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April 4, 2011

Professors Should Dress Like Professionals

By Robert Weissberg

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Judged by the recent avalanche of autopsy-like books, American higher education appears troubled. Alleged evil-doers abound, but one culprit escapes unnoticed--the horrific sartorial habits of many of today's professors. Don't laugh. As Oscar Wilde brilliantly observed, only shallow people do not judge by appearances. Indeed, I would argue that much of what plagues today's academy can be traced to an almost total collapse of sartorial standards. When I began my professorial career in 1969 the tweed sport coat and tie was more or less standard. Today, with all too few exceptions, "academic casual," even jeans and tee-shirts is de rigueur. This slide has not been kind to life of the mind.

Many of the academy's ills are traceable to diminished professorial authority. We often feel like "I don't get any respect" Rodney Dangerfield: students day dream, ignore assignments, barely show up, cheat, gossip during class, and send text messages among other contemptuous behaviors. And not even entertaining lectures, grade inflation and dumbed-down syllabi seem able to restore the loss of respect.      

To appreciate the connection between respect for authority and outward appearances, consider the one setting obsessed with maintaining authority --courts. Judges always dress the part though sartorial details vary. Severe black robes are standard while some wear special hats, even wigs and all sit high above the court proceedings. To drive home respect, judges are addressed with "your honor" or "may it please the court" and lawyers must ask permission to "approach to the court" for private conservation. Discussions are all judge-controlled and disrespect is punishable by contempt of court. All rise when the judge enters and nobody would dare catch up on e-mails during a trial. This is the physical aspect of respect for rule of law. Professors should be so lucky.

Other knowledge-based professions similarly understand the need to draw a sharp line between the expert and the client, the erudite and the ignorant. You can always spot top trial lawyers—sharply-tailored dark suits, flashy cuff-links, elegant ties, expensive leather attaché cases, real fountain pens, costly Swiss watches, perfect haircuts, and all the other “superficial” details that announce, “I am successful, very successful so you better listen to what I tell you!” Even doctors in a profession hardly famous for its Beau Brummels still wear ties and, when not in white, suits and decent sport coats.

The justification is obvious: who would heed a lawyer, financial advisor or doctor who showed up in dirty jeans, a frayed sport shirt, filthy running shoes etc. etc., who carried his professional papers in a nylon backpack?  Not even a department dominated by radical egalitarians would hire a job applicant who arrived as if he was on the way to the beach. This would be insulting, a sign of disinterest in the job, and these egalitarians would be right.

At a minimum, dressing well informs students that one is serious about classroom responsibilities. If I can spend an extra hour before class matching ties and shirts, checking for stains, polishing my wingtips, combing my hair and all the rest, you can certainly pay attention.   

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Now consider a student who arrives for the first day of class and sees a professor who resembles a 1960s hippy-like graduate student (Levis, rumpled un-tucked shirt etc.) and if male, scraggly facial hair wearing a baseball cap and if female, tacky “folk” jewelry and a permanent bad hair day? It could be worse—the political billboard tee-shirt to remind today’s uninformed youngsters that “Bush Lied and People Died.” It makes no difference that this instructor may have a doctorate from Harvard and is being fast tracked to an endowed chair. Cultural conditioning is inescapable and ubiquitous: respect is given to those who dress the part and when they refuse, deference is not forthcoming. Professors should not look like janitors or stand-up comics. A sky-high tuition bill only adds insult to injury—$40,000 or more in tuition to hear superannuated hippies?

Dressing up also improves lecturing. Imagine teaching a constitutional law dressed only in a loincloth or a lime green Leisure Suit?  Can’t be done. A dark suit, white shirt and matching tie would, however, help. It is for this reason that elite prep schools, including those recruiting poor inner-city African-Americans insist on well-tailored navy blazers, gray wool dress trousers and a properly knotted tie (and instructors here likewise must dress appropriately). Dressing up is a cheap antidote to rowdiness. My son attended a WASPy prep school and his behavior immediately improved—“hard to be disruptive when wearing a tie,” he explained.     

Professors, like plain clothes detectives, might be given a clothing allowance at upscale stores but only for business attire. And a monthly stipend for regular decent haircuts, straight razor shaves, trips to the beauty parlor, even wardrobe counseling. Yes, a few impassioned “solidarity with the oppressed toilers” egalitarians will object but their resistance is easily overcome. Just tell them that if they really want a revolution, they are more likely to succeed when preaching the Marxist gospel in a Brooks Brothers suit, white French cuff shirt, a clean silk tie, and laced dress shoes. In other words, look like a successful banker and the students will listen. 

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Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program. He is the author of Bad Students, Not Bad Schools.



Comments (42)

rosanne soifer:

Good article!! I dress casually but neatly..PLUS I have a written dress code on my class handout--no droopy pants, backwards caps, sunglasses, headphones, etc.No ifs ands or buts.
A professor, even a lowly adjunct like me, sets the tone for the entire class.

I am a former faculty wife, and in my observation some professors try to dress like students and think they are part of the student age cohort. In other words, they dress like that because they think it makes them look young.

The students, however, are not fooled, and think of the faculty as old guys and clueless to boot.

I agree with the general thrust of this article, though I would venture that a significant portion of what ails academe comes from the "university as service provider to students" mentality, with the proliferation of pseudo-managerial accoutrements like increasing bureaucracy and customer satisfaction questionnaires (aka students evaluating teachers, a complete reversal of the natural order of education).

I blogged some sources of sartorial advice for professors at: http://josecamoessilva.tumblr.com/post/4358177540/

Peter Salins:

The article is dead on, but in my experience, only when it comes to male faculty. Here at Stony Brook, where the men do indeed dress as the article indicates, all the faculty women dress very professionally - as do all the administrative staff.

BW:

This piece is total nonsense. Dress has little if anything to do with getting your students to pay attention, and any argument to the contrary is simply wishful thinking at best and foolish at worst. One does not need a jacket and tie to prove that you are a professional. Rather, one needs to be an expert in topic and in the craft of teaching. If your students do not pay attention it is not because of how you dress...it IS because you are boring them.

Barbara:

Teaching is a profession...an honored one at that. By dressing professionally one shows respect to the field as well as to the students, which is crucial to gaining their attention. Just as with parents who try to be "cool" in order to be a buddy to their child, so too I've seen with instructors, who are decades older, using the latest teen descriptives and dressing as if hoping to be one and the same. Students are not impressed by this.
Does dressing well cause students to pay attention? It shows the student that the teacher cares enough to present him/herself in a professional manner. Of course, one needs to be able to effectively teach, but one is not mutually exclusive of the other.

Teachers by definition....teach....not simply what one is assigned to instruct throughout the term, but teach through example.....to be professional in appearance, demeanor, speech, grammar....the entire person...for we set the example. By taking on the role of teacher, that should be part and parcel of the position, not an aside casually dismissed for ones own comfort.

Emily Worden:

I must disagree with Mr. Salins' comment. I am 25 years old, not a teacher, probably never will be, but still think it looks sloppy and unprofessional when a professor can't at least dress in "business casual" attire for class. It sends us the message, "I don't take this as a real job, so you don't really need to either." I had to wear business/business casual attire to classes for my last 2 years of undergrad because of the part-time job I had which dealt with politics, businesses, and non-profits. I had second-hand embarrassment for my professors when students who didn't attend class regularly would walk up to me instead of our professor because they thought I was the teacher. Even before that I was a waitress for 4 years (at a casual restaurant for 2 and at a private city club for 2) where I was required to wear a shirt and tie everyday because it was our uniform. Now I'm not saying all professors should wear ties, but whatever your profession is, the way you present yourself DOES matter, whether Mr. Salins likes to believe that or not. Now a suit and tie by no means substitutes for not knowing your stuff. Something tells me he will never move to a higher, more prestigious status with his philosophy.

Emily Worden:

In my last post that was to be directed at BW...not Mr. Salins, Sorry Mr. Salins. I completely agree with you.

Barry D:

I'm not sure that the key to respect is the rigid observance of a previous generation's rules about clothing. Is a suit and tie really the key to respect? Are wingtips? Really?

I do, however, believe that dress telegraphs something to all around. "Business casual" can work. Sometimes a suit and tie ARE required. It depends on context. Some people look like dressed-up fools in certain clothes.

I don't think there's a simple formula for exactly what a given individual must wear. However, I think there are some simple rules for what a professor should NOT wear at work.

hmi:

Well...I compromise. At my university, administrators and the business and law professors dress like businessmen, and the ESL professors look like complete slobs. I rarely wear a suit, mostly a sports jacket or a sweater along with khakis, chinos and the like. But I do put on a tie. IMO, that, in and of itself, is sufficient to convey the message that I think the class (and the students) are worth a little bit of effort. Thems my 2 cents.

Margaret A.:

Case in point: In my former graduate program, we had a brilliant social history grad student who sorely lacked sartorial sense - dress and manners were just not important to him. He taught in holey tee-shirts, a worn out sweater, and so on. As a result, his students failed to take him seriously. Another grad student, known for her clothes-sense, helped him find some shirts, slacks and ties that fit well and that complimented his coloring. His students and colleagues responded quite positively, which made him feel more secure in the classroom and seminar room. At least in this case, clothes helped make the instructor.

Mark L:

When I taught introductory computers at a community college, I always wore a sports coat or blazer, tie, dress shirt and dress pants. I also always addressed my students as Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones when I spoke to them. The students seemed to appreciate both the courtesy of dress and of address. Even those who attended class wearing jeans and a t-shirt paid attention in class, and were more inclined to take schoolwork seriously.

This was in a small town in East Texas, so I often saw students outside the classroom when I was not in "uniform." But they realized my classroom formality was a signal that I took teaching as a serious endeavor. Your mileage may vary, but it worked for me.

John Galt:

To this day, my father wears a coat and tie to work, except Fridays, when it's khakis or comparable and a collared, buttondown shirt (no golf shirts).

He has been doing this since 1962.

The author is right to point out an endemic student disengagement acros much of higher education. But I think it's much more likely that this disengagement stems from outmoded and ineffective pedagogical choices (how many times did the word "lecture" appear here?) and irrelevant curricula than from poor dress habits. And I don't think the problem is solved by professors asserting their authority further. The problem is not a lack of authority but a lack of interest on the part of students. Fix that first.

Brian:

I think you have the employee/employer relation confused. The student is paying quite a large sum to learn at your institution. If they are disruptive, kick them out. But otherwise, if they choose to ignore you they can.

Focus on providing quality instruction. Don't whine when your students don't grovel in deference to you.

Mchael:

OK. So ... you have the Brooks' Brothers line.

Now, teach!

Meh.

Rob:

I'm all in favor of professors spiffing up a bit*, but Professor Weissberg is wrong about how lawyers and judges dress. Almost all judges wear robes in court, but when meeting with attorneys for settlement conferences, etc., the judge is sitting with them around a table and never wears a robe--sometimes a suit, sometimes just a shirt and tie. And good trial attorneys often don't dress expensively, because they perceive that will alienate juries. I knew one trial lawyer who would wear shirts with frayed cuffs for jury trials. Many choose fairly cheap suits. It's not like on TV.
___________
* Without Weissberg's suggested financial incentives, however. Professors are paid a living wage. They're no more entitled to have their street clothes and grooming paid for than any other employee. Jeez Louise, is there no end to academics' sense of entitlement?

Graham:

I teach at the high school level and wear a blazer, a dress shirt with tie, slacks, and appropriate shoes. Teachers need to know content, but students respond to presentation.

Why do science teachers don lab coats when the vast majority of labs won't cause a mess? They are signals of what is going to occur. They are also signals of seriousness and if a teacher or professor does not realize that something as simple as appearance is important, then students will not take the content of the lesson seriously. And why should they? It was presented by an unserious person. Clothes, as they used to say, make the man. If that truism is no longer known, it does not mean that it is no longer valid.

Bob_R:

This is pretty much subject dependent. If you teach advanced calculus and partial differential equations (I do) you can get away with shorts, flip-flops, and a tee shirt (I don't). There are subjects (not naming names) where white tie and tails doesn't help.

Philo:

Academia is a bit like the high-tech world. At Microsoft, you can tell who's really important; they don't tuck in their shirts. The accountants and lawyers wear suits and ties; the geniuses look frumpy.

Professors find themselves torn between their teaching roles, which seem to demand dressing up, and their research roles, where dressing like an artist, high-tech geek, or other creative type seems more appropriate. Professors aren't trying to look like students; they're trying NOT to look like administrators. My compromise is to wear button-down shirts and chinos, with a jacket on the rare occasions when the temperature is below 80. (I teach in Texas.)

This has come about gradually. My undergraduate professors, in the early 1970s, usually dressed casually. But my professors in graduate school, who were of an earlier generation, all wore suits and ties. They considered tweed jackets far too informal!

I'll add that, in the summer, when it's over 95 every day and over 100 quite frequently, I wear polo shirts and shorts. I've never been able to tell any significant difference in student reactions.

I am a former software engineer who now teaches Computer Science at a community college. One one of the advantages of possessing a rare and highly valuable skill is that no manager with a lick of sense would dare to tell you what to wear. It's too easy to wish them well and find a workplace that will let you do what you want as long as you get the work done.

Now that I'm teaching, I still wear what I feel like wearing. In addition to my personal reasons for it, I'm also demonstrating to my students that in this field they're going to have a higher than usual degree of personal freedom.

Donald (S.A.):

My first anatomy lecture at Medical School (Adelaide), and the professor (A.A.Abbie) looked around the lecture theatre.

"If you are not wearing a tie tomorrow, do not bother attending any further lectures."

We all looked very sharp from that day on.

I quite respect the view of the author, but take a different approach. I have a uniform I wear: black turtleneck and good jeans. I add a sport jacket when the occasion requires it.

One of the reasons I moved to this standard outfit was because I now write more for the entrepreneurial and non-profit communities than I do for professional academics, and I spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs. I also expect that my students will often move into those communities. For those audiences, business casual is the standard, and I want my students to recognize that there are standards, but what those standards are is context dependent.

Diana C.:

Among female faculty members at my university, there is a consensus that we must be well-dressed in order to be taken seriously. Men do not seem to need the formal attire as much, but it never hurts. Without the dress barrier, students tend to feel invited to a more informal relationship than is really appropriate.

Mike Landry:

I teach in a business college in Oklahoma, where business casual dominates everyday dress in commerce. Except after hours, on weekends, or the rare times when I'm involved in rearranging furniture in my office or some such thing, I never come on campus in anything less than business casual. One never knows: on a given day I might run into a prospective student or their parents, a current or potential donor, or a possible employer of our graduates. I'd probably wear ties more except I have a neck size that makes it difficult to properly button collars. And my rule of thumb is: when in doubt, overdress. Better to look a little dorky overdressed than be completly embarrassed when underdressed.

Sartor Resartus:

Obviously, the image projected by a teacher will play a role in "setting the tone." But my experience has shown that good teachers can dress like ragmuffins, and instructors who are attired by Brooks Brothers or The Gap can fall short of the mark. Consider the case of Einstein, with his mismatched socks and his use of a tie as a belt.

I would perhaps understand if a small, liberal arts college adopted the standards of dress associated with prep schools. But our universities are not a latter-day version of a German gymnasium from the days of Hegel...here let us dispense with Eisenhower's maxim that "sloppy dress leads to sloppy thinking," and evaluate our teachers on their clarity, comprehension and credibility as scholars.

A.L.:

@BW

Your comment was stupid at best and stupider at worst. The author is not advocating dressing well at the expense of poor teaching. He is asserting, caeteris paribus, that the professor who dresses professionally will more likely have the respect of his students. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

AA:

As a society we need to put to death the notion that appearance is indicative of the quality of the idea. We spend too much time on the facade. By demanding that teachers/professors "dress up" you are teaching students that people who are dressed up have important things to say (and should be listened to), and those who are not dressed up do not have important things to say (and should be ignored). What a sad state of affairs. What next, the return of robes?

SymbolicaLogica:

This article is indicative of the sloppy and surface-level thinking that dominates our uncritically minded age. Professors are not interested in playing dress up. Rather, they care more about the quality of their lectures and level of erudition inherent within their teaching.

I suspect that the writer of this article and many of those those that support it are envious of academicians who do not have to plasticize their appearance in an effort to reveal their importance in their profession. Essentially, what is important is not in the wardrobe. It's in the intellect.

"Mens sana in corpore sano."

steve beck:

Bob Weissberg is a stuffed shirt.

David Noah:

Why stop there? Let's require all professors to wear a special uniform keyed to their tenure status. And let's add a column in the gradebook for Respect Paid to Professor.

AE Housman:

"As a society we need to put to death the notion that appearance is indicative of the quality of the idea."

This is indicative of the sloppy thinking that leads so many academics to dress like slobs. As part of the leftist attack on tradition, the old-fashioned idea that people should dress professionally has been rejected on the grounds that such "stuffiness" is a substitute for substance. From this comes the perverse corollary that sloppy dressing is a sign of "authenticity," and so any argument that professors should dress professionally is "refuted" on the specious grounds that professional attire is a substitute for quality thinking.

Okay, since so many here have obviously not been paying attention (or are refusing to listen), let me spelling it out in simple words. No one is saying that simply dressing professionally makes your thought superior. What is being said is that students take you more seriously if you dress in a respectable manner than they do if you dress like a slob (as so many academics do). Appearances do count, not in that your appearance affects the quality of what you say, but it does affect the *impression you make on others*. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply fooling themselves.

If you take yourself seriously, so do others. If you look like a slob, many people treat you accordingly.

JH:

A couple observations:

1. A lot of sloppy dress among faculty is an affectation, based on a widely shared conception of what "genius" is supposed to look like. (How much time does Saul Kripke or John Nash spend polishing his wingtips? Also, students often fall for it, as in "wow, he must be so smart, if they let him dress like that.")

2. In philosophy, where I teach, sloppy dress is strongly enforced among faculty. Older faculty can get away with wearing a suit and tie, but if a young man shows up to work dressed that way he invariably gets ribbed ("oh, aren't we looking nice today... " etc.) No one ever gets hassled for wearing a T-shirt. For women, if you want to be considered "serious" by your colleagues, dressing well is an even more complex problem.

3. For those who think it's ok to go to work looking like you just rolled out of bed, remember that your students take classes in other departments, and they do make comparative judgments. Which subject are they going to take more seriously, the one that is taught by someone who looks and acts like s/he has a job, or yours?

T. Johnson:

One must keep in mind that most undergraduate students on today's college classrooms are more interested in attempting - and sorely failing - to conceal ongoing text message conversations, check social media updates online, or otherwise fiddle with electronic devices during class than even lay eyes on the person of their professor. Furthermore, daydreaming, barely whispered conversations between a student and his classroom neighbors, and the frantic finishing of assignments due later that day add to the distraction. At best, a student's involvement in class material is generally limited to half a Word-document page's worth of notes or bulletin points which were likely typed in between checking facebook updates and playing Angry Birds.

I am nearly finished with my undergraduate degree. I've had professors that dress to Hegel's standards. I've also had those whose attire is more unkempt than my own (I generally wear jeans and a button down or polo to class). The truth is that I have noticed no correlation between instructor dress and student participation. When I reflect on it, the few professors who have truly stood out to me as exceptionally intelligent and proficient in their field have dressed less formally than the author of this article would approve of. Indeed, the professor who is currently directing my thesis research - by far the most impressive I've met on campus - dresses rather sloppily. Alas, I do realize the author does not wish to suggest that proper dress correlates with intelligence (although I suspect he privately holds that assumption).

The bottom line is that there are innumerable problems with today's campuses. The dress of professors is not one of them. In my opinion, a professor would have better luck engaging students if he or she made clear on the first day of class that no laptops would be allowed and that use of cell phones would result in immediate removal from that day's lecture. Even then, a professor who was truly mastered the art of lecture should have no problem garnering his or her students' attention, regardless of attire. If the author believes that most of his students would take the time to glance away from their glowing screens to catch site of his polished wingtips, he is sorely mistaken. If anything, I'd tend toward the idea that overdoing formality in dress possesses potentially negative results. A professor who comes to class looking like Winston Churchill runs the risk of immediately appearing unapproachable and dispassionate to his or her students.

RP:

Being a professor myself I feel that the falseness of wearing a tie and suit is an enormous miss leading visual for the student population.

My profession is Animation & Game Design, I have been an Art Director in Video Game companies and worked quite a few studios. And because of other professor that have never even worked in the field that they are teaching that dress like accountants, I am constantly fighting the don't dress like that students battle. If I were to show up to a studio in a suit I would immediately be looked at as a non-creative and most likely a person from the business end that has no reason to be there.

So by assuming that professors should wear suits and ties in my field we never, ever do. A tie is an outdated visual statement of old white men. I will have no part of it. There are times when a suit may be called for, wedding, formal event, but in a classroom...NEVER...the furthest I will ever go is business casual and that is only because it is required, or I would be in a T-shirt and jeans.

PS: Most of my T-shirts and Jeans cost more then some people suits. And look a lot better.

Jon:

You have some good points, despite your obviously reactionary, aristocratic/materialistic mentality. But the formality of teachers and professors should be distinctive, setting them apart from the appearance of degenerate, venal corporatists. I would NEVER wish to be mistaken for, or associated with, an acquisitive lawyer, banker, or any other species of "professional" private sector yuppie vermin. I think for myself I'll go somewhat retro like Indy there, with a bowtie, etc.

To assert that teachers should ape, and therefore flatter, mere bankers (just because they have the resources to horde more material wealth for themselves!) is patently insulting.

MentalJail:

It is not always practical to dress up in neat pants with tie and jacket. In my subject (maths) I have to make extensive use of blackboard and chalk, including the cleaning of the blackboards at the end of the lectures (roughly, 16-18 of them). All that chalk dust ruins quickly any decent piece clothing I wear, as I've discovered to my horror in the early days. That's why I tend to dress down when I have to teach. Also, most of the teaching rooms are windowless, stuffy and I tend to sweat for the whole 50 minutes (most of my classes have 150-250 students).....

Fifty Plus Female Professor:

I used to "dress for the job you want" at the college I worked at, and I do believe it had an influence on those who finally hired me to teach. Now that I have taught 15 years in dresses with blazers, or suits and ties, I am questioning whether it is worth my time, energy and money to get dressed up formally each day. My feet hurt, my hair takes too much attention, and makeup disappears after the first hour. Would it really detract from my pedagogical authority if I wore nice jeans with a shirt and a blazer? I was on the verge of going shopping and getting a feminine version of a buzz cut but now I'm having doubts!

AA:

Being "dressed up" conveys the message that you can only learn from well-dressed people. It's a sad, sad statement on our society that exteriors are used to draw conclusions about interiors. I recommend that we end this tradition.

Anna:

I resent the notion that the only way to dress unprofessionally is to dress like a political-activist-hippie.
Oh, and there's a line that can be crossed. There's such a thing as too professional. Some of my best teachers wore jeans and a button-up top, and they weren't the best because they wore a suit and tried to be intimidating, they were the best because they talked to their students like human beings, were approachable authority figures, and were good at what they did.

scott lawrence:

I am unfortunately guilty at times of this. The dynamic of my student body is everything from high school students to non-traditional college students. The high school kids find me more approachable with the dumbed down attire and my laid back approach to the class. However the adult learners might have issue with that.

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