I like to teach the essays that the poet Donald Hall wrote in his eighties, beautiful, moving and often funny reflections on literature, aging, and mortality. Before leaving academia, Hall worked as an English professor at the University of Michigan. One summer he retrieved his mail at the department, dressed (as he recounts) in “plastic flip-flops, sagging striped shorts, a Detroit Tigers T-shirt, and a grubby stubble . . . My chairman greeted me, noting my rank: ‘Good morning, Professor Hall.’”
Hall grew a beard and dressed that way because he wanted to look “raffish,” “not like a professor of English literature at the University of Michigan.” “So how did those professors dress?” I asked my class last week when I taught the essay. (It doesn’t explicitly say, only defining their clothes and grooming negatively, as the opposite of Hall’s.) “Like you,” one of my best students answered.
I am not sure that he was wholly correct but knew what he meant. A few years ago, I started to dress more formally when I teach. When I am feeling nostalgic, I put on a Wadham College tie and remember the happy Junior year abroad I spent there. Trips allow me to enjoy new stores and sample their wares. When my wife and I went to London to celebrate a significant birthday, I treated myself to a pair of George Cleverley brogues. She indulged me, although she was taken a bit back by their cost, which the salesman unfortunately announced as he ran my card. Before leaving the Royal Arcade, together my wife and I climbed the narrow staircase to the small second-floor workshop and marveled at the shoemakers as they worked. They were no less impressive than the actors we watched the next day perform Henry IV, Part 1 at the Globe Theatre.
Few other professors dress this way. One colleague, a brilliant novelist, explained to me that he owns two identical hoodies, one to wear when he exercises, the other when he teaches. The garments’ odor helps him to distinguish one from the other. Another friend told me the best part of being a professor is never having to wear a tie. Indeed, he never does. Most of the male faculty dress only slightly more formally than our students, often in jeans or chinos, unironed shirts, and, on colder days, a sweater. One or two occasionally wear a sports jacket unaccompanied by a tie.
I do not dress this way because I long for an earlier period in academia, whether the 1950s, when Hall taught at the University of Michigan, or the decades before that, when, as the poet Karl Shapiro, a fellow alumnus of the University Virginia, observed, “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew / Is the curriculum.” If more professors were to dress like me, I suspect I might be tempted to dress differently. In this respect, I am a bit like Hall. Aside from a friend’s occasional compliment, few colleagues have not told me what they think of how I dress. No doubt some find it off-putting if not pretentious.
However, I do think tailored clothes flatter me. I also like how they separate between my professional and personal lives, especially since email and the changing nature of the profession have blurred this line. It is hard to prove, but I suspect that the formality of my clothes also has helped me to establish better relationships with my students. Our clothes confirm our roles, which, paradoxically, allows us to relate to each other more easily.
Above all, though, I dress this way because I enjoy it. The flourish of a pocket square, a map of Chicago or Ponte Vecchio, a burst of color against a more somber gray or blue jacket, contains in miniature what Wallace Steven called “the essential gaudiness of poetry,” the material’s delight in its own useful uselessness. The clothes remind me I am about to go to work at a job I enjoy, sharing my knowledge of literature and writing with students discovering their own talents and interests. On the inevitable, challenging days, they also offer a means (as TS Eliot noted of one of Othello’s speeches) of cheering myself up, as I put on a jacket that fits me it should and an ancient madder tie, whose colors are magically both vibrant and restrained. — DAVID CAPLAN
Professor Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University.