The College Tie: On Dressing for Work
By RJ Snell, April 9, 2010 in Editors' Picks, Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

In one of his many brilliant essays, "The Alma Mater and the Necktie," Philippe Beneton suggests that the loss of the necktie (or equivalent) in the academic context indicates "equality by default" and neglects a sense of the seriousness and importance of the activity.

What does it matter what is worn to teach? From a standpoint of utility one can wear just about anything (and with online education maybe not even that) with little or no consequence to the performance of the task. So why is this relevant? We all know you buy a suit for the job interviews and never wear it again, right? In fact, we keep it in the same closet as the pipe we bought during our sophomore year to express our academic credentials.

Forms, Beneton states, reveal distinctions "among activities, times, ways of being," and in ordered work one does not dress "in the same way for a ceremony as for a picnic"; the tie-wearing professor who refuses to "consider everything as equivalent . . . is saying that this activity is worth a certain seriousness."

Since the task of teaching is not reducible to data transmission but includes teaching "attitudes of the intellect," respect for dress goes along with the forms that "make up the habitus required for intellectual life." If one respects the humanistic understanding of knowledge, which is not simply knowledge transfer, one wears a tie, he states.

I'm especially intrigued by his claim that the in world of equality by default "virtues, customs, and forms recede in favor of methods, rules, and procedures." An interesting statement: the "uniform" of academic regalia or even just the necktie doesn't depersonalize nearly as much as wearing whatever one wishes—if dress is one's own business, "an expression of the Self," "autonomous," one might expect this to express one's own personality, but doing so reveals a tryranny of method and procedures which govern the transmission of data and the institution rather than the customs and vritues which encourage and allow the encounter of persons in a relationship of a certain form. The form allows the persons to act as persons, the formless allows Selves to operate within a technique (the pajama-clad online instructor as evidence?).

I wonder if I can ask my Dean for a clothing budget? It is, apparently, for the good of the student.

Image credit: From Ana_Cotta on Flickr:

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Anonymous on Apr 9, 2010 at 5:02 am

As one of the few in my field who still likes to "tie one on," I really appreciate your thoughts, RJ. My only question: why do you not have a tie in your profile photo?

RJ Snell on Apr 9, 2010 at 5:19 am

Let's just say that the photo was before my tie-conversion. Although I did note the irony as I posted this.

Lee Trepanier on Apr 9, 2010 at 9:25 am

Proper attire is not only a sign of taking the activity seriously but it is also a sign of respect to oneself, one’s students, and to the profession itself. One of the strange things I have noticed in academia is that it is usually administrators (and a handful of faculty) who will wear suits to work. Although it is questionable whether they do more good than harm, administrators at least believe what they are doing is serious and therefore their work demands they approach it with dignity and respect.

John von Heyking on Apr 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Very good point. I would add that a suit is too formal, while a lovely three-button blazer, with matching tie and pocket square, is just right. Also, if you dandy it up a bit, you can get away with making all sorts of outrageous statements to provoke your students.

Anonymous on Apr 9, 2010 at 7:17 pm

I'm going to sound a dissent, here. The "shabby genteel" which genuflects to a dressy norm while also reflecting honestly the lack of wealth orientation and rejection of conspicuous consumption culture which ought to be part and parcel of a vocation in the liberal arts is worth noting. I'm not at all saying that my tie-wearing colleagues are traitors to our kind, but I would strongly suggest that when academics start dressing like bureaucratic stuffed shirts or IBM salesmen, we will make it harder to reject being treated like them--and harder to distance our students from their cultural dominance.

Obviously, if you're in a B-school training IBM salesmen, then by all means look the part. And expect me to look like someone dedicated to critiquing your culture.

John von Heyking on Apr 10, 2010 at 8:03 am

I agree with the last comment that one shouldn't dress like an IBM salesman. But I didn't think RJ was making that point, and that's why I also added my point about dandyism.

The tie is part of an ensemble. A nice jacket, slacks (not khakis), and, above all, a shirt with a real collar (not those button down collars that looks like one is wearing a rice paper roll around one's neck).

For details, I recommend a that wonderful work of style and political philosophy, The Suit by Nicholas Antongiovanni.

RJ Snell on Apr 10, 2010 at 11:16 am

A fascinating response! I'm using Beneton to reject "equality by default" by adhering to form and manner. Beneton claims ""virtues, customs, and forms recede in favor of methods, rules, and procedures" under the tyranny of equality by default.

I wonder if in his rejection of the business school and "wealth orientation" the commentator above would agree with Beneton (or at least my use) that much of what is wrong with that world is precisely a loss of custom and form to the forces of method and procedure. If so, we have a way forward.

Does the bureaucrat/administrator dress to respect and mark social custom and humane patterns of meaning and time, or to cover an absence or loss of social custom with a patina officiousness and impersonal objectivity? Such method requires that one is de-individualized and fits into the objective method and/or procedure.

I suspect we agree that we wish to resist such culture, yes. But is the de-personalized excess of the bureaucratic cover best resisted with a robust affection for social form and manner of civitas (the necktie), or with a kind of formless "populism" (shabbiness)?

In other words, isn't this the very reason we ought to celebrate the continued existence of tweed?

David Gold on Apr 22, 2010 at 4:07 am

I absolutely despise ties, and jackets too. They didn't make me a better teacher when I worked at a community college, and they don't make me a better lawyer now. They are uncomfortable, nonfunctional, and a waste of money. I'm a vegan, recycling, non-gun-toting, agnostic conservative, so I suppose my sartorial tastes are just one more anamoly in my life.

David Gold on Apr 22, 2010 at 4:09 am


RJ Snell on Apr 22, 2010 at 10:06 am

I didn't claim that a tie would aid one's utility, as if wearing a tie made one a more efficacious teacher or lawyer, but rather that the social form matters to moral habituation. That's something rather different.

Paul E Dell on Apr 27, 2010 at 6:38 am

I agree that the social form matters, and reject the argument from some of my male colleagues at the community college where I teach that we adhere to egalitarian principles in the academic setting by dressing more like our students to avoid portraying an elitist difference, thereby further distancing ourselves from them and even risking offending those students whose dress is constrained by financial limitations.

I have experimented with form and manner of dress from semester to semester, dressing as casually as khakis with open collar dress shirt; designer jeans with a dress shirt and tie; and slacks, tie and blazer. Short of polling my students, I have discovered that it is my attitude of respect for my students, for the seriousness of teaching, and my obvious interest in their learning that engages my students. Furthermore, my tie and jacket convey my respect for not only my profession, but also my students. Their importance to me is reflected both in my attitude and in the form and manner which I bring to the classroom.

Anonymous on May 13, 2010 at 11:23 am

Now look, the cravat is Croatia's gift to world culture, so wear one! And no budget necessary. Buy used. As the leader of the band Pink Martini has said, the world started getting less beautiful after the year 1964. If you'd care to look at my Book TV episode, that tie I'm wearing dates from about 1959, and all it collected was compliments the night through. So there. I would not however recommend it for Michael Crawford's profession -- could you imagine the consequences of the tie you're wearing getting progressvely eaten by a crankshaft?

Anonymous on May 27, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I know I'm late to reply, RJ, but I can't help but notice that this discussion seems to be lacking its other half: women's clothing in academia. I'm not sure if it is more or less fraught a question than the issue of men's clothing. Women can skirt the boundaries of formality and informality; there is no feminine equivalent to "tie" or "no tie." Some women feel pressure to imitate masculine fashion dragging out polyester skirt suits; this probably also affects the classroom in its own way (not sure just what that would be, but it seems dreary!).

My own goal is to dress in a way that conveys respect for the students and the activity. I agree with those who maintain that it does make an important difference to the tone and fruitfulness of the class.

Jessica Hooten on Sep 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm

In reply to the "feminine equivalent" comment, I was hand-slapped by a senior colleague for wearing denim trousers to a faculty meeting. Apparently denim (even if it's expensive, quality, and tasteful) is disrespectful. Moreover, as a young faculty member, I feel the need to dress more formally to avoid looking like a student. It's less about looking superior to them and more about distinguishing myself apart from them.

Anonymous on Oct 1, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I could not agree more with RJ, Jessica, and the Anonymous post of May 27th. I was surprised, my first year of teaching, how much my students noticed (and commented on!) my appearance. I have a vivid memory of a small portion of my Western Civ class informing me, in the few minutes remaining before class started one day, that they had taken a vote and it was "thumbs up on the new haircut." Another time, as I passed out papers, a couple of students asked me if I had gotten a new ring.

I am shy by nature, so I was initially horrified by this scrutiny. They vote on my haircuts? They notice my rings? Then, I realized that students looking at how I dressed or wore my hair was not so different from them paying attention to how I spoke, or thought, or my work habits. I might want it to be, but it isn't. I am not just an abstract mind or spirit but, instead, an embodied mind and soul. I communicate something about how I think about myself, how I think about my work, and how I think about my students, through each venue. I might not always succeed in conveying the level of dignity and respect that I desire--I sit in my office in what I thought were very classy denim trouser slacks at this very moment : ) --but I do think that it is an important element of my care for and responsibility towards my students to try.

Ken on Nov 13, 2010 at 3:20 am

I once heard someone suggest that you "should dress as seriously as you wish to be taken" and I think that is pretty good advice. One of the initial comments above paraphrases it. I've developed a preference for bow ties -- they don't get in the way -- and wear them almost any time I wear a tie. They draw attention to me and cause people to remember me even if it's "oh, you were wearing that bow tie." Since self promotion is part of my business, it makes sense.

In college I took a Chaucer and then a Shakespeare class that were taught by an interesting and brilliant guy who wore a tie and jacket every day. During the summer when the weather was particularly sticky, he would don Bermuda shorts and wear a Madras sports jacket. But the tie never left the collar.

I never noticed rings on teacher's fingers but grooming is important and does mirror ones image of self. A philosophy professor had a great gimmick for learning the names of his students. He'd pass out the first quiz results one by one walking by each desk and looking carefully at the face as he put the graded paper down. The thing I noticed that day before checking for the grade was that he bit his fingernails almost to the quick. I recalled that each time he railed against a believer who just couldn't handle Descartes. And swore off biting my nails ever again.

Dr. Nathan Andrew Finn on Jan 7, 2011 at 11:42 am

Sorry I'm such a latecomer to this conversation. I am the youngest member of my school's full-time faculty by about three or four years (I'm 31). While I don't believe it is necessary for a professor to dress like a business person or wear what used to be called one's "Sunday best," I confess that I self-consciously dress in this way most of the time. While I dress business casual on Fridays, on the other days I almost always wear a suit or coat and nice slacks. About 2/3 of the time I wear a tie, most often a bowtie. I do this in part because I'm not much older than many of my graduate students and I don't really want to be confused with them any more than is necessary. As it is, their gut instinct is to treat me as a chum rather than a professor because of our age similarity. Besides, I'm a bit of a curmudgeon so sports coats, starched shirts, and bowties just seems to fit.

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.