Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Ask the Administrator: The Ties that Bind

This one introduces itself.

I am the son of a long time correspondent and a reader in my own right. I teach adjunct at three different post secondary schools (colleges and trades schools).

At any rate one of the gigs now says I have to wear a tie. My usual attire is slacks, button up shirt and sports coat. Hardly dressed down. The rationale is it will teach students about the professional standards of our industry. The only hang is I'm teaching "art" stuff and NO ONE in my industry wears a tie. Unless they have to go to court maybe? I don't even think most people in academia have to wear ties really, do they? Not in my experience. A few administrators maybe, certainly not profs.

We also have to fill out a parallel grading system rating students professionalism as well as their academic progress. The gig claims this a collegiate trend and employers ask for this now. Sounds dubious... and like a receipe for lawsuits from students who are not hired because of some crazy rating system they didn't really sign up for.

Anyway, I hardly think students will suddenly start showing up on time and and ditch the iPhones because I give them "3" instead of a "5" in the fakey professionalism "grade". Of course if they do I'll gladly wear the tie!! Like lipstick on a pig.

Okay, full disclosure. I hate wearing ties. Hate it, hate it, hate it. One of the reasons I voted for Obama was that he went through much of the campaign in open-collared button-down shirts with jackets, which is soooooo much more comfortable. I was hoping he'd do for ties what JFK did for hats. Alas, no.

(And when did button-down shirts become button-up shirts? Is that a regional thing? Maybe the former is a subgenre of the latter? "Button-down" refers to the collar, and I guess button-up refers to the torso, so a button-up shirt could have a pinpoint or a button-down collar. A Hawaiian shirt is button-up, but not button-down. But I digress.)

I've heard professors say, in all apparent seriousness, that one of the reasons they'd never want to go into administration is the dress code. That really didn't apply in my case, since the place where I taught required ties anyway.

As with school uniforms in the K-12 world, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the prestige of the school and the degree of formality it requires. (Professors at Snooty Liberal Arts College were never introduced as Dr. so-and-so. At cc's, they often are.) As near as I can figure, it's a combination of status anxiety and a felt need to model professionalism for students who may not otherwise see it very much. That seems to be very much the case here.

In the tonier settings, there's generally a sense that the students 'get' the rules of the upper middle class, since most of them came from it. To the extent that's true, formal dress codes just seem out of place, so they tend not to exist. (Of course, informal dress codes do exist, and are often quite strict. In all those years in my doctoral program, I never once saw a woman wear a bright color. It Was Not Done. Not that there was a dress code, of course...) At Proprietary U, the guiding assumption was that students needed to learn the ways of the professional class, and they didn't often have real-life models, so it was up to us to demonstrate.

I've never been entirely comfortable with the 'role model' or 'exemplar' concept of faculty. And anecdotally, the people who cling to it the most tenaciously tend to have highly idealized, not to say obsolete, ideas of the 'real world' they think they're modeling. In the late 90's, the tech world was notoriously informal, even as PU stuck to the dress code of IBM, circa 1958.
That said, I'd guess that the rationale for your college's rule is something along these lines.

Grading students on professionalism is another matter. I've seen 'professional conduct' factored into a 'participation' grade, which is part of an overall course grade. To the extent that 'professional conduct' is defined as 'showing up regularly, getting the work done, and not being a chronic whiner,' I suppose it's relatively benign. But I'd have a major issue with a 'professionalism' grade showing up on a transcript, especially if there's no clear and explicit definition of what it means. In the 'real world,' definitions of professional conduct are context-specific, so the whole idea of a rigid definition doesn't really make sense. But if your opinion of your students is that they're one step from barbarism, then I suppose a rigidly prescriptive code of conduct seems like progress.

Of course, if that's your opinion of your students, then I'd suggest finding another line of work. But that's me.

Good luck navigating the quirks of your college. All I can say is, 'been there.'

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an intelligent application of a 'professionalism' grade? Alternately, have you seen an especially wacky dress code on a campus?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

a "button-down" shirt is actually one where the collar has buttons. (It is the collar that is "buttoned-down.")The phrase has migrated to mean a button-front shirt colloquially.
you already noted my point very clearly. I was up all night working. please ignore me.
This is about grading for "professional conduct" or "professional demeanor."

I don't know how common it is, but it is a part of the grade in our school of education, and it is based on observation of the interaction of ed school students with their peers and with the children they encounter in classrooms (field experience is, as you all know, an important part of the gig).

My impression is that it's also a part of the evaluation system in other disciplines (social work, nursing, other health professions, but not, so far as on can tell, for MDs or law students), in which interaction with patients/clients is an important part of the job.

But dress codes? Forty years ago, the law school housed in the building next to the econ department's space reqired suits and ties, and even then those students looked strange.
When will people start fighting back against this retro-faux-conservative nonsense?

There are much more important things that make one look professional than a tie.

Or am I the only person who used to know people who wore suits and ties yet had stained clothes from some by-gone era with holes in them that smelled of mothballs?

Fashion has evolved. And unless the school plans to ban muffin tops and low-riders exposing tramp stamps on the students, leave the instructors untied.
At least at some institutions, students often use evaluations to comment negatively on their instructors' clothes, especially if the instructor is a woman. Apparently it matters to them.
There IS a variety of Hawaiian shirt, usually made by a company called Reyn's, that is both button-up and button-down. The shirts are made with fabric with a small print in subdued colors (often with the back of the fabric showing, not the front). They're the sort of thing Hawai'i-resident lawyers, managers, bankers, etc. wear when they aren't forced to go the suit and tie route (usually only for court appearances or meetings with mainland bosses or clients).

We don't like suits and ties here in the islands. Women only wear nylons on suit and tie occasions.
You digress well. The solution is to wear a tie with a Hawaiian shirt! And a white fedora.

I would assume that artists, like chemists who work in a lab or physicists who use a machine shop, are unlikely to wear regular ties because they pose a hazard. The olden days solution in that case was to wear a bow tie (clip on if you were at a state school or in industry, actually tied if you were Ivy league). BTW, a tie was the norm at college football games until the 60s.

Your correspondent might consider a bow tie, which today is off-beat enough to say ARTIST, especially if it is a clip on and the color matches your hip glasses.

That said, I wear an open collar shirt with a button down collar that does not match my pants. That combo is required by the professional standards of the physics union.
When I was an undergrad, we got a memo from the Dean of Students reminding us that we were required to wear clothes to class and really everywhere else besides the showers and our dorm rooms. That was the closest we got to a dress code.

Yes, I did go to a very fancy name brand liberal arts college.
I'm the father of a first-time correspondent.

At my cc gig, I wear a polo shirt and clean, neat jeans that have never met an oil change or a chainsaw in their sheltered little lives--with a sweater if it's chilly or without if the heating system is berserk again.

The mother of a first-time correspondent thinks I should lose the jeans and get more 'professional.' But, just like your first-time correspondent, I am an arty instructor. So I shrug, suck in my breath, and hope the jeans will button this morning.

But, okay, if the bosses are more irrational than even usual, you clip on that bowtie.
Hi Dean Dad - Sciencewoman has a discussion going that's right up your alley.


I hope you'll add your perspective.
As someone who often wears suits for work, I should point out that wearing a tie without a jacket doesn't say "professional" - it says "bookstore clerk." Khakis and polo shirts are a step up from khakis, shirt, and tie. So the school might want to factor this in.

More importantly, if the school wants to teach students how to dress professionally, it should *teach* them how to dress professionally...not tell them to wear a tie and conclude that they have done their job. As others have noted, different professions have different dress codes, and you should know how to dress appropriately for whatever you are doing.
The pro-tie crowd often points to field observations that prove students care about teachers' standards of dress, but that's a bit too vague for me. Care in what way or ways? Don't some respond favorably to dressing down rather than to dressing up? Until someone comes up with the data to convince me that business attire = academic respectability, I'll continue to disbelieve.

That said, I hereby nominate the sweater-vest with long-sleeve tieless shirt (button-collar optional), sleeves rolled to taste, as the uniform of choice for today's male academic.
I was one of those students who didn't like how her instructor dressed, once. The instructor wore miniskirts that I wouldn't have worn on my most tasteless days in high school, her outfits were all in pastels, and they often had little details like lace and beading that screamed "I bought this in a store aimed at children less than half my age". That's the only prof whose clothing I've had an issue with, and I have a feeling that if she had been a good teacher - instead of a downright awful waste of time - I wouldn't have cared one whit about her clothes.
So do you have tenure? If you have tenure, I'd be tempted to ignore the dress code and wait to see what the school does.

I'd personally enjoy seeing my department chair apologetically try to raise this with me -- the amusement value alone would be worth it. If my department chair did get up the guts to say something -- which seems rather unlikely -- I'd be really tempted to apologize sweetly and continue ignoring the dress code. Of course, if you're going to try this, make sure you have tenure. And it probably wouldn't hurt to cultivate an air of earnest absent-mindedness as well, for plausible deniability.

If you don't have tenure, my sympathies.
I'm late to the comments, but I have to add that my department chair wears a uniform of shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and sandals. On our uber-relaxed, temperate-climate campus, this presents no problems. However, it can rattle potential job candidates.

On the way to a group lunch one Interview Day, I was one of two grad students who joined the party. As the group fanned out on our way to the restaurant, Dressed-For-Success-Candidate took me aside and asked me if our department chair always dressed "that way". I helpfully (and truthfully) offered that no, sometimes he sheds his sandals and lectures barefoot.

DFS-Candidate was later noted to be uninterested in our department as a place of employment.
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