I confess that I have been stewing over this topic, in one form or another, for quite some time. Several weeks ago, a former colleague brought this blog post, by UCLA graduate assistant Natascha Chtena, to my attention: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/appearances-matter
It’s a well-meaning attempt by a graduate teaching assistant to provide style help for other graduate teaching assistants, partially in response to K. David Roach’s 1997 study, “Effects of graduate teaching assistant attire on student learning, misbehaviors, and ratings of instruction.” In addition to including links to style-minded blogs and web sites, Chtena writes,
Of course, I still greatly value clothing as a form of self-expression, but I’ve also realized that more burning than my desire to have fun with clothes, is my desire to do my job well and protect myself from anything that can potentially undermine my status in class. And I’ve come to accept that safer is always better: teaching simply is one of those jobs where you have to be really conservative and pulled together.
I wonder, how many of us consider ourselves, as teachers, to be engaged in a profession “where you have to be really conservative”? In my personal experience, I’ve seen quite a range of styles of dress amongst my coworkers, and my own choices regarding dress and appearance vary considerably depending on a variety of factors, including weather, classroom environment, and how far I’m likely to have to walk from my car to my office on a given day. I decided to do a little research to discover what university policy is regarding professional attire. It turns out that the employee handbook does have a brief section addressing attire and personal appearance. Since the handbook is meant to cover all university employees, however, its guidelines are incredibly broad, and basically summed up in the statement, “Montclair State University’s commitment to excellence requires standards of personal appearance from staff that are consistent with departmental needs and with the expectations of our customers” (“University Policies”).
Interestingly, the language of the employee handbook harks back to an article that was already hovering in the back of my mind when I read Chtena’s post, Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” Edmundson’s article, originally published in Harper’s in 1997, points out what he sees as a trend toward commercialization in higher education. For instance, Edmundson observes, “as I began looking around, I came to see that more and more of what’s going on in the university is customer driven. The consumer pressures that beset me on evaluation day are only a part of an overall trend” (283). When we start talking about “the expectations of our customers,” I think it’s pretty clear that Edmundson has a point about what’s going on in the university culture.
To what extent, though, when our “customers” are our students, are we required to meet their “expectations” in the matter of personal appearance? When it comes to the expectations of my colleagues or superiors in my department, I think it’s safe to assume there is a certain expected standard of modesty, neatness, and professionalism, and while there may be some slight individual variation on this standard, I think we could come to a consensus fairly easily about what is appropriate and what is not. Yet when it comes to students, their expectations are both harder to predict and potentially more questionable. I agree with Edmundson when he declares, “I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting” (279), but I often feel that students judge me (and my fellow instructors) on my ability to do these things. Moreover, this judgment seems to extend beyond factors that are within our control, such as teaching style, syllabus content, and classroom demeanor, as well as attire and basic personal grooming, to factors over which we have little to no control, including appearance-related factors such as gender, age, race, and body type.
Consider, for instance, the “chili pepper” on ratemyprofessors.com. While we may not take this site particularly seriously as an assessment of our value or skill as instructors, some students do. And one of the things that students are invited to rate is instructors’ appearance. Specifically, they are asked to provide feedback on whether or not their professors are “hot.” So while the university’s expectations may be for neat and professional appearances, it seems that our students may be judging with a different set of criteria in mind. And if our students are our “customers,” exactly whose expectations are we attempting to meet?
This question is further complicated, I feel, by those factors of appearance that we are least able to control, particularly age and gender. I can only speak from my own perspective as a woman (and I would love to hear from some of my male colleagues in the field on this topic), but I am wholly convinced that while appearance matters for everyone in this society, appearance-based judgments are more frequently applied to women, and more heavily weighted when it comes to evaluating a woman’s overall “worth.” As supporting evidence, I could point out that the majority of the earlier studies on the “general effects of attire” on perceptions of individuals cited in Roach’s article focused specifically on women’s attire and appearances (Roach 126, 127).
In the classroom, this difference takes on particular significance, because I get the impression that female instructors are not automatically afforded the same level of authority and respect from students as their male counterparts. I don’t mean to say that women cannot achieve the same levels, or that men cannot lose their students’ respect, but that when we first start out, students are more likely to assume that a male instructor is “in charge” of his classroom and subject matter. The recent appearance in my university email inbox of an ad for a “professional development” seminar, entitled, “Communication Skills for Women: How to achieve confidence, credibility, and composure in the workplace,” would seem to support this observation, since it’s apparently based on the general societal assumption that women need to be taught how to “achieve confidence and credibility” (not to mention composure) in a professional environment. If any of my male colleagues have received invitations to participate in similarly targeted seminars for men, I would love to hear about it, but until I do, I’m going to run with my observation that women (and particularly young women) are not automatically seen as “natural” authority figures in the classroom.
In this situation, I believe appearance can be used as a tool to help establish authority and professionalism, but for many instructors (both male and female), using personal appearance can present a tricky balancing act. Remember the passage I quoted earlier from Chtena’s blog post, where she describes part of her motivation for editing her appearance as to “protect myself from anything that can potentially undermine my status in class”? (And incidentally, she begins the entire post with the disclaimer that, “this post was written with female readers in mind.”) If I dress too formally, or too “stodgily,” there’s a risk of creating a first impression that leads to too great a sense of distance between my students and myself, which manifests as a lack of attention and interest in anything I have to say. If I dress too casually or “trendily,” I risk inviting students to act too familiarly, to treat me like a peer rather than their instructor, and to misbehave, because they don’t see me as having the authority to enforce classroom rules and policies. Studies like Roach’s (although focused on graduate teaching assistant attire) indicate that an instructor who is perceived as unattractive may fail to earn students’ respect and thus have less influence over students. So in order to be an effective instructor, I need to look somewhat attractive. Yet if I look too “attractive,” I become a distraction in and of myself to at least some students. (This blog is not the place for horrifying personal anecdotes on that topic, but believe me, I have some. I’m sure many of those reading this post have a few good ones as well.) There is clearly a lot more to consider on this topic than whether to wear jeans or slacks, sneakers or heels, when we dress for the classroom.
In all seriousness, I am sure that students weigh factors such as scheduling and the potential to earn an A far more heavily than “chili pepper” rating when choosing classes and professors, but the fact that such ratings exist in the first place and are available to students means that we have to face the possibility of students showing up in our classes with certain expectations about how we may look. This might not be altogether pleasant to contemplate, but in some ways, I feel that I can try to make our society’s tendency to judge based on appearances work to my advantage. Just as it’s no secret that people in our society make appearance-based judgments, it should not come as a shock to hear that people who are deemed “attractive” are often treated better and afforded more respect. In the end, I firmly believe that the most important factors are what we do in the classroom—what we know, and how we teach it—that determine how effective we are as instructors, and how much our students will respect and obey us. Yet in the first weeks of the semester, when I have not yet had a chance to show my students through my class lectures, written comments, and personal attention to their questions and concerns, that I am a skilled, knowledgeable, and engaged instructor (and I am not automatically assumed to be these things in part because I’m a relatively young woman), if I can coax them into giving me their respect and attention by looking reasonably professional yet attractive, authoritative yet approachable, and “cool” enough…I’m probably going to attempt to take advantage of that ability.
I understand, though, that not every instructor may feel this is a desirable approach to teaching. I’m not sure how entirely comfortable I am with it, either. To be honest, when I began writing this post, I knew it would be unlikely to end with any decided conclusion on how we should handle the intersecting issues of gender and appearance in the classroom. More than just offering “suggestions” for tweaking our appearances to improve interactions with our students, I wanted to open the topic up for discussion. I would particularly like to hear what some of my male colleagues have to say on the topic: Do you also feel that students judge you on your appearance or dress? Do you have to perform a similar “balancing act” when it comes to your appearance in the classroom? And women, have you had experiences that seem similar to mine, or do you think these observations are totally off the mark? Do you agree that we are, in some way, being evaluated on appearance as part of a trend toward “consumer-driven” education in the university? And if so, should we bow to this trend, or resist it? What do you want to say about this topic?
Chtena, Natascha. “Appearances Matter.” GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online. Inside Higher Ed, 11 Sep. 2013. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
Edmundson, Mark. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Ed. Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 277-91. Print.
Roach, K. David. “Effects of graduate teaching assistant attire on student learning, misbehaviors, and ratings of instruction.” Communication Quarterly. 45.3 (1997): 125-41. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
“University Policies/Regulations: Personal Appearance and Dress.” Montclair State University Employee Handbook. Division of Human Resources, Montclair State University. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.