Thomas Hart Benton/William Pannapacker has a First Person column in The Chronicle this morning, titled "The Year of Dressing Formally." That pretty much explains what it's about - about a year in which he revamped his wardrobe and went from dressing "like [he] worked in a bait-and-tackle shop" to sartorial splendor.
It's a perfectly fine column, but there's one bit that got me. Assessing his year (now over), he writes:
Although it got out of hand, I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment. In general, professors at liberal-art colleges are encouraged to be nurturing. But I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with "Dear Professor" instead of "Hey."
I read this part, and wanted to say, Well, DUH! And I also wanted to say, Any woman professor could have told you that. Well, okay, maybe almost any is more accurate. Because while I know there are lots of women out there who teach (brilliantly and successfully) in very casual clothes, I have also had the same conversation with lots and lots of women faculty - the conversation in which we agree that in order to project a certain authority in the classroom, we dress formally for teaching.*
And those of us who feel this way have reached this conclusion long before our first post-tenure year.
Because we've HAD to figure it out - because students respond very differently to men and women teachers. I've certainly known students to mock male professors' clothing (usually when such clothing consists entirely of jackets produced in the 70s, or rotation between the same three outfits). But it's different from when they mock women professors' clothing. Bad dressing doesn't seem to undermine male professors' authority - in fact, it might enhance it: oh, look, they're so smart they don't care about clothes. If you're a woman, however, and you don't care about clothes, you're just a mess, a slob, and unworthy of respect. And if you do care about clothes, then you're frivolous and not serious about your work, and unworthy of respect. Or, god forbid, you're a slut, and obviously unworthy of respect.
I realize I'm painting with a broad brush here - I am overgeneralizing somewhat. But I don't think the reality is that far off. It's not so different from the way people respond to the presidential candidates. Sure, everyone criticizes all the candidates, because that's what you do - you pick apart their performances. So the male candidates are getting criticized, sure. But Clinton seems to get criticized no matter what she does.
I don't mean this as a criticism of Benton/Pannapacker, either - he's just writing about his own experience. It's just funny how that one paragraph above made me grit my teeth, because he has had the luxury of figuring these things out in a different way than I had.
*I'm also not entirely convinced that his wardrobe change is the only factor at work here - he is describing his first year of teaching post-tenure, which is in itself a big change. And I'd speculate that things like "grad[ing] more rigorously and ma[king] larger demands" can themselves inspire more respect in students and improve their learning. But for the sake of both our arguments, I'll accept that it's the clothes.