• August 31, 2015

Make It Work

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My literature class had ended, but six students remained. They arranged their chairs in a semicircle in front of my desk, and then, with a great sense of purpose and candor, denounced my tapered-leg jeans. "They really are awful," one student said, while another countered with, "You mean, hideous." The others agreed. I was undergoing, it occurred to me, an intervention.

"Your shirt and tie are tolerable," someone continued, "but those shoes! I mean, come on!"

I glanced at my shoes. Other than being fit for a clown (literally: I wear a 12), my white Adidas seemed fine to me. I said as much when the laughter subsided. I noted I did not wear them often. I usually donned my high-top Doc Martens, classic footwear whose coolness was unassailable. I referenced them now. "The Docs are awesome," I was told, "if it's 1985." I gathered my things. As I put on my sunglasses and headed for the door, someone called after me: "And lose the mirrored shades!"

I came to realize, during my walk home, that those six students were not necessarily evil. They were just trying to be helpful. But I did not need their help. At least not as much as some of my colleagues, like the one whose idea of haute couture was Looney Tunes neckties. Or the one with the matching suede jacket and fedora, à la Indiana Jones. Or the one who always wore weight-lifting gloves, a clear fashion no-no. I had told him so myself. "They're not an accessory, you moron," he responded. "If it's any of your business, I wear them because of a rare medical condition." I wondered if that also explained his ponytail and fishing vest. I decided not to ask.

I also decided not to ask about a colleague's plunging neckline, even though it seemed a curious thing for an academic to wear, especially a male. He had walked into the conference room where a committee was about to convene and sat at the table, directly across from me. The meeting lasted an hour, but I heard little of what was said. Instead, I spent much of the time imagining him strapped to a plank, being sheared. "You know, to really make that look work," I wanted to tell him, "you might consider incorporating a codpiece."

Instead, and curious to have other opinions on the matter, I went to my office when the meeting adjourned and researched him on RateMyProfessors.com. The results were irrefutable: Exposed hairy torso, in the context of the liberal arts, was frightening. That view crossed the gender divide. By contrast, I saw that female professors with plunging necklines met with strong approval from their male students. That approval was generally accompanied by approval of the course, suggesting, at least with this sample, a correlation between cleavage and mastery of subject matter.

The broader point—that students respond favorably to attractive professors—has been well documented in the literature. Back when I was a first-time teacher, and at little risk of being confused for a model, I had given a great deal of thought to my wardrobe choices, going so far as to poll my new colleagues at orientation events. The consensus was for "intellectual casual," which was explained as slacks and a blouse for women, and khakis or jeans and a dress shirt for men. The more conservative respondents called for long skirts and sports jackets.

One professor, however, insisted on formal attire. "It commands respect," he insisted. A week later I saw him commanding respect as he walked across the campus. It was 94 degrees. His face was wet and pinkish, the underarms of his tan suit ringed in sweat. I fell in step with him, exchanged a few pleasantries, and then offered an observation.

"You look near death," I said.

He did not deny that he was. I suggested he remove his jacket and vest. "Your students will still respect you," I assured him. "Mine seem to respect me, and look what I'm wearing."

He gave me the once-over, his gaze lingering on my tapered jeans. "Doubtful," he said.

I identified with his skepticism. It was what I felt toward our colleagues who wore flip-flops, T-shirts, baseball caps, cowboy boots, nose rings, ponchos, and Crocs. Were I their student, I would have spent the class drawing them in caricature. I still have some of the sketches from my college years, including one of a guest lecturer whose all-black ensemble consisted of a turtleneck, beret, combat boots, and leather jacket. I gave him a shotgun and a caption that read, "Up the Revolution."

That image came back to me as I walked home after my students' intervention, and I shuddered thinking there were caricatures of me out there, perhaps saying "U Can't Touch This" or singing "Purple Rain." I glanced at my jeans, noted how they ballooned at my thighs before narrowing to grip my shins and ankles. Then I surveyed passers-by and saw only jeans that were narrow from thigh to knee and progressively loose until they reached the shoe.

"My students want me to dress like a mermaid," I told my wife that evening.

"I hope you refused," she said.

"And they want me to stop wearing white sneakers."

"I hope you agreed," she said.

"What's wrong with my white sneakers?"

"Well, they're white to begin with, and they're sneakers."

I rose from the couch and stepped to the center of the living room. "And my jeans?"

"Out of style," she replied.


"I've told you that before."


"Probably when I told you to stop buying white sneakers. And Docs."

I asked her to stand. Her jeans were neither tapered nor mermaidian, but rather somewhere in between. She had found a happy medium and made it work. The next day I bought several pairs similar in style to hers. I also picked up some designer ankle boots that a sales clerk explained were all the rage with young professionals, even though I saw no direct application for the steel toe.

When I entered my classroom, the students who had confronted me applauded and cheered. But that soon gave way to ribbing as they lampooned my previous attire. "What did you do with all that stuff?" someone asked. "Gave it to Goodwill, I hope, or to a vintage store!" They burst into laughter, of course.

I let them have their fun. After all, I understood that such things were cyclical. By 2015, I figured, 2020 at the latest, my old wardrobe would be back in style. And while everyone was going to the mall, scrambling to respond to the whims of New York and Milan, I would simply have to reach into a large cardboard box, tucked away, for now, in the back of my closet.

Jerald Walker is the author of "Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption" (Bantam Books, 2010). He was recently hired as an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College, where, he notes, all of his new colleagues dress splendidly.


1. grward - October 06, 2010 at 07:38 am

Our course evaluations contain a section titled "the biggest weakness in this course". One student wrote,"the prof dresses like a gym teacher". I was pleased, as it meant that the rest of the course must have been quite satisfactory, at least according to this student. My wife, on the other hand, disagreed with my (not the student's) assessment.

Great article. Provided some much-needed levity to start the day.

2. what4 - October 06, 2010 at 09:09 am

I tried for years to get students to do and write about an "academic makeover," but without success.

In an academic makeover, three or four A students focus on someone who is doing poorly and work on that student's academic skills the way the fashion makeovers work on appearance.

It's a good idea. Maybe you can use it.

3. girlfriendinacoma - October 06, 2010 at 10:43 am

Thanks for the levity this morning. I must say, though, you would be very fashionable in some sectors of East London (Shoreditch, Dalston).

4. dinsanalli - October 06, 2010 at 11:46 am

Fun piece. Needed a good chuckle.

5. drluccia - October 06, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Amusing. My only objection is about the Dr. Marten's. They make for comfortable standing much of the day and serve well as protective footwear when I ride my motorcycle. Multipurpose, comfortable ... who can object to that?

6. elsie - October 06, 2010 at 01:21 pm

The sad truth of fashion is this: if you wore the style the first time it was in fashion, you're too old to wear it when it comes back.

7. mmcknight - October 06, 2010 at 02:53 pm

Great article--my only objection is the artwork. The guy is obviously supposed to be wearing tapered jeans and Docs... but he's white. Jerald Walker is black. Even if you didn't already know this (I happened to b/c I'm in the same field), you could easily pick it up from his suggestion that his students might be comparing him to MC Hammer or Prince. Of course, that requires that you have a familiarity with song titles... or that you be culturally competent. Either way, the Chronicle fell short here.

8. schmair - October 06, 2010 at 04:03 pm

Unless this happened several years ago, feel free to disregard the students who accosted you as behind the fashion times. Skinny jeans with tapered legs are back in style and it's super square to wear boot cuts.
However, the "if you wore it the first time around..." comment still stands I suppose!

9. 137lbs - October 07, 2010 at 01:01 pm

My favorite line, which has made my day:
"I also decided not to ask about a colleague's plunging neckline, even though it seemed a curious thing for an academic to wear, especially a male."

10. dziuk - October 07, 2010 at 01:38 pm

My old baseball coach had only two rules, don't get picked off first bases picking your nose, pay attention to the game.Second , if you can't BE a baseball player{he conceded none of us would be} at least look like one. Tuck your shirt in, put your cap on straight,pull up your socks and keep your pants up. I have always thought that applied to professors as well. My wife says she can spot a professor a mile off by his clothes. She has been right before. Philip Dziuk

11. ra974 - October 07, 2010 at 04:09 pm

"Now me and my Adidas do the illest things
we like to stomp out pimps with diamond rings
we slay all suckers who perpetrate
and lay down law from state to state..."

I cannot think of kicks more appropriate for educating the masses. Well tailored jeans are always stylish, but the Adidas are timeless classics. Who wants to be the academic in tweed elbow-patches anyway? Stick with the Adidas, lose the Docs.

12. lothlorien - October 07, 2010 at 08:13 pm

Does this, then, give me license to tell the freshman wearing the Dead Kennedys T-shirt or the Ramones T-shirt "if you weren't around when they were popular, you have no business wearing the shirt?" A funny, well-crafted article. And I write this while listening to the "Classic Alternative" music channel on cable...

13. beldame - October 08, 2010 at 04:35 pm

You'll get my Doc Martens when you pry them off my cold, dead feet.

14. colorlessblueideas - October 08, 2010 at 09:03 pm

How sad. The students neither supported nor respected diversity of clothing in the classroom -- and the professor yielded to their intolerance instead of standing up to them. Such an example! :-)

15. dg41dg41 - October 08, 2010 at 09:29 pm

A year or two ago there was a funny piece in the Chronicle from someone who berated academics for dressing badly, pointed out that the serious professions all have their characteristic attire (e.g., white coats for doctors), and then advocated that academics wear business suits. This last bit didn't make any sense (do we want to blend in with the managerial set?) but the article did make me think that we should all don academic gowns...perhaps with some fashion updating and maybe in several variations to fit the season.

16. hildavcarpenter - October 09, 2010 at 09:33 am

I loved this article. It is a statement of how well you teach and how well you connect with your students that they would "intervene" with your wardrobe. What a fun read. Thanks.

17. drnels - October 09, 2010 at 02:10 pm

@grward, we have the same kind of section on our evaluations along with whath the professor's greatest strengths are, and I had a paragraph in my tenure dossier where I just quoted the students who praised how I dressed. "Great fashion sense." "Love his shirts." That kind of thing. I love clothes, though, and went into academia because I never wanted to wear a uniform of any type, including a suit. I'm especially excited because I hit the outlet malls a couple of weeks ago and got about ten new things for less than $100.

And I've been debating buying either the purple or red docs on Zappos for two months now. I want both but don't want to spend the money and can't decide on a color.

18. tolerantly - October 10, 2010 at 09:23 am

Jerald, clearly your students don't recognize fine when they see it, because if they did, they wouldn't have been paying attention to your clothes anyway. You should get back to work on your real stuff, though, and leave the CHE columnizing to people with less talent.

19. tolerantly - October 10, 2010 at 09:35 am

On second thought, you might use the intervention to make them aware of how tragic fashion-chasing is for a writer.

For what it's worth, 1983's back in force at UI. There's this fantastic girl who's right out of Fame, with the cloud of curly hair and the big eyes and dancer tights and everything. And Hyde Park's all standing-up collars and boat shoes and aviator shades.

I'd say f*** 'em, really.

20. susanherod - October 12, 2010 at 10:02 am

@mmcknight MC Hammer and Prince were so iconic of the 80s that it didn't make me think of anything other than balloon pants and an overabundance of purple lace.

21. lostintranslation - October 12, 2010 at 03:12 pm

Docs will always be in style.

Those students have no idea...

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