U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Aesthetics of Scholarship

When I was 6 years old, I got my first pair of glasses. At the time, the optometrist had told my mother that such a solution was optional – they could also patch my more nearsighted eye and wait and see if my vision got worse as I grew older. But my Mom decided to go with the glasses; in part, perhaps, because of my enthusiasm for the idea.

Yeah, I could handle this.

Yeah, I could handle this.

For unlike many other young kids my age, I thought glasses looked cool. I’m not sure how I got this into my head, but what I do remember is that I figured they made me stand out – they made me look special. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised that even at 6 years old, I had deduced that my culture also associated glasses with bookishness, and I was eager partly for that reason to associate myself with glasses.

And for a long time now, I’ve been contemplating the significance of what I will call, for lack of a more inclusive but less succinct expression, the aesthetics of scholarship. It’s not the best title, since many of these cultural signifiers apply far beyond the academy, enjoying as much cache in a Portland hipster bar as any seminar room. Nonetheless, given our occupations and preoccupations, the workspaces and personal style of academics are primary cultural sites to look for prevailing ideas about what it looks like – and therefore, it is implied, what it means – to be an intellectual.

Let’s begin with the scholar’s most constant companion – no, not depression – books! For most academics, books are everywhere. They pile up on our desks, they are double stacked on the shelves that are supposed to be their designated holding places, and when we run out of room on those they spill out onto our coffee tables, our dressers, and even our floors. There’s an association, not always explicitly stated, between rigorous scholarship and the presence of overflowing books – common are social media pictures of bags and bags of library books on their way to be returned after a project is finished, and the sense of proud accomplishment usually shines through in these postings. We will also adorn ourselves and our spaces with books in various other ways, from cover photos on our Facebook pages and blogs of our favorites titles to book-shaped book ends for our movie collections.

Second, academics often love books – and by this, I mean they love books even regardless of their content. How many times have I had someone stop to ask me, “are you smelling that book?” as I bury my nose in the binding. Little do they know, books not only have a special smell, but different types of books have different types of smells, and we all have our favorites. But everything about books, from the texture of the pages to the arrangement of the type on the page, can provide reasons for swooning. On my own part, I think my inclination to pull back the binding on my books rather harshly is due in part to my pleasure in imagining every page as a framed picture on the wall. As for fonts – well!, such a subject deserves its own entire post, but suffice to say for now how passionately I appreciate whoever invented this website.

But books as a symbol of scholarship are especially powerful considering their larger cultural cache. Choosing to represent yourself through books communicates something very clearly about your personal identity, indicating to all audiences that you are some variation of nerd, a bookish sort, or, at the least, an intellectually curious person. Everyone else is more than happy, moreover, to agree with this representation – recently, a colleague of mine received an award for his teaching, and when photographers arrived in his office, he began to clear away the mess of papers and books that covers almost every inch of his desk. “No no!, leave them, that is amazing” they instructed him. Who doesn’t love a picture of a professor nearly buried by her books? Indeed, no image could possibly communicate “this is a great teacher and thinker” more successfully.

However, some of us can afford to display our books in a more orderly way, if we choose to do so – which brings me to my second subject, work spaces. I’ll never forget walking into the separate building a professor had built exclusively to house her books (and, in a stroke of genius, her home theatre and wine collection as well), gazing at the 20 foot bookshelves adorned with hundreds and hundreds of perfectly shelved and thematically organized books. This, it did not surprise me, was what the professor considered her “swan song” and we decided to call “the cathedral.” Indeed, in the popular imagination the spaces of scholars seem to run between two extremes – towering, beautiful shelves of books so tall that a ladder and a extra walkway is required, or the chaotic spaces of the “nutty” professor, with papers, books, and posters anarchically covering every inch of the furniture, wall space, and floor. What are the two options these polar images seem to offer us? We’re either sophisticated and refined, it seems, or we are more than a little eccentric.

Obviously, these options feel limited; and nowhere do these images feel more constricting than when it comes to questions of personal appearance. You may have noticed, moreover, that I haven’t yet brought up the necessarily raced, gendered and classed associations these usual images carry with them, for I thought it best to wait until we reached this point to unpack them. It is not that the love of (physical) books or the arrangement of spaces do not convey these qualities as well – after all, how many of us are too broke to afford either elegant work spaces or a cornucopia of books we purchased to strew around our homes like ornaments to our quest for knowledge? However, when it comes to appearance these problems become both more acute and unavoidable. You don’t have to invite anyone and everyone over to your house, but you do have to go out into the world dressed one way or another.

Of course, until recently the academic uniform was extremely limited. Men wore suits, and women wore either feminized versions of the same or modest skirts with formal blouses. Now, undoubtedly, the options are more expansive – women no longer need to wear “feminized” suits, and appropriate color palettes have expanded, as well. Likewise, as the racial diversity of the academy grows, styles associated with ethnic or racial identity have gone from being awkward to acceptable – indeed, even celebrated. Nonetheless, unspoken rules remain, and as the diversity of the academy grows, how one chooses to appear in professional spaces offers an unstated opportunity to test how far one can push the boundaries of an “academic subjectivity” before being socially policed. Is there a heel height, for example, that is too high for a conference, lest one find themselves unofficially slut-shamed? (Or, for that matter, subject to transphobia?) What if graduate students from working class origins consistently avoid the usual styles of their more bourgeois peers, wearing always only casual pants and shorts and t-shirts? Will this impact how their fellows and advisers perceive them? How about body modification, from facial piercings to tattoos? A friend of mine actually thinks you are more likely to receive a positive reception at a job interview with a predominantly displayed tattoo, and although it is interesting that there is a chance she is right, I do not think the same would result from say, the presence of an entire sleeve.

What’s even trickier to unpack than these unspoken regulations on dress is how they reflect ideas, in the past and in the present, about what it means to be an academic and, even more so, what it means to identify as one. Presumably, studying the scholarly aesthetics of the past could be useful, if challenging, in teasing out what being an intellectual or a scholar (not always the same thing) was about for the scholars and thinkers of the past. (Notice, for example, how the nostalgic Dr. Vanderwald invokes the appropriate attire of tweed jackets and bowties.) So in aesthetics we can track how people previously closed out of academic and intellectual communities either tried to fashion themselves as one of the tribe or tried to push against its strictures and unspoken power dynamics by crafting new aesthetics that previously would have been looked at askance, and perhaps continued to be.

Moreover, at our present moment attire seems to be one of many cultural sites where the debate over professionalism is acted out. Style requires choices, so what if someone decides to wear, say, four-inch heels to the recruitment dinner or blue jeans to the conference? Do these stylistic outliers communicate anything and do they have any consequences, and if so, to what degree? Is there a way to associate yourself with intellectual pursuit but not the academy through how you dress or, alternatively, signal that you consider yourself an historian first but an intellectual second? (Or, perhaps not at all?) On the other hand, when style once considered subversive hardly raises eyebrows, is this a success story or an example of neutralizing threats by absorbing them? Regardless, what I do think is clear is how such questions are, in fact, relevant to intellectual history; after all, it’s hard to imagine how the meaning of scholarly and intellectual work could not be reflected in its aesthetics, from clothes to offices to the ornamentation of books. Consequently, in tracking such shifts and associations we might, indeed, discover new ways of understanding how the meanings of scholarly work have changed over time and indeed, continue to change.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. As an uninteresting white Midwestern male, I ponder these aesthetic questions (briefly) before every conference, and of course did so at every t-t interview (and at other interviews). The most interesting line is between the aesthetics you can affect/change, and those you can’t. – TL

  2. Another field of aesthetics is the office: the tension between functionality and expression, display of authority and interests. Shelves of books or equipment; diplomas and certificates; thematic or personalizing tchotchkes; ennobling art; territoriality…

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