Dear Ms. Scholar, I am a new faculty member and started the year off wearing blue jeans, but now that I’m looking around at my colleagues, many of whom are wearing ties or dresses. I’m now questioning my dress code decision. What do you think?
Dear Dress Code, The choices you make in your first professional position are always a bit risky, including in how you dress: you want to be true to yourself, but also fit in.
Some departments have clear messages about what one should do in a number of realms (e.g., how you dress, how long to be in your office each day, how to talk to students, how active to be on campus committees). They may actively mentor new faculty into the departmental culture.
In other departments, this isn’t as clear. Who do they expect you to be? What do they expect from you? As there are many ways that you can behave that are true to you, it can be helpful to ask your colleagues about their expectations. On the other hand, you can observe those people on campus who you look up to and use them as models.
Clothing tells people about us. Many of our students are particularly aware of dress, fashion, and style. What we wear may help us announce that we are competent adults rather than the kids that many of us look and feel like when we first enter academia. More professional dress may help create a boundary between students and faculty, when little initially differentiates the two in terms of age or culture. It may also communicate your respect of your students or your field. Maybe this attitude is left over from my Catholic church-attending days.
On the other hand, how much of a barrier do we want between our students and ourselves? Perhaps this is a personal choice tied to our ideas about pedagogies. Ms. Scholar has three friends who are all respected faculty members, each of whom make notably different decisions about teaching apparel.
When Ms. Scholar first took a position in academe, there were repeated stories about the relationship between dress and student evaluations. As the story went, men wearing ties earned stronger student evaluations, as did women wearing dresses (or dress clothing).
Some evidence suggests that these are not just stories. Informal dress may increase approachability, but that more professional dress may lead to higher ratings of competence (Basow, 1998). Of course, there are other strategies that can foster perceptions of competence, at least as measured by student evaluations: identify your qualifications the first day of class; nurture but don’t overnurture; and review course goals before student evaluations are completed.
Lavin, Davies, and Carr (2010) argue that the relationship between dress and perceived competence is even more complex, at least among business students. In their sample, three variables contributed most to instructor credibility: level of preparation, knowledge of the subject, and ability to prepare students for their career. However, their research suggests students expect casually-dressed instructors to use more discussion and answer questions, while more formally-dressed instructors are expected to lecture and impart knowledge.
In some ways, choosing a style of dress is tied to the other sorts of questions you ask yourself about pedagogy. Who do you want to be as a professor? What type of boundaries do you want to create between yourself and your students? How can you most effectively help your students meet their learning goals?
Basow, S. A. (1998). The role of gender bias in student evaluations. In L. H. Collings, J. C. Chrisler, and K. Quina (Eds.). Career strategies for women in academe: Arming Athena (pp. 135-156). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Lavin, A., Davies, T., & Carr, D. (2010). The impact of instructor attire on student perceptions of faculty credibility and their own resultant behavior. American Journal of Business Education, 3, 51-62.
If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com