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First Impressions, Or. . .



You've only got one chance to make a good first impression. 

I hustled into campus this morning to attend a roundtable discussion on interdisciplinary pedagogy.  I came away with a few interesting new ideas to weave into my courses for next fall through talking to a couple of colleagues from my own program after the session concluded.  The person leading things was another story.  

For starters, she honestly looked like she had rolled out of bed five minutes previously, piled her hair haphazardly into one of those sloppy buns, and pulled on sweaty, soiled gym clothes from the bottom of her dirty laundry hamper.  If you have never visited The People of Walmart website, you should.  It's sobering. As it turned out, the person leading the discussion would have fit right in, and I am not attempting humor here.   

Then there was the tell-tale redolence of her body odor, which clouded one end of the medium-sized room.  Initially, I thought it was some poor, sad, socially awkward schlub of a graduate student who didn't know any better.  Until the talk actually began.  And the same person at the head of our seminar table began speaking.  Turns out it was some poor, sad, socially awkward schlub of a Ph.D., who runs some center here on campus.  Even better, thong and muffin top were on full display when she stood and turned around to fiddle with the cable connecting her laptop to the screen on the wall behind her.  Yes.  That's right. 

But things soon improved.  She opened her talk remarks about her nasty and ongoing stomach bug, which she brought up again several times during the 90 minutes or so we were together.  Blech!  If you're that sick, cancel the talk and stay home in bed.  THIS was the person leading our discussion?  She also mentioned that a friend told her on their way in this morning that she looked, quote, "Like s--t" and then laughed about it before continuing to pepper her subsequent talk and related group discussion with occasional witticisms along similar lines.

Before anyone accuses me of picking on a woman, let me hasten to add that I've witnessed a number of male academics over the years, either in charge of programs and departments who looked and behaved just as atrociously when meeting with their faculty, running discussions, or delivering conference papers.  A particular chair of French and Italian at my former institution comes to mind.  He always dressed like a street urchin playing on a bombsite in one of those Italian neo-realist films made on location just after WWII ended -- Think Rome: Open City or The Bicycle Thief for example. -- right down to the shorts, scuffed shoes, dirty knees, and perpetually smudged face.  And we are talking about someone in his late 50s to early 60s when I knew him.

Now, I'm well aware that the prevailing attitude among many in academia for some time has been "I am too busy with lofty intellectual concerns, research, and publishing, so I don't have the time or need to dress my body beyond the absolute, rock bottom, bare minimum.  I shouldn't have to.  My great mind is more important.  In addition, looking like a slightly overfed homeless person is preferable to resembling THE OPPRESSOOOOOOOR(S)!!!"   

Isn't our era of righteous indignation and outrage a lovely thing?

Sorry, Charlie.  Or in the case of the gal leading the discussion I attended, Charlene.  You need to get over yourselves.  As my maternal uncle, a professor of philosophy and theology nearing retirement at a small private college in New England observed recently, "Academics, [too] many of them at least, are awful."  His exact words.  Don't shoot the messenger.

Society might have changed a great deal during the last 35-50 years as we have fragmented, become ever more wrapped up in ourselves, been gradually dumbed down, and increasingly ignored the social contract, or at least the less convenient parts of it.  Even in 2019, however, it does not matter how erudite, eloquent, engaging, fascinating, or even cool one might imagine oneself to be.  Looking like you rolled out from beneath Oscar the Grouch's garbage can is not the way to get others to sit up, shut up, and take notice.  While formal evening wear is certainly not required, we need to wake up, and get our heads out of our collective you-know-what.  

Greater self-awareness and related common courtesies remain vital, ladies and gentlemen, perhaps now more than ever given our current levels of sociopolitical dysfunction.  Polite convention -- Dare I use the term 'gentility'? -- helps grease the wheels of social interaction from immediate family at home behind closed doors to the wider world along the sidewalk, at work, in shopping malls, movie theaters, on airliners, wherever.

Returning to the point at hand, here's the deal.  If you want people to listen and take anything you might say seriously, and you are the leader (re: focus) of a discussion/talk/presentation, you cannot present yourself to the world looking like you have lived for the last five years under an old sofa in a dusty basement rec room somewhere.  Or as though you are a slightly shabby, down-at-the-heels, but nevertheless hopeful middle-aged fan waiting around in a record store parking lot for autographs from members of your favorite hairband from the 1980s, who should have quit touring a quarter century ago, when they eventually turn up for their scheduled appearance before heading to the state fairgrounds for their triple header concert that evening with two other has been acts.  

While there are people around who claim that basic civility is somehow oppressive to the common man and woman -- True!  I caught a recent discussion on National Public Radio about just this point. --  looking like you don't give a damn about yourself or anyone else does not command the kind of attention you want in a professional setting.  If you think so, just keep on pretending that to yourself with your fingers in your ears like a rather unpleasant small child.  Goodness knows there are enough of those walking around thanks to permissive and helicopter parenting.  Know what I mean?   "Lalalalalaaaaa. . .   I can't hear you!  I can't hear you!  I can't hear you!" 

Indeed, the rest of us in the room this morning, about 10 people divided equally between men and women, soon began discussing the topic at hand on our own, sidelining the scuffed  leather jacketed, athleisured, stuffy, runny-nosed, red-eyed, tangled hot mess with, don't forget, a stomach bug -- God knows, she wouldn't let us. --  sitting at one end of the table.  And as her pièce de résistance before the talk concluded, she rifled through the container of bagels and breakfast rolls the organizers brought along using her bare hands, with which she had repeatedly rubbed her running nose for the preceding 45 minutes or so when she was actually speaking.   

The whole spectacle was charming to the nth degree.  Right up there with Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Jackie O.  No.  Our speaker this morning is not really an individual I'll seek out ever again if I can help it.  I'll bet a number of other people in the room thought likewise if they were honest with themselves.  I won't ask.  But as my late maternal grandfather used to say about a variety of things that flew in the face of polite social convention, "My God!"

-- Heinz-Ulrich

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