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Friday, July 29, 2005

Teaching wardrobe

I enjoyed this first-person essay in the Chronicle yesterday (and it's so rare that I do enjoy the essay!), although I don't share the author's philosophy about dressing for the classroom--and neither do I agree with his generalizations about what our clothing choices say about our teaching philosophies.

Basically, he divides academics into "sharp dressers" and "slobs" and speculates that the former run authoritarian classrooms while the latter are more open and student-focused.

Now, I'm all for wearing whatever makes the instructor feel best about the job she does and whatever she believes best conveys the message she wants conveyed. However, not all of us interpret the same wardrobe choices the same way, and neither will our students (viz. the student of Lang's who apparently didn't take him seriously as an instructor), and I really dislike the suggestion, made only in passing in Lang's article but repeated ad infinitum elsewhere, as in this annoying Inside Higher Ed essay about the tyranny of the necktie, that teachers who "dress up" are somehow uptight, false and rigid--while those who wear Birkenstocks and go unshaven to class are warm and open and automatically convey an atmosphere of comfort and intimacy.

First, this is assuming that students want comfort and intimacy from their professors. Some do, some don't. Second, it's assuming that professors who dress more formally don't value spontaneity or free-form discussion. Again: some do, some don't. And thirdly, of course, it's assuming that spontaneity is always a good thing.

But there are other issues in play that Lang doesn't consider, such as age and gender. I'm 30 years old, and I don't look much older. I also tend to be very informal in my discussion style, occasionally calling the author we're reading "this dude" or referring to one character "talking smack" about another one, or whatever--the same way I talk about my work on this blog. Sometimes I swear in class. What professional attire (skirt/slacks, blouse/sweater, heels) does is license me to be and do all those things without completely losing my authority in the classroom. It also tells the students that what we're doing is important, and that I am a professional--this isn't an encounter group session, and I'm not your sympathetic older sister, and I AM grading you on your work and not on how much I like you as a person.

However, I also happen to really like dressing up, and I fucking loovvve the suit. It's professional, yes, but it's also extremely versatile, and I go nuts when I'm at conferences: I wear a suit every day, adding in the knee boots, or the black fishnet stockings, or the crazy plastic jewelry I bought on eBay as appropriate. That persona--professional, but also sexy and a little eccentric--is absolutely my favorite of my many possible personae.

Because here's the other thing: I believe very strongly in having different wardrobe "registers" for different occasions: when I'm hanging out with friends, duh, I'm in jeans and a tank top. When I'm going to a party, or to see a play, I probably put on a skirt or a funky top and add an interesting handbag. And when I'm going to the opera--even if it's for the nosebleed, student-discount seats--I may well pull out the secondhand fur stole and some rhinestones.

Not everyone feels this way, of course, and that's totally fine with me; in theory, I guess I understand the desire to be some imagined authentic self, all the time (although, really: why does that authentic self have to be wearing a polo shirt and cargo shorts?). But please spare me the lectures about how "restrictive" suits are, or the raised eyebrows and the, "I didn't know you OWNED sneakers!" when you run into me on the street. Dude, you didn't know I owned sneakers because for me they aren't officewear.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 10:37 PM |


Anonymous Anonymous commented at 5:43 AM~  

Loved this blog entry! It's really good. Not read the Chronicle article, will do so this evening, but sounds interesting. From my own experience, my year at uni, actually, the whole course, were about 95% female, with only one female lecturer who everybody LOVED. She was very elegant and very well dressed, but that's not to say she only had one style. Having said that, if she wore suits, we'd assume she was going on to a meeting and say, "ooh, she's power-dressing, someone's for it" sort of thing. And we'd sometimes comment when one of the male lecturers dressed funkier... But really, the woman had a wardrobe, and she wore all sorts whilst still looking very elegant, smart or not, so I wouldn't have said dress makes a great deal of difference, unless, of course, it is wholly inappropriate and thus distracting. I must read the article this evening...

Blogger What Now? commented at 11:47 AM~  

Now what do you wear on days in which you only have office hours and no class sessions? I don't wear jeans on class days, but I will wear them on days in which I only have office hours, and sometimes this seems completely inconsistent to me. But I'm not sure my students actually notice the difference.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 12:12 PM~  

Hey, thanks, Clare!

WN--I definitely dress more casually on days I'm not teaching, including wearing jeans or cords. In a sense this is inconsistent, but to me the settings and circumstances are different, and if students even notice, I think they register that the role I'm playing is slightly different, more informal. I also might wear jeans to class if, say, there are 2 feet of snow on the ground--again: different circumstances.

In a way, I think it's the contrast that *highlights* the professionalism of the classroom--the fact that I DON'T dress like that all the time. It makes them aware (again, to the extent that they notice!) that I take teaching, and their class, seriously enough to dress like an adult.

(I remember an experience like Clare's, actually, from when I was an undergrad--the prof of one class, who was quite a sharp dresser, was observing our TA-led section one afternoon, and he wore jeans! And boots! And my friend and I talked about that endlessly; we loved getting that hint that he had another life, and sensing that there were other depths to his personality--but as a lecturer? And particularly as a young, funny, and rather short guy? We'd definitely not have taken him as seriously if he'd dressed like that for the podium.)

Blogger BrightStar commented at 9:39 PM~  

I wear fairly professional clothes during the school year, but this summer, my first summer as a professor on contract, I have been really casual at work. I don't know if it's OK to show up to a meeting with colleagues in flip flops and shorts, but they haven't seemed to mind -- it's summer!! Otherwise, I'm not cool with teaching in t-shirts or jeans or whatever... but in my field, our students are either professionals or professionals-in-training, so we're supposed to model professionalism when we teach them. Maybe the subject area a person teaches in somewhat affects the wardrobe choices, in some cases?

Blogger shrinkykitten commented at 11:55 PM~  

I think too that there are sex differences at play here. I have never had a female prof wear shorts/t-shirts or even jeans. Male profs? Oh yeah. Were the men still accorded respect and authority? Yup. Would a woman? Dunno, doubt it. I think women *need* to dress (and behave) a certain way in order to get the kind of respect and authority men are bestowed automatically.

This is one reason I hate teaching in warmer weather: it is harder to dress professionally, and I feel it affects how students see me.

Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway commented at 6:29 PM~  

LOVE this post, and totally agree! I do the "formal" classroom dress thing, and while it gives me some authority, I also run a very informal classroom, in the sense that there's lots of discussion and I'll use informal language (though I don't usually swear). I don't care if someone else wears jeans (one of my teaching idols, a woman, wears nothing but jeans and flannel shirts/sweatshirts/t-shirts, though on the first day of class she often wears a sweater over a collared shirt), but I don't "feel" like a teacher in jeans. But that doesn't mean that my teaching is necessarily severe or restrictive, either. Just professional (and this *is* a profession, I'm not someone's mom or sister, and I want students to take what I do seriously as a professional job).

Plus, I just like skirts/heels/dresses better than jeans! Cool clothes are a pleasure!

Oh, and whenever I run into someone from school in workout clothes, for instance, they always take forever to recognize me, and then flip out about how different I look. Um, yeah, because I don't wear workout gear to teach in!

Blogger Professor B commented at 10:07 PM~  

Interesting. I usually try to 'dress up' when I know I am going to be having contact with the students or lecturing. For me, this usually takes the form of wearing a tie, although not always. I don't think I've ever lectured in jeans.

I know that many times around campus, especially during the summer or days when I'm not teaching, I have been mistake for a student when I 'dress down'.

I tend to think I run a pretty informal classroom, especially for an engineering class. The tie is just a way for me to distinguish myself from students who aren't much younger than me anyway. I tried facial hair for a brief period, but it wasn't pretty...

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 4:37 AM~  

Complete and total agreement, this is pretty exactly what I do, and you stated it superbly, especially "What professional attire ... does is license me to be and do all those things without completely losing my authority in the classroom." New prof, female, 30 and look younger--dressing up to teach balances out my informal style. And I also have registers--for teaching, for office hours, for days when I won't see students, for summers--and those are just the registers that apply to going to campus. I once explained the office hours register to two friends (librarian and prof), but they looked at me quite strangely.

And I also deal in personae, as you do. For a long time I refused to go to bars without going home and switching from glasses to contact lenses.

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