The Chronicle Review


Kerry Soper for The Chronicle Review

September 12, 2010

Let's be honest: Most of us are never going to see one of those red-hot chili peppers next to our names on Who knows why? Certainly it couldn't be that extra 15 pounds, rapidly graying and/or receding hair, weird teeth, or consignment-quality wardrobe. We may get raves about our senses of humor, our knowledge of an arcane field, or our ability to be "fair" in our grading, but most of us will never have the satisfaction of being considered caliente.

It is unfair that only the few youthful, freakishly good-looking faculty members among us get all of those chili-pepper accolades. So I propose that the following consolation icons be included on the site's menu:

The Pizza Slice. This is for faculty members who make an effort, however misguided, to appear youthful and hip after passing the 40-year mark. Students are saying, "Yes, it is embarrassing to observe a middle-aged man (or woman) in expensive jeans, funky shoes, and trendy shirt, but it seems to make you happy—so go for it. Better that you be delusional and cheerful than depressed, grouchy, and fully aware of how old and pathetic you actually look."

The Espresso Cup. The student here is saying, "I can see that you have a coherent style going on there: an array of black and gray clothing that has a vague, critical-theory hipness to it. And good job on finding the right kind of severe glasses and retro haircut to fit the look. Personally, I find this aesthetic dull and pretentious, but it is fun to see you strike self-conscious poses at the whiteboard, like some kind of morose poet in a Sears catalog for existentialists."

The Lump of Tofu. With this icon, the student is suggesting: "I gather from all of your references to vegan dietary ethics and your frequently expressed contempt for the eating habits of our fast-food nation that you're taking good care of yourself nutritionally. That internal health may not be reflected in your sallow complexion, bird's nest of unkempt hair, and lethargic demeanor, but I'll take your word on this one, nevertheless."

The Half-Eaten Protein Bar. This is a student's way of saying: "You may not be an especially attractive human being, but it does appear that you spend a lot of time at the gym attempting to get into shape. Good job, in other words, for trying. Yes, you may have weird hair, lame clothes, and dorky glasses, but I'm sure that somewhere under the extra 15 pounds you've accumulated over the years, there must be some nicely sculpted delts and pecs."

The Pressed Flower. The student here is suggesting that "it looks as if you may have been hip and attractive at one point in your life. And guessing from your big hair, lavender pantsuit with the puffy shoulder pads, and bright pumps, that year was probably 1986. Thank you for preserving this historical look for future generations."

The Bow Tie. This is for professors determined to maintain an ivory-tower dress code established in a previous century. The student is saying, "Yes, that stuffy little bow tie looks ridiculous on your portly frame; your frumpy oxford shirts are stained and frayed; and I have never seen a jacket that is so depressingly brown and textured. Nevertheless, your stereotypically fussy sense of style does help me feel like I'm getting my money's worth as a college student."

The Cassava Root. The student is acknowledging that "you do, indeed, seem to be a well-traveled, open-minded, and culturally sensitive person, with all of that colorful clothing you wear from various ethnic traditions. Your pale skin color and Midwestern accent place you somewhere north of Des Moines, but from the look of that dress, you may also be an honorary member of a West African tribe. Way to go."

The Pocket Protector. A student here is congratulating a professor on being unabashedly (or unconsciously) nerdy in his or her appearance: "It's clear that you just don't care, and that's awesome. We get a kick out of your functional polyester slacks; limp, faded shirts; and grimy, heavy-framed glasses. Don't change! We feel comforted knowing that none of your valuable research and class-prep time is eaten up with frivolous concerns over wearing same-colored socks, changing your pants every day, or taking any extra time to match up the buttons with the proper buttonholes in that threadbare shirt."

The Piña Colada With a Little Umbrella. The student is simply pointing out that: "Wow, that is a really casual look you've got going there: cruddy sandals, baggy Bermuda shorts, and some sort of open-collared, vacationy-looking shirt. I also notice that shaving and hair-washing are often optional parts of your morning routine. It's hard to believe that a professor could look more lackadaisical about his appearance than a hung-over freshman, but you've pulled it off. Good job at finding a career where you can get away with that."

The Crystal. This icon allows students to say: "Thank you for entertaining us with your loopy New Age persona and aesthetics. That gauzy skirt, peasant blouse, and wild hair may be a poor fashion choice for a sedentary woman in her 50s, but we are grateful that your enthusiasm for Wiccan healing practices, goddess mythologies, and heavy turquoise jewelry appears to distract you from focusing too closely on our half-hearted attempts at writing."

The Harmonica. This is for the securely upper-middle-class prof who enjoys wearing faux working-class garb: scuffed leather boots, aged denim, faded T-shirts, and Teamster-style plaid button-ups. Students can say: "We don't get your fetish for all things Springsteen, and your folky, left-leaning political references are about 40 to 50 years out of date, but we appreciate the laid-back, democratic ambiance you bring to the class. Indeed, it makes it difficult for you to say no to our requests for grade adjustments when you find out that we, too, are from humble, working-class roots."

The Power Tie. This is for the prof who seems to belong (or perhaps has once belonged) in corporate America rather than academe. The student is saying, "You must be a misguided Republican adjunct—a refugee from the downsized business world—or some kind of weird, moonlighting administrator. How else to explain the worn-out black dress shoes, Brooks Brothers shirts with the frayed collars, silk ties that were fashionable maybe 10 years ago, and that heavily gelled hair? Nice job on keeping me distracted from your dry lectures with this fashion conundrum."

In sum, there should be a little something for everyone in my list of alternative icons. I urge the creators of to adopt these suggestions. The egos of thousands of well-intentioned but fashion- and body-challenged professors are in your hands. I await your response, as I sit here sweating from a recent jog, self-consciously squirming in my expensive jeans, funky glasses, and Peruvian shirt, none of which seem to be doing a very good job at hiding my 15 extra pounds.

Kerry Soper is an associate professor in the department of humanities, classics, and comparative literature at Brigham Young University.