what (not?) to wear

In fall 2009 I opted for a wardrobe change and moved from the tshirt/jeans approach to a more formal coat/tie approach. I've had some difficulties with students taking me seriously at times and I attributed some of that to the fact that I look like one of them*. The nature of a small campus also means there are only a handful of faculty members so I see the same students for multiple semesters in a row. Switching to a more formal attire was an effort on my part to assert a visual reminder that I, in fact, am not one of their peers.

Recently I surveyed my students on professor attire. I provided them the following choices:
  • Faculty should wear a suit and tie.
  • Faculty should at least wear a suit and no tie.
  • Faculty should at least wear a coat, khakis, dress shirt, and tie.
  • Faculty should at least wear a coat, dress shirt, khakis.
  • Faculty should wear at least a coat, casual button down shirt, and casual pants (non-jeans).
  • Faculty should wear at least casual button down shirt (jeans as pants are okay).
  • Wear whatever. It doesn't matter to me.

86% of my students responded to the survey with the following distribution:

So, going by the response, if I were to dress with a sport coat, casual shirt, and casual pants, but no jeans, I would satisfy 81% of the students. I also asked for comments explaining their choice. Many of them indicated course content is more important than the professor's attire but a few commented on how professors should dress to reflect their professional position.

The rationale for the shift to more formal attire was an experiment to see if, in my case, it made a difference. Between my young appearance and successive semesters with students, it's hard to not develop an informal rapport with the students. In many ways, this level of informality is a good thing. Students often feel more comfortable in class, talk more, send more emails and tend to utilize office hours more frequently than others (that's still not all that much but there's a difference). Much like a parent who tries to skirt the line between friend and parent to their child, this leads to problems when it comes time to enforce boundaries such as due dates and bad grades.

The question, of course, is, "Did it work?" I don't know that I have any way to really assess that. The only quantifiable indicator I have comes from student evaluations and over the two years my overall scores did improve a bit. There are a lot of factors that could account for that change but I don't think I changed the approach to my courses that much over the semesters. For one group, they only knew me tie-clad and their evaluations were the same as the classes that saw the switch.

I was discussing this with a colleague and he remarked, "Why would you let the students decide how you dress?" This made me reflect more on what I was doing. In some ways, yes, I suppose I am letting the students influence my appearance. Still, dress is part of establishing a proper environment. Personally, though, I found it a bit more than that. For the two years of the experiment, there was something about the ritual of getting dressed. I always had to shave, I had to pay attention to what shirts and ties went with what pants and coat. And, no matter how I felt, the ritual was the same. It's akin to an athlete putting on a uniform.

Going forward, I'll probably reserve the khakis, ties, and dress shirts for the more formal things I need to attend. I will go back to casual button-downs and pants. It's more my style anyway. I feel more comfortable.

* When I first arrived on campus in my early 30s, I looked more mid-20s. A decade, two kids, and a tenure process later, I am probably starting to look more my age, for whatever that's worth.

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