Saturday, August 13, 2005


The teacher, the class, and the wardrobe

Mel has two interesting posts wondering about what professors should (or should not) wear in the classroom, and she points to three recent articles in the Chronicle on the same subject. Mel's second post also points to Profgrrrrl's post on these pieces.

Like Mel, I don't think that one could formulate universal rules of dress for professors, in part because the kinds of things that clothes signify can depend on the part of the country you're in, what kind of school you're teaching at, what kinds of clothes your students wear, etc., etc. And I also agree with Mel that clothes are only one part of the many signals that we send to our students in the classroom--signals about what we are like, what our class will be like, what we expect of students, what we expect of ourselves, etc. etc. Still, after those considerations are taken into account, I also agree with Mel that
To claim that our dress and self-presentation has no impact on students is as false I think as it would be to say that it is the only thing that matters. It's one of many things that mix into the equation. But it is something that we have control over (I can't change my height, for instance) and is therefore worth thinking about.
The one thing I would add to Mel's points--and the points made by the Chronicle authors--is that our clothing as professors is not just about self-presentation, or at least it doesn't have to be. Most of the comments in these posts and articles have to do with what we communicate about ourselves by what we wear: are we trying to exude authority or accessibility? are we dressing to impress? are we trying to draw a clear and visible distinction between ourselves from our students?

But dress does not just communicate things about us; it can also communicate things about occasions. When I wear a tie and jacket to a wedding or a funeral, my clothing has less to do with recognizing me than it does with my recognition that these events are uniquely meaningful. I'm not primarily saying something about my self so much as I am saying something about the social setting I am in--its seriousness and significance.

In my experience teaching so far, I have usually worn at least a tie to class, and if not a tie then a jacket, and if not a tie or a jacket, at least a button-down shirt and slacks. When I reflect on why, I'm sure part of it has to do (as it has for Mel) with my closeness in age to my students. But I think it also has to do with my wanting to communicate to students that class is an important part of my day and week, that I take it seriously. There's certainly a way in which one could communicate this message in an overbearing way, but I don't think that dressing "up" a bit necessarily puts students off, especially when the other signals that one sends as a teacher make the classroom feel open and the instructor accessible.

A couple of years ago I read Parker Palmer's book The Courage to Teach, and it's one of those books that has risen in my estimation retrospectively; I appreciate things about it now that I didn't really get when I was reading it. One of the things Palmer stresses is that many of our choices as teachers can be governed either by fear or by courage. "As a teacher," says Palmer, "I am at my worst when fear takes the lead in me, whether that means teaching in fear of my students [e.g. worrying that they will see through the mask of authoritativeness that I put up] or manipulating their fears of me [e.g. putting up a mask of authoritativeness]." In contrast to letting fear take the lead in our teaching, Palmer urges us to let our teaching be shaped by what he calls the "grace of great things." When we teach a class, we are inviting our students to gather with us around the "great things" that our discipline studies--its motivating questions, its central themes, its practical applications. These are the things that drew us to our disciplines in the first place, but fear of students (or of administrators or colleagues) often distracts us from those "great things" and makes our selves the primary object of our focus as teachers.

One thing I need to think more about is whether this distinction could have relevance to my wardrobe choices. Am I dressing "up" to keep the fear at bay? The fear that my students will not respect me, that they will discover gaps in my knowledge, that my colleagues will think of me as a subaltern rather than a peer? Or am I dressing "up" for the same reason I dress up to go to a wedding--because when I teach, I want to communicate to my students that we are in the presence of "great things"? If sometimes I know the answer has more to do with fear, I want at least to aspire to be a teacher for whom the "grace of great things" casts out fear.

I wonder, on the other hand, whether my freedom to muse on these things is in part a luxury. I'm aware that clothing and self-presentation does have to do with local politics and power structures within different universities; I'm sure I am to some extent free from the kind of surveillance, formal or informal, that is focused on the wardrobes of other academics. That's why I wouldn't want to make these reflections into some kind of categorical imperative. But I do think it's interesting that discussions of our sartorial choices as professors tend to center almost exclusively on what they communicate to our students about ourselves. Is it possible that our clothes also send a signal to our students (again, only one signal among many) about how we regard class as a "special occasion" of sorts, special because of the significance that we invest in our areas of study? I'm not saying that sense of significance can only be conveyed by dressing "up," but I do think it can be a reason for dressing "up" that is at least partly distinguishable from a desire to perform a certain self-image in the classroom.

Collective Improvisation:
Great post. Absolutely, the institutional context, event context, chronological context, all are part of the mix too. My looking professional in the classroom is, like yours, in part a recognition that what we do there is serious, is work, even when it is also playful or enjoyable.

Although some would say that you can never escape the self -- in wearing jacket & tie to a wedding, you are displaying your respect for convention or tradition, or respect for the people involved in the ceremony, etc. But I agree with your overall point that the self is always in dialogue with history, institutions, rituals, and others. 

Posted by Mel

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/13/2005 07:16:00 PM : Permalink  

I agree that this is a thoughtful post. The two questions I'd raise is: how will my colleagues interpret the "dressy" clothes? How will the students interpret them?

As you acknowledge, context matters a lot. While I wouldn't want to endorse conformity for the sake of conformity, what the other faculty members wear is also a clue. If one is in a department that's a little on the casual side, eager attempts at "communicating significance" through clothes might invite speculation, fairly or not, that the person is overcompensating and is insecure.

Similarly, students might be distracted if the instructor's wardrobe is so out of whack with their other teachers. I like and agree with the sentiment of wanting to dress up for special events. Yet if wearing a coat and tie makes you stand out like a sore thumb relative to other faculty, you might unintentionally be making the self-image obstruct the "special occasion" you hoped to emphasize in the first place.  

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/14/2005 12:23:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comments.

Mel's absolutely right that I'm overdrawing the distinction between "self" and "social context" for the sake of making a rhetorical point. It's of course true that even by conveying the significance of a social setting in some particular way, we are also communicating something about ourselves. The point I wanted to make is that our clothes aren't just  saying something about ourselves.

I think that point is worth making because at least one of the Chronicle articles seemed to imply that dressing up was somehow inherently egocentric. The Lang piece in particular suggested that "sharp dressers" tended to be self-centered teachers; my point was just that dressing up can also be a way of centering attention outside of oneself, or at least a way of focusing attention on my relationship to a social setting, a subject matter, to other people, etc.

I also absolutely agree with Jim E. that context matters a lot, and that different institutional cultures ought to shape at least some of the choices we make, not only in how we dress but in how we teach. But as my comments above indicate, I also want to undermine--at least provisionally--the reasoning that would make anyone assume that a "sharp dresser" must be insecure. They could be, but it's not true that they must be.

I like Jim's point, though, that wanting to convey significance needs to always be balanced with the desire not to "stand out like a sore thumb" too. The wedding analogy makes that plain as well. If I show up wearing a formal tux to someone else's intimate, backyard wedding ceremony, I'm drawing attention to myself even if my intention is to draw attention to the event. My main point is just that when I teach, I want as much as possible to draw attention away from myself qua teacher and towards the "great things" that I want students to contemplate and wrestle with and consider along with me. And I don't think dressing up necessarily militates against that goal, as Lang seems to suggest.

My wedding analogy may create a little bit of a red herring here, because it calls to mind especially formal wear. I only offer the ceremony as an example of how clothes communicate more than self-image. I don't mean that teachers have to wear what they would wear to a wedding in order to mark class as a "special occasion." Far, far from it. As I said and as Mel emphaizes, there are many things that communicate how we view the significance of teaching, and clothes probably aren't the most important things among them. Some of the teachers I had as an undergraduate who were especially adept at directing my gaze to the "great things" wore shorts and flip-flops; others wore coats and ties. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/14/2005 04:26:00 PM : Permalink  

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