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. 

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