- The Plaid Shirts in My Closet
I initially hesitated before accepting the kind invitation to contribute to this forum on academic fashion, mainly because of the obvious fact that I’m not exactly renowned for my fashion sense: in my salad days, I continued to wear black shoes with white gym socks long after everyone else had given up that look in sheer disgust. Even now, when I look in my closet, my eye is drawn not to the fancy jackets and sweater vests that I have rare occasions to wear but to the cluster of plaid shirts that rest comfortably on their hangers, some of them predating my undergraduate career. What I’ve always liked about plaid is that it’s never in fashion or out of fashion—it just is. It walks the middle of the road, with its blend of beiges, blues, and browns seeking neither to dazzle nor to offend (unless, of course, when worn with stripes, which I admit to doing once non-ironically). Although I’ve made the effort to raise the stakes somewhat when teaching or otherwise appearing in public, I’m drawn to plaid to a large extent because it has come to represent the kind of person I want to be—despite having no Scots ancestry whatsoever. I find in it the middle ground between funky and straitlaced, between dressy and casual, between dressing “young” and dressing “old.” I always look my age in plaid, no matter what age I happen to be. Meanwhile, my response to pressures to [End Page 14] conform more readily to most fashion trends is a paraphrase of past esc readers’ forums: “Why Do I Have to Dress Like That?”
Conversely, when I think about trends and fashion within the discipline in a less literal way, my mind’s eye is drawn to the possibilities of cutting-edge interdisciplinary research currently in vogue within English studies, a field that continues to widen the boundaries of what is worthy of academic study in order to include not just literature but life writing, video games, periodicals, mainstream television, archival and legal documents, online communities, and the cultural production and reception of virtually everything. While these new approaches and expectations joyfully blow the pious conventions of New Criticism out of the water, the widening of these boundaries leads to particular pressures on those who are on the job market during an already bleak time in humanities hiring. If anything, including in a job application teaching and research credits that are provocative, tightly focused, esoteric, or just plain weird has a similar effect to showing up at a formal gathering dressed up to the nines in orange, turquoise, and lime—while such an outfit may display favourably an applicant’s individuality, such a statement may not be viewed well when the (unspoken) expectation is to wear black. One search committee in Canadian literature, for instance, will eagerly embrace candidates focusing on the literature of neglected communities or work that incorporates the most thought-provoking theory, whereas another will prefer someone who can cover the two Margarets. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the pressures pertaining to the job market have little to do with scholarly rigour or the push to pursue hot topics but with bureaucratic shifts in hiring practices and departmental organization.
About five years ago, as I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I started keeping an eye out on job ads, reasoning that doing so would help prepare me for the eventuality of job hunting. What I gleaned from reading job ads at this time was that English departments were trying their best to broaden the scope of their offerings within narrowing budgetary constraints. And so, a job would ask for applicants with primary specialization in a traditional category—say, British literature of the long eighteenth century—and then offer a long list of eclectic topics as desirable secondary areas of specialization: everything from children’s literature, narrative theory, creative writing, and cultural studies to African American women’s writing, Medieval Studies, and the Judeo-Christian Bible. I interpreted this to mean that breadth was paramount to getting hired in a tenure-track position and that...