A friend shared this image, a poster from the BYU Honor Code office, and a parody of that poster from the Student Review. Yes, that’s James Bond being used as a positive example, a guy who follows the BYU Honor Code. Clean-shaven and all. Also a womanizer who kills people for a living, but let’s not quibble over nuances.
A couple of points worth making about the BYU Honor Code. First of all, every college in America has an Honor Code. They may not call it that, exactly, but every school has one. If you’re caught cheating on a test, or plagiarizing, you’ll get in trouble. If you’re a serial sexual harasser, or have multiple DUIs on your record, you’ll get in trouble; state schools, private schools. BYU is not unique in having an Honor Code.
Where BYU is unique is what sorts of things the Honor Code includes. You can’t drink, smoke, drink coffee or chew tobacco. You can’t have sex with anyone, unless you’re married. BYU cares what clothes you wear and, if you’re a guy, the length and location of your facial hair. Tattoos are not allowed, nor are multiple piercings. Here are the actual rules, if you’re interested. BYU is a university where students are not allowed to drink or fool around. Yeah, BYU’s unique.
I taught at BYU for twenty years. And my feelings about the Honor Code were, to be honest, conflicted. Obviously, some provisions of the Honor Code were there because it’s a Church sponsored school, with its own institutional take on the doctrine of in loco parentis. Other rules were just public relations. BYU wanted students to look a certain way, clean-cut and well scrubbed. That part always struck me as silly. I couldn’t care have cared less how my students wore their hair, or their shorts were knee length. I used to get the giggles, thinking of the Honor Code committee, and how comically solemn committee meetings usually were anyway, and then add sober-sided administrators issuing Talmudic disquisitions on hair or skirt length to the agenda, and ROFL.
But personally, I was actually kind of grateful for the grooming stuff. Here’s why; my preferred mode of dress and grooming is basically that of a hobo. Left to my own devices, I absolutely would have worn my hair to the waist, gotten my ears pierced, festooned my visible bits with tattoos. I’m essentially a hippie at heart. I would certainly have sported any number of styles of beard. Faded and patched jeans, Grateful Dead tee shirts, Hawaiian shirts; heck, I wouldn’t have put anything past me. Lava lavas. Kilts. Jodhpurs.
In short, I would have looked like a pathetic middle-aged guy desperately clinging to a long-vanished youth, and I would have made a public spectacle of myself. Now, as it happens, I’m also married, and would never have gotten away with any of that. But here’s my larger point: I don’t know how to dress. I don’t care. I don’t just value comfort over style, I value comfort over everything. BYU’s silly rules simplified my life. I had to get a haircut every few months. I had to shave most mornings. And I had to dress decently, wearing clothes my wife bought for me because she didn’t trust me to buy anything for myself, nor should she have done.
So BYU prevented me from following my own misguided sartorial heart, and I’m grateful for it. As a teacher, I didn’t care what anyone wore–I couldn’t be bothered. If I saw a kid with a beard or long hair, I figured he was an actor growing it out for a role. It would never have occurred to me to turn anyone in for anything.
Boy, some people sure care, though. As I understand it, one big issue now has to do with a current fashion popular among young ladies, in which they wear a short skirt with long leggings. This either is or isn’t a violation of the Honor Code, and some people have taken it upon themselves to write nasty notes to perceived offenders, or otherwise chastise them. One joker wrote one to my daughter. Apparently, some guys find some women’s fashions sexually arousing, or something, and think it’s the responsibility of young women to dress in a non-arousing way. “When you dress that way, you don’t know what it does to my relationship to the Spirit.” Or some such self-serving blather. “I’m a spiritual Giant, I am, except for those times when you make me not be one!” Blarg. BYU fauna do include herds of self-righteous dolts–let’s hope they grow out of it.
As a professor I never would have noticed if a girl was dressed inappropriately, because noticing would have required that I look at her, not as a student, but, however briefly, as a sexual object. I said that badly, I think, but I want to make this clear; my students were there to learn from me. My job was to teach. I felt it was my professional obligation to treat all students, male or female, exactly the same–as people who were there to learn. It certainly wasn’t any part of my job to think of any student in any other way. For me to look at a young woman and think ‘I think that skirt is too short’ would have required for me to consider something as irrelevant to the subject matter as the length of her skirt.
But it’s tricky. First of all, I wanted all my students to think of themselves as special, unique, valued. This went beyond trying to remember their names. If a student had distinguished herself in some positive way, I tried to remember that, and refer to it in conversation. If a student had asked me a question about something, I might ask her about it later–‘did you ever find an answer to such and such?’ So I might say something like ‘cute tee shirt,’ if the student was wearing a clever or funny tee shirt. I might say something like ‘did you change your hairstyle? It’s cute.’ Because college aged women do change their hairstyle with some frequency, and like it when people notice. This is going to sound weird, but the persona I tried to cultivate was ‘older gay friend.’ Odd, because I’m not, in fact, gay. Just romantically uninterested/unavailable/unappealing. Just this: there’s a fine line between ‘I like that sweater’ and ‘wow, you’re really hot,’ and I tried to stay on the appropriate side of that line, and I think I generally succeeded.
One thing that helped, I think, is that I’m not an attractive guy. I’m big and I’m not good-looking. When I say this, understand I’m not pathetically begging for sympathy and reassurance. I’m perfectly fine with how I look. Remember–I’m a theatre guy. When I say “I’m fat,” I don’t mean “I’m consumed with self-loathing!” I mean it like an actor: “there are parts I’m right for.”
I was a professor of Theatre, a playwright and a director. And that means being acutely aware of clothing, of social signifiers and cultural constructs, and what message does wearing that outfit send. I did get to work with costume designers, really good ones, and that was sometimes tricky for me, because I really genuinely don’t personally care about clothing. But I do care a great deal about stage picture and the look of a show. So in casting a show, I did have to take looks into consideration. Again, a fine line: I couldn’t allow myself to think ‘that’s a pretty girl,’ but I could allow myself to think ‘she’s an ‘ingenue type;’ probably not right for Lady Capulet.’ I think I engaged in more non-traditional casting than most other directors in the department, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t take looks into account. I do one time recall telling an actress that, although her audition was tremendous, I didn’t think I could cast her, because I thought she was too pretty to be convincing in the role. She showed up to the call-back looking like a complete mess–no makeup, hadn’t showered, she said–wowed me with her acting, and easily won the role.
So the modesty debate is an interesting one, on a lot of levels. It certainly does get caught up in all sorts of issues of sexism and misogyny and how our culture constructs gender and gender roles. So saying ‘I don’t care if that skirt is considered immodest’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m indifferent to issues relating to sexual immorality.’ It means ‘I’m deliberately placing myself outside that particular debate. I’m absenting myself from considering her physical attractiveness. She is, to me, a student. I am, to her, a teacher. And that relationship, teacher/student, is, to me, something holy.’