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Smarty Pants

A few weeks before the ESC-sponsored academic fashion panel occurred in Montreal, I mentioned to a few of my colleagues that I would be participating, and each promptly asked the same question: What are you going to wear? Their foremost concern was not what I might say but, to borrow from Kaja Silverman, what “vestimentary ‘package’” I would be displaying (147). Ranging around for the most outré option, I hit on the armadillo shoe, which, with its foot-high heels and hoof-like structure, would be guaranteed to place me firmly at the centre of various controversies about their supposed dangers to their wearers or line me up with Lady Gaga—herself an aficionado of the armadillo shoe—not to mention giving me a towering Shaquille-O’Neal-like presence. Alas, since Alexander McQueen’s death, those shoes have been scarce on the ground- Still, my colleagues’ question is provocative, not simply because it assumes that dress is an intrinsic aspect of public performance, especially one billed as concerned with academic fashion, but also because it runs counter to what many members of the professoriate seem to assume—that sartorial resplendence is suspect, mere superficial fluff distracting attention from the meaty intellect it shrouds, or that fashionable dress is a sellout—to [End Page 24] capitalism, big business, what Roland Barthes dubs the fashion system, or all things perceived to be anathema to the life of the mind.

What’s fashionable now at universities is not, luckily, the dress of their professors but the supposed free dissemination of the fruits of that non-sartorially nurtured life of the mind, from the open access to periodicals to the establishment of accessible repositories of pre- and postpublished articles—all in the name of the democratic flow of ideas across national and economic boundaries, in the name of “benefits for ... society” and the “public good” (Shearer 2, 5). A globalization policy, if you will, of the intellectual resources of the first world “haves” aimed apparently at the developing world “have nots”—those unfortunate enough to have skimpy libraries, low acquisition budgets, and no political will to obtain the academic riches of the West that are available at a fairly steep price (for subscriptions, reprints, or aggregators). Nowhere is this seeming public good more pronounced than in the so-called global classroom: the free Web lectures offered by such institutions as Yale, with its OpenYaleCourses, and the pioneering mit, with its OpenCourseWare, which provide videotaped professors lecturing a full complement of classes for a course, sometimes to an room full of actual students and sometimes directly to the camera.

These courses have in turn produced their own stars: Walter H.G. Lewin, a physics professor at mit who is the top ranked or most viewed professor on iTunes U, was interviewed in the U.S. News under the headline banner “Physics Superstar,” and The New York Times Magazine, in two separate full-length articles in 2007 and 2008, effused that he was “box office gold” (Heffernan). Naturally their dramatically higher visibility than that of most professors (to the tune of many hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube) invites the most pressing question: What do they wear? Well, across the board, most of the male professors wear partly rolled, long-sleeved polycotton shirts and baggy, pleated chinos. Introducing the open classroom video of his course, “Introduction to Non-Violence” at University of California Berkeley, Michael Nagler tells the students not to mind the video camera, reassuring them that “All it means is that I’m dressed up a little nicer than I usually am,” and he wears a blue, rolled sleeve shirt over a white T-shirt and chinos. In the global classroom, most of the female professors wear solid, dark-coloured, jersey-type shirts and black trousers, with the occasional single strand of pearls or long dowdy scarf. Lewin, the physics superstar, wears the same rolled chambray shirt and bland chinos combo, with the added flair of socks and sandals. Not an armadillo shoe in sight. [End Page 25]

Asked by Kim Clark in the U.S. News interview whether the video tapings of his lectures made...


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