Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 25: Dressing the Part

This post is sparked by this article about unwritten dress codes in academia. The perspective is doubly foreign, in the literal geographic sense (it’s about Oxford) and in the disciplinary sense (it’s about science); it’s also more about women’s fashion than men’s. But it got me thinking about sartorial choices, and reminded my of the campus visit for my current position. I wore a suit, because I have been taught to believe that, for a man, it’s a requirement for an interview. This campus, though, is in Florida and on a lake. Nobody wears a suit. Even long-sleeved shirts are relatively uncommon. I was asked, as part of the interview, about teaching discussion classes, and the conversation drifted to classroom authority. I mentioned that I’d rarely had problems in that area, and one of the committee members commented, “if you always dress like that, I’d imagine not.” The comment was not at all ill-natured, but it did highlight a clear distinction between how students react to professors’ clothes and how other faculty might.

As a graduate student I read an article about his topic that seriously changed my approach. (I think it was in the Chronicle, but haven’t been able to find it). The point was this: consciously or unconsciously, when we step in front of a classroom we send a message to our students. Included in that message is, “people who learn this subject look like this.” A sloppily-dressed faculty member sends a potentially negative message: if you learn this material, you’ll become unkempt like me. When I read the article I was preparing to teach a first-year writing class, and I made decision, to which I stuck. I wore a suit jacket and dress pants (not jeans) to every class, and would leave the jacket on rather than draping it over a chair. The data is small and indicates correlation rather than causation, but in that class I received the best student evaluations I’ve had.

But there’s a tradeoff, as the article about Oxford makes clear: how you dress sends a message to colleagues, too. And the message might be, “that person spends time on how they look, which probably means they’re not a serious scholar.” James M. Lang makes a related point in his Chronicle piece from several years ago, “Looking Like a Professor.” Lang links clothing choices with teaching style, arguing that “sharp dressers” take a more authoritarian approach while “extreme casual” dressers lead more egalitarian, discussion-based classes. In the humanities, where egalitarian discussions are the norm, this might result, as apparently at Oxford, in a slight disdain for “sharp dressers.”

I don’t think I quite fall into Lang’s “sharp dresser” category, but I lean more that direction than the other. Weather permitting (which is rare, in Florida) I might still wear a jacket to class, and when teaching I always wear a dress shirt and pants (rarely jeans). On those rare occasions when I’ve worn a suit — because I had a Skype interview, for example, or because I was giving a public presentation — other faculty have noticed, and commented. I’ve never felt any negative vibe at all, it’s just outside the norm.

This might not be a question most faculty consider when they start a new job: between learning the way around campus and putting syllabi together, there’s plenty to do. But first impressions matter, and it’s worth considering how we want out students and colleagues to view us.

Do you give much thought to how you dress when you teach, or when you’re on campus and not teaching? Do you consider your students more, or other faculty? Have you changed your style since beginning a new job?


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