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And more on Sartorial splendour

26 January, 2008

And more on sartorial splendour

This has been yet another week of busy, so I’ve missed some good blogging. Today I was at New Kid’s, and found a typically sensible and strong essay, this time on the latest Thomas Hart Benton essay in the CHE. In it, Benton talks about the effects of dressing less casually (or as he thinks of it, more formally) on his interactions with students. New Kid responds to part of his essay with a:

Well, DUH! And I also wanted to say, Any woman professor could have told you that. Well, okay, maybe almost any is more accurate. Because while I know there are lots of women out there who teach (brilliantly and successfully) in very casual clothes, I have also had the same conversation with lots and lots of women faculty – the conversation in which we agree that in order to project a certain authority in the classroom, we dress formally for teaching.*

And those of us who feel this way have reached this conclusion long before our first post-tenure year.

Because we’ve HAD to figure it out – because students respond very differently to men and women teachers.

New Kid rightly points out the gender issues of professional dress, and the comment thread is packed with good and thoughtful points on gender, dress, and authority in the classroom. I realised I had such a lot to say about these things — not particularly in the most organised way, because really, I need to drag my ass to the gym and get a ton of work done today. So apologies for the lack of careful crafting.

I teach on a campus where there are no real dress standards. I like that. I’d like to think it doesn’t really make a difference what I wear, but you know, it does. Our undergraduate population comes largely from a demographic where the only people who go by ‘Dr’ are men. Pretty much every freshman male automatically calls female faculty ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ (hardly ever that nasty feminist ‘Ms’), and the male faculty ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’. Why yes, this is one of the first teaching moments in any of my classes! Of course, the fact that the most influential people on our coaching staff continually refer to us (especially women faculty who don’t seem to understand that we need to support our athletes by letting them slide) by our social titles doesn’t help. I have to say, I find it pretty amusing that a couple of my colleagues (male and female) have received nasty emails from these folks addressed to ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’, yet signed, ‘Coach’ or ‘X, Athletic Director’.

I know, I’ve moved quickly from student perceptions to peer perceptions. The thing is, for me, I know I can get away with teaching in jeans, if I really want to. That is, I can walk into a classroom and teach in jeans, and my authority is not all that diminished. I’m questionably fortunate in that my students frequently find me intimidating. One brand new student actually told me s/he needed to speak to me because s/he loved my class but also dreaded having to show up and participate in class discussions run by a particular barbarian chieftain who showed up in Rome in 451. I’ve had colleagues tell me I’m intimidating, too — especially male colleagues. I’ve been accused (or complimented) for ‘communicating like a man’ and ‘having big brass ones’. Whatever it is, and really, I think what people find intimidating is that I question them. I ask students to defend their assertions, and expect them to be able to back up what they say. And, like any good bull terrier (which I’ve just realised I may physically resemble in shape of nose — if I were using bird allusions, it really would be aquiline — and constant smile, even when going for the throat), I tend not to drop a subject in class until I’ve got my point across. Ok, I sometimes do go off on wild tangents, but I always come back. So maybe a bull terrier with some Golden Retriever or Irish Setter. What do I know? I’m a cat person. So … I can maintain my classroom authority in blue jeans.

But … I hardly ever wear jeans of any colour in the classroom. I have some nice cords that I’ll wear with nice pullovers or jackets, and I don’t wear suits, because that’s not our campus culture — at least not in our College. But I try to look grown up, professional, and put-together. I take myself more seriously when I show up looking tidy and with my hair and face done, and so do my students. With them, it balances the fact that I run a very relaxed classroom. It also makes it easier to enforce my ‘no pajamas and slippers in class’ rule. But you know, as I read New Kid’s essay, I realised that my dress issues are really less about my students than they are about my peers, and far, far less about my peers in the College than they are about my peers in the professional Schools, administrators, and middle-management types. Those are the places where image is most important.

My College at SLAC is, and has been, the poor stepchild for almost its whole existence. We are seen as serving the needs of the Schools, by providing the core curriculum so that their students can go on to earn Degrees That Mean Something. To be fair, there has been a push to change that for about 10 years, but the fact that College faculty do the vast majority of teaching in terms of both personal loads (4-4 or 4-3, as opposed to 3-2 or 2-2) and the range and number of courses taught. Since I joined SLAC, publication requirements have been added, because our brethren (there are few sistren) in the Schools believe that we must raise our scholarly profile. The faculty of the Schools wear suits and ties. Casual dress for them is neatly pressed khakis, button-down shirts, and ties. They polish their shoes. I now sit on a couple of campus-wide committees. Meetings often fall on my non-teaching days. The guys in facilities have mentioned that they know when I’m teaching by what I’m wearing. They call me by my first name (as they do most of the College faculty they like), and they treat some of us as equals in a ‘we’re all here together to make this place work’ way — which I think is how it should be. This semester, they aren’t so sure. Why? Because I’m dressing for my peers.

I mentioned that I’m on a couple campus-wide committees, right? I’m the only College rep, and often the only woman. I’m frequently the junior person (in rank, not age — or I’d be really screwed). And I am frequently ignored. Despite the fact that I am on one committee precisely because I have more expertise in the business side of something we are dealing with, and as much or more expertise in the academic side, my contributions are (usually) politely listened to, and then dismissed. Part of this is the top-down nature of SLAC, I think, but it has only recently occurred to me that I am loaded with perceived disadvantages. I know — it took me a year to figure this out? D’uh! I also have a feeling that I’m on these committees because of the bull terrier thing. Superdean, who has his own bull mastiff (or possibly bull in a china shop) qualities, trusts me not to do what lots of my College peers do in the same situation, i.e., just give up and stop going to the meetings. Me? I guess I’ll be pulling out my old industry clothes and dressing like people in the Schools. I don’t know how much it will help, but hey, I’m thinking that in this case, clothes are a medium, and the medium is the message.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 January, 2008 6:35 pm

    Your nose is not terrier like!I think what bugs me about these general pronouncements on clothing is that they seem to suggest that you can dress some way out of context. What I like about your post is that you talk about how the same outfit might be perceived in different contexts. For me, what might conceivably improve my stature with students (dressing business casual or better) and a great impression on administrators would make a negative impression on my colleagues, who really prefer to let it all hang out and think that the lack of a dress code in the classroom is one of the advantages of our job. And even within these groups there are shadings, so that a pantssuit would probably go much further with my lecture classes than with my seminars…which for me brings up the point of how you interact with your own clothing. The best business casual in the world will not lend you more authority if you undermine it with your posture, your vocabulary, or your manners.

  2. 27 January, 2008 4:48 pm

    I agree; not terrier-like.I also agree that peer perceptions are shaped by our presence. A big example for me is that one of our hardest working Eng profs – who teaches massive international comp classes – has been routinely discouraged from applying for promotion or tenure. Looking at her colleagues w/in her department and knowing her ethic, I think such discouraging attitudes are based less in her abilities and more in her presence. Her attire is more suited to WalMart stocking clerks than a SLAC academic. Her colleagues are consistently business casual: dress slacks, sometimes skirts with a jacket. And she’d be furious if anyone mentioned it.

  3. 27 January, 2008 5:14 pm

    Eek! That’s scary, Belle! And both of you … Bull terrier, not any terrier! But perhaps I should stick to aquiline!

  4. 27 January, 2008 5:45 pm

    I think I would also be annoyed if someone commented on my dress as inappropriate. One of the things that continues to make the career attractive to me is that there is no real “uniform”. Most people see what they wear as an important extension of themselves–even people who dress poorly, who see it as evidence that dress does not matter to them, which can be an important value. For a lot of people, career advancement would not be worth it if it meant dressing differently.

  5. 27 January, 2008 9:46 pm

    I completely agree with VCE (and I think this came up on NK’s post, too, in re: job candidates who look comfortable in suits and those who don’t)–the clothes you wear have to suit your personality. Or as they sometimes say, wear your clothes, don’t let them wear you.I’m on record as being a big fan of the suit and more formal clothing, but that’s how I am in daily life, too. But like you, ADM, I also think there are a lot of elements that go into a well-run classroom. I dress very professionally (though with some wacky elements), and I’m known for being a hardass with grades and expectations. . . but I’m very colloquial and informal in my speech and run a pretty relaxed classroom. It sounds like you’re the same–and to me, that all balances out in an effective way.(Oh, and I have a friend who divides the human population into two types: golden retrievers and dobermans. He and I are friends because we’re both the latter.)

  6. 2 February, 2008 11:04 am

    No dog-like comparisons occurred to me and I can’t come up with one now either. Interesting post though. I have noticed how as researchers get further through their careers they often get dressier. I taught in my usual shirt and jeans rig when I started back in 2003, partly because I was only doing seminars and it was one way of seeming on more of a level with the students I wanted to do most of the talking. In fact, given that this was at Birkbeck, a lot of them were better dressed than me in business or retirement suits… But when lecturing recently I tended to favour a suit, and that was mainly because I wanted to leave a good impression in the faculty, that I was taking things seriously, but it also helped me feel more like an authority and so justified in standing up and dominating a classroom for fifty minutes. What the students thought I have no idea, and what the faculty thought I never checked; it was mainly magic for my own head.You’re looking at this from a much more complicated perspective, of course, partly because of the gender barrier, which is weaker at KCL anyway because of Jinty Nelson being there for so long, but which I don’t have to cross, and also because you’re dealing with branches of the structure that I wasn’t. But it still makes me think I could have been thinking harder. Next time I might even be able to afford time and money to buy so as to dress accordingly…

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