Friday, January 26, 2007

Why Do Professors Dress So Badly?

We take a break today from matters of great geopolitical import to think about something that has puzzled me for a long time. I work at a university that is unionized. I am not a member, but the union grabs my money anyway, and in compensation they give me a subscription to Academe, a publication of the American Association of University Professors. Ordinarily it goes posthaste from my mailbox to the circular file in the department office, but one item in this month’s edition caught my attention. It is by Ronald S. Lemos, and it argues that university faculty should observe the old social graces in the classroom more than they do. In particular, Mr. Lemos urges us to dress better:
This item is potentially the most controversial on my list. However, professional dress codes would have the greatest effect on campus climate and culture. When involved in any university or college function, especially teaching, faculty should wear business attire: coat and tie for men (preferably a suit) and professional attire for women. Business attire commands a much higher level of respect than casual wear. It represents authority, professionalism, confidence, and expertise.

The professoriate is a profession, similar to medicine, law, politics, and business. Most, if not all, high-level professions have formal or informal codes of ethics, conduct, and dress. For these professions, the standard of dress is business attire. Why not have a faculty dress code?

I recognize that many, if not most, faculty negatively associate a coat and tie with the corporate world or, worse yet, university administrators. But a coat and tie represent much more in our society.We dress up out of a sense of respect, civility, or simple etiquette. We should treat going to class with the same high level of importance.

An even more revolutionary approach would be to return to the sartorial elegance of academic regalia as the dress code for faculty. Once again, why not? This dress code is already accepted for graduations and honors convocations. Like judges’ robes, professorial gowns connote the highest levels of respect and professionalism.

The professoriate is under attack on many fronts, including among students, administrators, legislators, parents, employers, and communities. A higher standard of dress would improve our professional image and support a campus climate characterized by civil behavior and mutual respect.

I am a decent dresser in class – ties almost always, but (because of the wildly gesticulating style I sometimes have when I lecture) no coat. But it is fair to say that as a rule the professoriate is not known for sartorial excellence. Why? I like to use economics to explain things, and there are two possibilities – the decision to dress up or not is an act of signaling or an act of consumption. (The reason we don’t wear full faculty regalia in class is easy – because we would look ridiculous.)

The signaling argument says that dressing up or not is a way to indicate to students that you are a high-quality, hard-working teacher by your willingness to incur the discomfort (and hence greater effort) of looking good. The suit-and-tied professor (if it is a he) is doing the same thing a peacock does when he grows a big display of tail feathers. It performs no useful function, but serves to attract females as a sign of virility. Here too one could argue that some professors dress up to signal that the teacher is going to put out a lot of effort in the class. This is somewhat similar to Me. Lemos’ argument about it being a sign of respect for students. (This is what motivates me to at least make an effort.) Lawyers do much the same (the better the suit, the more clever he is likely to be), and doctors wear their labcoats to signal their authority.

But then why do some professors dress down so much? What might they be signaling? It is hard to think of a good explanation. Their down-to-earthness? Their detachment, as the above excerpt suggests, from the “corporate” world? None of these things, it seems to me, appeal to most students, who don’t want a buddy in the classroom nearly as much as someone knowledgeable or professional.

So that leaves us with consumption – of professors choosing their dress for sheer personal enjoyment. The most obvious enjoyment comes from looking good, however the professor defines it. The well-dressed prof is enjoying the pride he takes in adhering to traditional grooming standards. The professor who comes into class in jeans and sandals is expressing his rebellion against those standards. This is an act of egotistical self-expression, behavior I have discussed elsewhere.

I think this explanation better explains what I observe around campus. The very stylized facts are that faculty making more money (e.g., in business colleges) tend to dress better, that younger faculty tend to dress worse, at least while they are young - until I had been in the game about five years I was a jeans-and-Nikes kind of guy - and that the faculty in the most politicized parts of the university tend to dress down the most. (That young faculty tend to dress more poorly argues against a signaling explanation, because it is young faculty, who lack a classroom reputation, who need to signal the most.) If it is just self-expression, there is no going back; the competitive restraints on university job markets (the requirements for a Ph.D., tenure, the huge amount of faculty independence) means that competition is largely powerless to change this pattern, as it is to change many other aspects of the university.

Still, I am not entirely persuaded that either explanation is complete. If anyone has any suggestions as to why we get away with things that doctors (the real kind, not the Ph.D. kind) never could, I am glad to hear them.

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Blogger AmandaLaine said...

Very enjoyable post!

First, why have you chosen not to join the union at your college? I am asking because I recently heard all the reasons why unions are good and, when I asked for any reasons why unions might be bad, the answer was essentially "there are none." This was a completely unconvincing argument from a WSU faculty member but this is what he said, in all seriousness. I had offered him an opportunity to show that he could fairly present both sides of a debate and he answered that the other side was "misinformed." Being misinformed, according to him, was the only possible reason someone would NOT join a union. Any thoughts? I would appreciate any help you could give me.

About professors dressing poorly, this is my opinion: their minds are elsewhere! They are occupied with other matters and don't have time for less important things. Obviously this is a generalization. But, I can personally relate to it. While I like to look nice, there's only so much time I'm willing to put into it. There are truly better things to do with my time.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

A union helps some of the workers who currently work at the facility where it is organized. Unions typically resist management independence, and certainly in academia like to substitute across-the-board (ATB) pay increases for "merit" increases doled out to those the administration thinks have done a better job. (I think this is a pattern of unions anywhere.)

And so those who do better with ATB pay than merit pay will prefer a union. If you think ATB has nothing to do with performance but instead is about who brownnoses management best, this is fine. If you believe (as I do) that arbitrary behavior by administration is vastly exaggerated, then people who perform best (I'm not saying I'm one of them) now earn less, because their raises are given instead to people who don't perform as well.

Unions also want, and sometimes get, lower work requirements. (Post-unionization I teach two classes per term instead of three, for example, which has probably caused the university to rely more on adjuncts and made it less rational to hire full-time faculty.) I would predict that in a unionized university teaching and scholarship performance would generally be worse, because the union restricts the ability of such data to be used in promotion and salary decisions. (I am actually conducting some research on this point.)

Unions also claim to represent workers, but really only represent current workers. They do not represent, for example, future workers, and will try to preserve their benefits in part at future workers' expense. Indeed the general way in which legal privileges for unions work against competition for labor has had many toxic effects over the years. There is a long history of unions restricting employment opportunities and union membership for black and women workers, for example.

Finally, there is a basic philosophical issue here. I don't want to join the union, but it steals my money anyway. The idea that I must pay dues for the alleged benefits of collective bargaining (which in my view are actually costs to me both philosophically and monetarily, because my raises may be lower) is frankly disgraceful. It is simply theft, even if the benefits are real (which in my judgment they are not).

5:19 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

If you think ATB has nothing to do with performance...

That should read "If you think merit pay has nothing to do with performance..."

5:32 PM  
Blogger AmandaLaine said...

Thanks! That was helpful.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a professor and the reason I dress casually is because I have no fashion sense whatsoever. I'd be thrilled to have someone help me!!!

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Ron Lemos said...

Hello colleagues,interesting blog on a topic dear to my heart. My comment on wearing academic regalia to class was meant to be factitious. However,my suggestions on wearing business attire to class are important to consider. The intent of the article is to suggest SPECIFIC ways to improve campus climate or at least classroom climate. To me, the key is civility and respect. Nothing communicates respect more than professional attire. When I went to high school in the early 1960s, all male professors (except for PE teachers) wore business attire. Even though it was an "urban" school in a lower socioeconomic neighborhood, teachers were always treated with the highest respect--even by the bad guys. When I started teaching in the mid-1970s, I was also a jeans/tennis shoes type teacher. I prided myself in looking like my students. However, when I "switched" to business attire, the classroom dynamic was significantly improved. I suggest experimenting with dressing in business attire for one term. I predict that you will experience a definite change in classroom climate and improved student responses on evaluations. The other key "respect" factor is how you address students. I always address students by Mr. or Ms. While I am toughest grader in my department, I have exceptional student ratings, and fantastic student interactions. This has contributed to me still loving the classroom after over 35 years! Best wishes, Ron Lemos (Professor of Informations Systems, California State University, Los Angeles).

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister in law is a high school teacher.
She dresses like a pig, both at work and her personal life. I believe she still thinks she , herself, is in high school as a student. She is 60 years old and goes out in public wearing pajamas.She wears ratty cords and running shoe's to work. When asked why she dresses like that, she laughed and said to her husband, "she is shocked that I wear running shoes to school". I reminded her that she was going to work not school.

12:12 PM  

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