Some years ago, on my very first day of ever teaching my own course, I learned the hardest, and probably best lesson about teaching I have ever learned. I had gotten into the classroom, handed out the syllabus, written my name on the blackboard, looked around at the room of 16 young women and 1 young man, taken a deep breath and begun the “Hello, My name is…” speech to tell the students a bit about myself and about the class — which was a subject-based writing course for first-year students. I was about 3 sentences into my spiel, when a student’s hand shot up in a Heil-Hitler gesture, which should have been my first clue that all was not well. I stopped talking, because I had been trained to always respect student questions, and said, “Yes? You have a question?” She looked at me with great venom and practically shouted her question at me:
“What Qualifies YOU to teach this class? Do YOU have a Background in English Composition?”
When she had gotten this out, she looked around at her colleagues, with a kind of smug satisfaction on her face. They all looked taken aback for a moment, and then in a kind of cinematic slow-motion turned their eyes to me. What was I going to do? What would I say? How would I handle this?
I was in shock. I think I stood there with my mouth gaping for a moment. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING in all of my years of TA-ing, or in the 6-week pedagogy course I had taken on how to teach first-year students the best way to write a thesis statement had prepared me for this. I was totally blown away. So, I stumbled around the best I could, and answered her question: No, I did not have a background in English Composition, but writing was a fundamental part of my training, I was currently at work on a 300 page book, and I had taken a course on how to teach writing. I pretty much felt like a fish on dry land, floundering around gasping for air, but I did the best that I could. I didn’t feel like I addressed the issue, but I didn’t know what else to do either. My answer seemed to satisfy them all, and I moved back into my “Hello, my name is…” speech without further incident that day.
From that moment on, every student in that classroom felt like they could challenge my authority on everything from the number of pages assigned for reading to the grades they were given on their work. It was the worst teaching experience of my life. It almost made me leave the profession. In the intervening years, I have told this story many times, and everyone I know is totally stunned. But, they all disagree on how I should have handled the situation. “You should have said, ‘Fuck You,'” was a common, if unproductive answer. “Because I know more than you,” has also been quite popular. But, I finally figured it out a few years ago. The correct answer to her question was this: “I’m not sure what makes you think that either your tone or your question is appropriate for a college classroom, but it is not. That said, let me explain how misguided and uninformed your question is. Thirty years of pedagogical research has shown that people do not learn to write as well in standard English Composition classrooms as they do in small, subject-based seminars that this Prestigious University has pioneered a program in and that you are lucky enough to be able to attend. If you want more information on this vast amount of research, I’ll be happy to provide it to you after class. Now, as I was saying…” (Spousal Unit just informed me that this isn’t much better than “Fuck You.” He may be right, but it is a bit more genteel.)
I’ve also thought long and hard about what it was that made her feel like she COULD ask me this question with impunity. I know without any doubt that she would not have asked a 50-year old male professor this question. Never in a million years. As a young, female graduate student, she clearly felt that I had to PROVE to her that I had this authority. Which is, of course, a load of sexist crap, but this attitude persists, and is one that women have to constantly deal with in academia.
But, I also think that what I had worn on that day impacted her sense of my authority. Thanks to La Lecturess for pointing me to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The author, James M. Lang, argues that a casual wardrobe of shorts and Birkenstocks signals to students that you are a laid-back kind of “guy,” and that you run an egalitarian classroom that values student input. He implies that professors who dress formally subscribe to a banking kind of pedagogy — where the professor has the knowledge and deposits it into the brains of the students. He seems to be lauding those in the professoriate who resist business professional dress, those who stick to the shorts and Birkenstocks because they are just one of the guys who could at any “moment throw on flip-flops and meet you over at the kegger.” While the author himself steers a more middle course, there remains in his tone an admiration for those profs who can get away with looking like “one of the guys.”
I would just like to point out that this article does not in any real way consider that there might be different issues at play for male and female professors in the projection of a professional image and in the choices they make about how to create that image. I don’t know any female professors who teach in shorts and Birks, nor do I know any that teach in jeans and causal shirts. And I’m pretty sure that most female professors resist very strongly the notion that they’re one of the guys who’d kick it with you at a kegger. More problematically, though, this article does not acknowledge that some students come into the classroom with sexist expectations — not necessarily based on what you are wearing but who you are. It assumes that the relationship between dress and authority is the same for men and women, which I think misses a really important issue about how gender works in the classroom. I think that many students, like that one of mine on my very first day of teaching, automatically assume that women have less classroom authority than men, and they code a causal attitude in female professors as a lack of authority, knowledge, and experience.
That said, I do think Professor Lang was right in arguing about the signals informal dress sends to students. On that fateful first day of teaching, I had on what I call “graduate student formal” — a nice, fitted cotton tee, a khaki skirt, sandals (they may have even been Birkenstocks), and a woven belt. This carefully chosen outfit, combined with my age and my gender, signaled to the students that I was informal, comfortable, and one of them. But, it also signaled something to this one student that let her believe she had the right to openly and explicitly challenge my authority in my classroom.
These days, I wear suits, skirts, button-down shirts, silk sweaters, scarves, and shoes that make noise when I walk on hard surfaces. It may signal to my students that I’m dictatorial, or that I think I am the great repository of all knowledge that I will bank into their brains, I don’t know. That is, of course, not what my pedagogy looks like. I run a student-centered classroom, mostly discussion based, that encourages the participants to open up and to share their ideas. But, I’ve found that they do this best if they feel that the professor is in control. My formal dress serves this purpose. It signals to them that I am in charge in the classroom and that it is not O.K. to ask me why I am qualified to be there.
A few years ago, I was driving in my car on campus to pick up Spousal Unit from work, and this contentious student stepped in front of my car at a stoplight. I pride myself on the fact that I very firmly kept my foot on the break pedal, despite the great temptation to floor it.