It's the start of the Fall semester. Alongside writing syllabi and trying to get Canvas to bow to my will, I've been grappling with a question that first arose in my teaching training two years ago:
What exactly are you supposed to wear?
It's a trickier question than some might expect. Professors should look professional, right? But I'm not a professor yet---just 'posing' as one for the many students who don't realize the number of classes GTAs teach---and the student half of my identity often demands comfort over professionalism. I have wonderful, expensive articles of clothing that are absolutely awful when I'm trying to work 6+ hours on campus, or crash for a while in the grad lounge. Is it okay then to go the more casual route?
I've come to think so. For every well-dressed teacher in my life (suit and bowtie Classics professor) there was another with a 'just rolled out of bed' aesthetic (tee, jeans, crocs-----also Classics) and neither had trouble gaining respect from the student body. Though it certainly depends on where and what you teach, no one has ever given me flack for the winter days when I just want to drape myself in leggings and a ratty sweatshirt.
Still, a few pieces in my closet give me pause, namely those of the fandom variety. I have a whole slew of shirts that I adore: a Sherlock Holmes tee given to me by a friend, the Hamilton souvenir (that was also a gift. I sadly haven't seen it...), a long-sleeved Hannibal shirt with just a touch of creepiness in it, and my personal favorite: a lightweight sweatshirt proclaiming that, "Truth is stranger than fiction but not fanfiction."
Despite my love for them, these blatant displays of fan-identity feel slightly out of place in the classroom. But why? They're no more casual than another t-shirt or sweatshirt I'd wear. They make me look young... but I still get carded even while dressed to the nines. And ultimately why shouldn't I dress as a fan when I'm actively working to incorporate Fandom/Popular Culture into my lesson plans?
If anything, I've found my identity as a fan to be a massive benefit in teaching. Despite all the dire warnings about befriending your students, I've yet to have someone in class challenge my authority based on any casual communication we've had. Students are, for the most part, able to easily compartmentalize (you're my teacher in the classroom, a peer when we're debating Game of Thrones) and striking that balance has made for more enjoyable, more productive semesters. I have students who come to office hours for the sole purpose of talking video games... and I use that time to point out the ways in which they're engaging in analysis. They walk with me after class to tell me about the latest movie they've seen... and I try to apply that film's themes to the lecture I just gave. My students have emailed me over the summer to keep conversations going. Just yesterday, an hour before I started this post, a former student stopped me on High Street to say hello and express how much she enjoyed my class. That enjoyment is important to me.
It's not just a matter of keeping their attention for 55 minutes or seeming 'cool' when you use their favorite show as an example (though these are also useful). Engaging with students' interests gives them confidence. Most of those I teach aren't "English people," they're nervous about writing papers or are already convinced that they hate analysis, but validate their rant about how truly awful The last Airbender (2010) was----with a bit of nudging to explain why certain aspects didn't sit well with them----and suddenly they get the sense that they can unpack a rather complex text. It also helps to build trust and respect. Those students who spoke with me about fandom both accept my critiques of their paper while also feeling like it's okay to push back and challenge me. Casual conversations become a template for education.
I taught my first two classes of the semester on Friday. As always, I told the class a little about my studies and encouraged them to talk with me if they were interested in fandom. Three students stayed after class to talk about non-logistical things:
One wanted to know more about how you "study fanfiction," especially given copyright laws.
Another waited for the whole class to clear before asking if I knew what cosplay was. When I assured her I did she was eager to tell me about an upcoming convention.
A third simply wanted to let me know that the class seemed a lot more fun than he was expecting.
All of which is to say, I think I'll keep wearing my fandom t-shirts. They're something I enjoy and if they help me teach my students, that's all the better.
Truth is stranger than fiction: https://www.lookhuman.com/design/82294-truth-is-stranger-than-fiction-but-not-fanfiction/6010-%20heathered_gray_nl-md
Sherlock Holmes: https://www.outofprintclothing.com/products/adventures-of-sherlock-holmes-womens-tee