So. One of the reasons I haven’t had much medieval-lit related content to put up is that last semester, vast amounts of my brain got sucked into my first-ever teaching experience. And I wasn’t teaching medieval lit. I have lots of thoughts about teaching, some of which I’m not comfortable putting up here because There Are Boundaries pertaining to responsible blogging, and some of which is too confusing for me to talk about coherently yet,1 and some of which are just profoundly boring to anyone who’s not me.
Something I can talk about, and haven’t been for fear of being thought frivolous, is clothes. But this is the internet, we’re all frivolous here. So let’s talk about clothes.
One thing which was obvious to me, when it came to starting teaching, is that there’s a lot more fuss and angst about Teaching Clothes amongst Americans than there is in Australia, at least as it pertains to tutors/TAs. I read Academichic and a handful of other style blogs2; a number of my LJ-friends are TA’ing in the States. Teaching Clothes are a big deal.
From what I’ve gleaned, people’s Teaching Clothes concerns come down to several factors:
1. Establishing authority in the classroom, which means dressing at least one register above that of your students.
2. Projecting a Young Professional image to peers and superiors within the university.
and in some cases
3. Modesty and Standards.
Points one and two apply equally to male and female teachers; point three mostly to women.3
Between style blogs and my American peers, though, I started getting a sense of disconnect. The teaching wardrobes under discussion here seemed to be all a notch or two more formal than what I see on campus at USyd. I have a Young Professional wardrobe, I acquired it while I was working in 09. It consists of a simple grey trouser suit, black trousers and a black jacket which don’t quite match well enough to be called a suit, and a brown skirt suit which is too big for me now. I had this feeling that if I turned up to teach wearing what I’d worn to work in an office, I’d look ridiculous (and boring. I wore the most boring tops possible with these suits. Protective camouflage, I guess).
Maybe our institutional culture is just different? I, as a student, certainly wasn’t rating my tutors on the formality of their dress. Their ability to be interesting while talking about grammar, yes. Not that clothes don’t make *impressions*, but, well, the teacher who had the biggest impact on me in undergrad taught in jeans. She was easy to engage with and approachable and it was easy to imagine that I could be like her, not in some distant future but in the achievable future. On the other hand, a big part of the impression my current supervisor first made on me was to do with the fact that she presented as an a well-dressed professional grownup who gets paid to talk about Lancelot. More of a long-range aspirational example to a second-year.
So I went around asking my Australian and NZ peers – postgrads in tutoring positions, mostly but not all medievalists, and all female – how they picked out their teaching clothes.
Answers I got included:
That more or less confirmed my suspicion that we’re just that bit more laid-back in Australia and NZ. But it didn’t tell me what to wear. And, although no one I asked seemed to be, I was concerned about asserting some sort of teacherly persona. I’m young, and generally I act like a giant goof. I was taking first-year classes concurrently with teaching first-year classes. Given that some students in first-year classes are second, third, fourth year double-degree students, it was entirely likely that a handful of my students aside from the mature age entry students would be my age or older. In my previous job I’d been noticeably talked down to until I went out of my way to age up my appearance (cutting my hair helped a lot); I didn’t know how students might respond if I rocked up to class wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing as an undergrad.
Next post: stuff I wore to class, and how much (if any) impact I thought it had on my teaching.
1. Not anything specific to USyd or the course I was teaching on, and nothing bad happened to me personally. There was a rash of discussion on the intertubes about something which hit too close to home, is all.
2. There’s an entire blogging subgenre for academic fashion, populated, it seems, mostly by humanities scholars. I mentioned this blogosphere recently to a friend of mine who’s in palaentology, and her response was “are your hiking boots waterproof? Yup? Great, you’re in good academic style!” This is not to say there aren’t sciencey types doing fashion blogging – Fashion for Nerds is one of my favourites – but they seem to be outnumbered by humanities scholars.
3. Bear with me here. I know there are codes relating to how much of a guy’s skin we get to see, too, but generally that’s framed in terms of not being too casual (shorts, singlets, unbuttoned shirts, and so on) and there seems to be less of an implication that if he Gets It Rong his students will be distracted by his sexy sexy collarbones. Which is odd, because it’s entirely possible to be distracted by the collarbones of a suitably attractive man.