After I wrote my post last night, I saw that Profgrrrl had spoken pretty emphatically against the Chronicle's perennial reconsideration of the whole topic of academic dress. I agree with some of her criticisms about particular comments in one of the essays, but I think the topic is important, even if it feels recycled to long-time Chronicle readers (or, dare I say, long-term bloggers).
Academic jobs are a strange mixture of private reflection and public performance. In any performance-based situation, how you present yourself is worth considering. And for those of us inclined towards the solitude and intellectual pursuits that are part of what we do, thinking about dress and performance may itself be a way of theorizing our academic selves.
The best teachers I know are definitely aware of what they are doing -- how they use all the resources at their command to reach their audience and achieve their goals. Voice pitch, volume, and speed; word choice; body language and movement; the selection of media; the pace of activities; and numerous other things are all part of the equation. And for many of us thinking carefully about how we dress for teaching is also part of creating a teaching persona. Who I am in the classroom is only one of several personae I adopt throughout my week as suits the context. I don't believe in hard and fast rules about "what to wear" that can be universally applied -- but I do believe in talking with new teachers (when I train GAs etc) about the impact that their choices can have. To claim that our dress and self-presentation has no impact on students is as false I think as it would be to say that it is the only thing that matters. It's one of many things that mix into the equation. But it is something that we have control over (I can't change my height, for instance) and is therefore worth thinking about.
Outside the classroom, our self-presentation inevitably affects how we are perceived by colleagues and administrators. The wearing of super-casual clothing (as James Lang's Chronicle piece details) is one conventional mode of self-presentation on academic campuses -- one that has claims to higher intellectual pursuits (too busy to care about clothes) and also maintains the cherished rebellious stance of many academics (not going to wear suits because they're associated with Power and Capital). But to adopt that mode (if it is not the dominant mode for your entire institution -- some small colleges, for instance, are very casual) requires a certain level of privilege -- of skin color, of class, and/or academic rank.
On my campus, for instance, only 20% of tenured or tenure-track faculty are women, and only 25% are non-white. Non-white faculty and women faculty definitely receive greater scrutiny from everyone -- administrators, colleagues, and students. When I say scrutiny, that's what I mean -- not necessarily positive or negative reactions, but definitely more attention is paid to you in every situation. Very, very few people of color on my campus wear super-casual clothing of the sort that Lang describes. Few women do either. (Frumpy, maybe, but that's a different issue.)
Do students make comments about teachers' appearance? Yes. Do faculty sometimes comment on collleagues' appearance during merit reviews or tenure discussions? Yes. Do we occasionally comment about our students' appearance? Of course. We're social animals and we inevitably make judgments about each other based on appearance. To pretend otherwise is to participate in that old grand illusion that academic life is only about the life of the mind, detached from the messy real world. That's not the academic life I live. I work in the world and get paid to think about the world. A nice combination.