Frump and Circumstance

At the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association meeting in Toronto in August 1997, I was riding the escalator down into the atrium of the conference hotel with my fellow sociology graduate students Josh Rossol and Black Hawk Hancock. Black Hawk noticed alot of people milling around, so he turned to Josh and me and asked, “How do I know which ones are the sociologists?”

To which Josh famously responded, “They’re the ones who are dressed like flood victims.”

Of course, this flood victim chic is not limited to sociologists, as pointed out by Tim Gunn of “Project Runway” and former chair of the department of fashion design at the New School of Design (interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education):

But for so many people in the academic world at large, I really believe that disdain for fashion is something that they are quite proud of, and that they want to demonstrate in what they’re wearing and how they’re wearing it. It’s a kind of an intellectual snobbery that says: My brain is important to me, and how I look is not, because it goes beyond the clothes. They’re poorly groomed, they’re schlumped over and practically drooling. I mean, I’m making some exaggerations here, but when I go to meetings with the rest of Parsons, I look around and think: Just comb your hair!


I think it has to do with the academics’ perception of lifestyle in general, which is that they drive beaten-up, rusted-out old jalopies of cars, they tend to live in environments that are messy, piled high with stuff-mainly books-and covered with dust. I say it comes from a disdain, but in some ways even that can be cultivated, though, so that is looks almost studied, like: Gee, did you buy a bag of dust and spread it around before I came over?


Work Hard, Play Hard?

Many students at elite colleges and universities in the United States adhere to the motto, “Work Hard, Play Hard.” I tell my students applying this motto to higher education creates a false dichotomy between work and play. I insist that my courses will require them to work, to be sure, but that we will have fun at the same time. So, in my version of the motto – which I give it to them in Latin, Laborate valde, ludite valde – I unify what they dichotomize by insisting that learning itself is fun.

Whether I’m successful or not, that’s a good question. I like to think so.