whether or not the student will contest the grade. When a student doesn’t contest his or her grades, teaching stops with the evaluation. So, the good teacher in me hopes that she will demand some kind of explanation. There is another huge part of me that hopes she doesn’t because it is always awkward. Students come to a number of conclusions, none of which are correct.

  1. Dr. Cline doesn’t like me. This is a common complaint when anyone receives a poor grade. It is almost never true.
  2. Dr. Cline doesn’t like girls. Women, on average, get higher grades in my classes. That is because, on the whole, they are more dedicated than males. It is these particular students who dress inappropriately who get worse grades.
  3. Dr. Cline likes me, you know what I mean? This is my biggest fear. I think it is every male professor’s biggest fear: the idea that a student will think I am a dirty old man being turned on by some young woman’s attire and taking out my frustrations on her grade. Either a positive response, that such attentions would be welcomed, or negative response, that such attentions are sexual harassment both concern me.
  4. Dr. Cline thinks I’m ugly. I am NOT saying “You look disgusting! Cover it up!” I am saying that this is not what one should wear for a speech.
  5. Dr. Cline thinks I’m a scarlet woman. Of course, that’s not the language which students use, but I don’t use the words they do. I’ve had students to whom I’ve recommended less social clothing think that I am commenting on their morality. In general, I have no idea what my students moral feelings are and I like it that way.
  6. I have dressed too informally for a speech. I’ve had students whom I have corrected in this way then take the next step up and appear in formal gowns the next time.
  7. I have overdressed for a speech. The problem isn’t really over or under dressing. It is the clothes for the time and the place that matter.
  8. It was the belly button piercing. Or the skirt, or the shirt or any particular part of the ensemble.  No, it was the appropriateness of the whole.
  9. Dr. Cline is just old fashioned. I don’t think this is the case. I think that even as society has changed there remains a difference between business clothing and evening clothing.
  10. Dr. Cline is just a prude. Maybe. I don’t know. Still, I think that awareness of such prudishness in the general population will help you in life.

What will probably happen is she will just take the grade and shut up, but I worry. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Coming to terms with my weight.

This morning I got on a scale and saw something that I hadn't seen in a few years. My weight was under 280 lbs. This is a real significant weight for me, but not the way that it would be for most people. 

All through college, my weight was within two or three pounds of this number. Sometimes it was over, then it would get back under. It was pretty stable. I knew I was fat, and felt bad about it, I guess, as I knew I should. But I didn't care that much. I couldn't run races or do a chin-up, but I didn't really want to do those things either. Especially at that age, I wanted people to find me attractive. Still, I figured if anyone didn't find me attractive, it was because they were shallow. I thought most people were shallow. I thought of myself as being all intellectual and spiritual and creative and stuff. I didn't care about my health. Health concerns were shallow.

In graduate school, I got really, really fat. When I turned 30, the number repeated itself in my life in a way that I found fascinating. I will not tire you with all the synchronicity, but one was that I weighed 330 lbs. While I still didn't want to be shallow, I recognized this as somewhat ridiculous. Besides, my spirituality was reaching a point where I was seeing a certain value in asceticism and abstention from all kinds of pleasures as a means of putting the flesh under subjection. Increasing my activity level, especially walking and swimming, and decreasing my calorie intake, including regular fasting, resulted in weight loss. I dropped the 50 lbs real, real quick and was back to 280. At that point I hit kind of a plateau. I continued to lose weight for a while, but slowly. Eventually, I got down to around 260, which is the least I ever weighed in my adult life. 

Then I got a tenure track job, which I thought was going to be awesome, but wasn't. I had a chair that didn't respect me: who didn't see me as the brilliant man I knew I was. I engaged in stress-related eating and also decreased my activity level. There was also a wonderful, wonderful brewery in town which sold some pretty high calorie beer and a wonderful fried dough called grebel. I put on weight.

After this, I switched jobs. I got another tenure-track position at a place I loved. It was a great little private liberal arts school. I would have stayed there forever. It was great. We had around 800 students. I knew them all and many of their parents. The relationships we had were fostered by, among other things, eating at the cafeteria together. While college students can probably handle the greasy faire of the cafeteria, it was not good for me. I put on weight.

Then they decided not to renew my contract. I’ve almost settled my soul on the idea that I will never really know why in this life. Still, it strongly affected me. It was like hearing that your family no longer wants you around. It was killing me. It took me well over a year to find another academic job and I could barely stand it. What money I did have, I used on food and I put on weight.

Finally, I did get the job where I am currently employed. It is a great place up in the mountains of southern New Mexico. The natural activities around here actually caused me to lose some weight for a while. I checked after New Years of that year and found my weight where it is now, about 280. I was comfortable with my job. I was honestly comfortable with my weight. I didn’t mind that I was a bit fat. I was happy.  

Then my wife and I decided to get serious about having kids. I assumed that was all it would take to have kids, but it’s been hard. So, we decided to adopt. We were denied that opportunity. So, we got angry and depressed. And I put on weight.
This picture is not us. We're not Asian.

Sometime after Christmas, I got back up to a point I hoped I’d never reach again. I was well over 300 lbs. Still, I am nowhere near my fattest, but 300 is just too fat, so I increased my activity level and decreased my calorie intake. Since New Years, I’ve lost almost 25 lbs. The truth is that the increased activity level has helped with the depression, which I’d have to say is completely gone now.

Now I am down below 280. I am actually at a weight where I am comfortable, but I shouldn’t be. At my height, 280 still has a BMI of 39. For medical professionals who use BMI as a measurement of “morbidly obese” or "severely obese"(which not all of them do) 39 is the line. Between 30 and 39 is still “obese” and I’d still need to lose 65 lbs to get down to “overweight.”

So, somehow, I have to make myself continue to be uncomfortable with where I am. I always tell my students that they should be “proud of [their] progress, but not [their] position.” I mean a lot of things by that. I mean they shouldn’t see what they’ve achieved as a reason to look down on others. I mean that they shouldn’t be upset that they haven’t “arrived” yet. I also mean that they shouldn’t be satisfied with where they are, they shouldn’t see their position as adequate.

That’s how I need to be right now. I need to be proud of my progress, but not of my position. It is just going to take some mental work to get there.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Media trade offs.

Coming to terms with media trade offs

I am all for newer media. Cable television, streaming video, blogging, social networking, digital readers, smart phones, texting and free wireless networking at most fast-food locations have made life far easier in many ways and facilitate communication that would have been difficult in times past. Furthermore, I see the potential for the increasing work in new media providing ground for the increase in undergraduate study of rhetoric in order to facilitate content creation.

Right now, communication as a discipline has not caught up with these advances, and possibly to be the best we can be, we shouldn’t try. Training students in particular technology is setting them up to experience obsolescence as soon as they graduate. Instead, we should probably focus on universal rhetorical principles that seem to make sense regardless of technology, such as those reaching clear back to Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. Nonetheless, what we should do is make sure the students understand the concept of universal principles themselves and that what they learn in one class should be applicable to others.

Perhaps one of the universal principles that we need to make sure they understand is one that was articulated by Marshall McLuhan half a century ago; with every advancement in technology, there is a trade off. The mobile phone and the related drop in the rates of transmission costs due to improved bandwidth is a good example. I remember as a child my mother lamenting that she would like to talk to her mother (my grandmother), but the cost of a telephone call was prohibitive. By the time I got to college, 10₵ per minute was the going rate of a domestic call. I developed a habit of talking to my parents who lived four hours away at least weekly. However, at 10₵ a minute, it was still quite outside a college student’s budget to call often. So, I would call my parents, let it ring three times and they’d call me back. I was well aware of how wonderful it was the phone calls were so cheap! That cost has plummeted. Now, most of my students call their mothers between classes. It is a stereotype that students come out of an exam crying on their phones that “the professor is so mean” and that “there were questions on the test we never discussed in class” (in my class, that is always true because I expect students to do the reading as well as attend class).

All of this is truly wonderful. It really, really is. Because of changes in media, my students have a connection to family that is deep and lasting and that I can’t really understand. My parents knew that when we separated, we were separating. We knew that the relationship was changing. When I speak to my parents, whether it is by telephone (which does not happen every day) or when I get to make a rare appearance in person, it is a call for celebration, a reunion, a joy for all parties. For people today, family reunions will be something of a redundancy, even though they live further apart than ever. My students’ parents never really separate from their children. This attachment to family that began in the millennial generation and that continues today is something that those of us from generation X and older look on with a bit of wonder, sometimes envy and sometimes revulsion.

Why both envy and revulsion? Because there is a trade off. The one that concerns my colleagues and me the most is the lack of independence on the part of our students. Every problem, every difficulty, every heart-break and let down results in a call to Mom (always Mom, never Dad ((perhaps a subject of another blog because that is certainly something with which we need to come to terms))). Even as a grade schooler, my relationship with my parents was not as close as the average college student’s relationship with her or his parents. While I envy that closeness, I am revolted by the fact that these seeming adults cannot “cut the cord,” as the metaphor goes, and live a life that is independent from their parents.

A similar set of revulsion and wonder can be paid to the way that news, especially political news, is disseminated. As a child, my parents followed pretty traditional gender roles with the exception that my father did most of the grocery shopping. Sometimes, he would return from the grocery store with a paper bag filled with groceries and a copy of Newsweek, a news magazine that no longer even exists today. In those days, grocery stores sold news magazines, which is something that they absolutely do not do now. When we had a television, which we only had off and on growing up, my Dad would try to watch the evening news most days. My Dad is a fairly conservative guy (a picture of “compassionate conservatism”), and would often complain of the liberal bias in his news magazine and his news television programs, but continued to consume the media. No doubt something similar happened in liberal households throughout the United States at that time. A conservative bias per se in media was probably not a complaint but a “pro-establishment,” “pro-management” or “anti-labor” sentiment probably irked the more liberal consumers who continued to consume the news available.
There were quite a few intentionally right-wing or left-wing weekly publications that were being produced as well. I know that I saw Christianity Today and several hunting and fishing magazines that espoused an openly conservative bias in my home as a kid. My guess is that the average liberal household did not have many of these passing through their mailboxes. My father was never a subscriber to widely focused conservative magazines such as National Review, but that was probably because it is kind of expensive.
Growing up in a conservative household has led me to become kind of a conservative guy myself, though more Libertarian than Republican. My grandmother subscribed me to Time (the last remaining general news weekly), so I read that with the same eye rolling with which my father read Newsweek. I am a subscriber to National Review. Real Simple, Reader’s Digest and People also come to my mailbox due to my wife’s interests and I find myself reading them far more often than I am comfortable admitting.  Print media in various forms takes up a significant portion of my home and positively fills my office.

There is another way I consume news too. I consume news on the internet. I used to consume news via various cable channels as well, and if we can ever adjust our finances, I’d like to again. Still, there is a huge difference that works itself into differences in these new media than what was happening in print.
I would take my subscription to National Review as a prime example. Because it has an openly political bias, one can easily compare it to new media with similar bias. The latest edition of the National Review magazine deals with the national issue of gun control. It deals with it in a careful, reasoned and thoughtful way. It is a conservative publication, so the careful, reasoned and thoughtful arguments lead to the conclusion that gun control should be focused on limiting government control, rather than restricting individual rights (see, I’m biased too). To read the articles in the print magazine, I had to turn to a dictionary at least twice that I remember. I was also quite thankful for some training in political philosophy so that I could understand the nuances of the arguments they were making. The articles were written in a polished, unhurried manner making extensive use of intellectual vocabulary, historical precedent and critical syllogistic reasoning. While a liberal would undoubtedly disagree with most of the axioms and some of the reasoning, no liberal would read the print copy of the National Review and come to the conclusion that conservatives were crazy. There is a bias, but that bias is explained, not assumed.

Compare this to newer media with similar bias. Watching Fox News editorials, or engaging with the major political blogs like Breitbart, or even looking at National Review’s website, rather than their print publication, provides interesting points of analysis. The language is simple and terse, even rude to those who might disagree. The philosophical analysis is non-existent. The sites are designed to cause cursory clicking from one page to the next. The editorials are reduced to the literal shouting of talking points. They are dismissive of those who would disagree and use constant hyperbole (intentional overstatement), mockery (making fun), flooding (making vast lists of charges with varying degrees of veracity as though they were all equal) and ad hominem (name calling). This is exacerbated by blogging and private video creation as well. This rude, extremist meanness is often funny, but does now really add to the conversation. This video, for instance, is funny, but does not add to any kind of intelligent debate.

Of course, some liberals see this as a purely conservative problem. I engage with more than enough left-wing media to know that knew media on the left is equally guilty of these charges. In fact, several of my left-leaning friends proudly shared this video of Rachel Maddow engaged in all four of the rhetorical fallacies outlined above.

Still, I don’t see the new news system as “bad” exactly. There are real advantages. There are advantages to the ease with which one can find like minded media. Certainly, this adds to confirmation bias, and tribalism, but a Democrat in Alabama or a Republican in Vermont can realize that they are not all alone in the world. Realizing that one is not all alone is a good thing, really. The speed at which new information can spread is wonderful. When Governor Romney made his infamous “47%” remark this last election season, he had to defend it right away. New media made this something that was not just rumor or innuendo. The recording was right there. As much as I did not favor the President in this election (but didn’t vote for either major party), I still believe that this was as it should be. Controversial statements should be discussed, not denied. The slow media of network news at five o’clock and weekly magazine coverage could not have made the discussion happen. It did happen, however, and at least partially because it happened, America, in the majority, chose Obama.
I like that I can write this blog. I know that very few people will actually read it, and it functions more, as my subtitle implies, as a means for me to “come to terms” with various and sundry topics. I like that it is something more public than a journal. I like that anyone can blog and some can become very successful at it. I like that freedom, that liberty, which lower cost publication has afforded to all of us. Unfortunately, the drive to click and garner quick agreement does have its draw backs. Some people who come across this blog may not bookmark it because I use big words or have political opinions different from theirs.  There is a trade off in the movement to new media.
And that is the real point of this posting. Changing media involves trade offs. It is not a new or original idea, but it is one with which I am coming to terms right now.