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.