Thursday, October 19, 2006

Performative dressing and teaching

The other day, New Kid on the Hallway posted a really interesting musing about the way teaching academics’ dress changes as their career progresses – she was thinking especially about the ways that things shift in the transition from TA to professor. In response, I’ve been thinking about my own history of dressing to teach, and it seems to me that the change reflects something larger about teaching and how the place it takes in my life…

When I was a TA for six years, I didn’t think much about what I wore. I was fine with wearing jeans; I didn’t look terribly different from my students. When, last year, I became a full-time professor, I began to think quite consciously about my sartorial presentation. I began to dress up, to some extent. I don’t wear jeans to teach, for example – the only time I’m comfortable wearing them in the classroom is on those rare occasions when students are writing an exam or test – i.e. when the spotlight isn’t on me. I don’t wear suits, generally, either – I only own one suit, and it’s fairly dramatic. But I do think about achieving a pulled-together look when I am teaching. Part of this is about projecting authority, since I am mistaken for being younger than I am. But there is, I think, much more to it.

This year, since I am spending half of each week away in Uni City, I have to pack on Sunday nights. This demands that I decide on Sundays what I will wear on each day Monday through Thursday. So there is a very deliberate quality to my dressing…On Sunday night, I imagine each day, feel for myself anew the tenor of that day’s class, and decide how I might best match it - or, more accurately, meet it – with dress. There is some subtlety in this decision-making; I imagine that the theory class, in its Main Campus incarnation, demands a different presentation than the tiny, seven-student version of that class at Satellite Campus.

All of this clothing-related deliberation might sound trite and ridiculous. But I don’t think it is. I realize that it has much to do with the way the performative element of teaching. By performance I don’t mean masquerade in the sense of hiding anything about myself…I mean an enhancement of who I am. Teaching was a major step for me, as someone who was shy when I began; the first year I TA’d was excruciating. But it has changed me, as I’ve written before. And that’s because it puts me in touch with elements of myself I’d never have seen without it, elements that seem clearly linked to the self I thought I knew, but that are differently articulated, because they are so public. One example is a sense of humour that creeps into my teaching – it is not the one I have in my regular life, but I see that it is related to an outlook and humour that people would recognize in me; it is like a magnification of it, or something.

The clothing I wear when I teach is critical to this staging…it helps me feel prepared for it. In a sense, then, rather than covering who I am, the way I dress when I teach helps me learn and know who I am.

3 comments:

grumpyABDadjunct said...

I also made a conscious decision to dress more professionally this year. Even though I'd been teaching for awhile, and dressed appropriately, for some reason this year I really wanted to dress like an adult. It has helped my teaching in the one class where I need a lot of authority, I think I made a good choice to dress more formally. I'm also taken for being younger than I am and I think it is helping people see me as more my age.

It has also changed me. I think my confidence is higher and I feel more capable. I agree with you that this is all staging, just as my super-casual, very young clothes were and are also staging, I just wasn't really aware of it at the time, which is a bit weird because when I was a punk (in age, attitude and style) image was everything and I spent a lot of energy on staging my appearance. When I gave up the style part of that I adopted a kind of very boring uniform-like way of dressing; I think I was just sick of thinking about it. For some reason it is important again.

Hilaire said...

It's so true that even clothing we think is not performance, is also staging...we think, when we're young, that we're being so anti-fashion. But you can't hide from fashion, I think - it always pulls you into its orbit, "anti-" or not.

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