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A still from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).
Photo: Hulton Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

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How Is a Professor Supposed to Dress?

All while navigating sexism, pay disparities, and Rate My Professor.

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It’s been a decade since I walked into the classroom to teach for the first time, but I still remember what I wore that day. I had planned my first outfit obsessively over the course of a hot New York City summer spent designing my first syllabus and writing lectures. I ended up with a deliberately weird ensemble: a somewhat shiny black broomstick skirt that rustled when I walked paired with a black Led Zeppelin T-shirt that I had bought two summers before in Florence while studying abroad as a college student. Black, I figured, would at least seem like a nod at formality, and the four disembodied rock god heads on my shirt could stare back at my students as openly as they regarded me, their 23-year-old professor.

I should put that word in scare quotes, because while I was teaching my own college courses and rightfully called “professor” by my students, I most certainly was not a Professor. In fact, most of the people students call “professor” are not full Professors, nor will they ever be full Professors; the title is usually only given to senior scholars after several books or a lifetime of exceptional teaching and service or some combination thereof. In fact, the vast majority of people teaching in colleges across the United States these days aren’t even in the lane to become full Professors: more than 70 percent of all faculty appointees work outside the tenure system, as I did. This is an important distinction to make because it’s hard to buy good tweed while making $18,025 per year in NYC, the amount I was paid in 2006-7 to teach two courses per semester as part of the financial aid package that lured me to my doctoral program the year before. Goodbye to the Mr. Chips aesthetic, hello food stamps.

The difference in average incomes for adjunct and tenure-track faculty is vast: Tenure-track faculty earn $69,206–$102,402 on average, depending on rank, versus an average of $20,508 for adjuncts working at a single institution. Despite the pay gap, picking so-called part-time professors — who often work full-time hours — out of the crowd around the department Xerox based on their look would be difficult. Part of this stems from the “life of the mind” so many academics lead quite sincerely: They don’t need to comb their hair as long as the thoughts happening inside are good enough.

Shabbiness, minimalist grooming, and disregard for the body have been the professorial stereotype, but the scholars I encountered had rules for appearance — just rules that deviated from those of the for-profit world. There’s a look that successful Anglo-American women scholars tend to have: haircuts that are maintained carefully without much change over time, unmade-up faces with clear skin, and slender bodies (usually described as “fit,” as if enough low-impact exercises can shave off ancestor-given humps). It only looks unencumbered by the patriarchy, sort of like painstaking no-makeup makeup. Universities have been portrayed as ivory towers of radical feminism in which razors have no admittance, but we’re actually spending a lot of energy thinking about Botox.

The monastic roots of the professoriate seemed most apparent to me in the way the bodies of women scholars were often regarded as community property from the moment the first pair of distinguished eyes zeroed in on our tits at the prospective grad student reception. While no one would dream of taking aside the male adjunct who held office hours in a stretched-out muscle shirt, and it took an act of god for a body odor issue that was choking out committee meetings to be addressed, the most well-intentioned people — most of them women — tried to schedule pregnancies for me around anticipated career milestones.

This advice was well-intentioned because my guides through the circles of academic hell knew that not only are female bodies regarded as the Commons, they’re considered troubled ground that needs to be managed in order to be useful to the academic community. We girls have been allowed into the monastery as something other than typists, but we mustn’t inconvenience our hosts. Moreover, in disciplines largely controlled by men such as economics, women need to be attractive — but not too attractive — to have the best odds of landing one of the coveted tenure-track jobs on the path to becoming a full Professor.

Teacher attractiveness is graded on a curve of power difference, weighted with intelligence and personality. One only needs to peruse Rate My Professor (RMP), where student evaluators award chili-pepper designations to hot faculty members in the course of submitting overall teaching reviews, for evidence.

At one time I had a chili pepper next to my name, and my feelings about it were mixed. On one hand, it was nice to feel hot when I most certainly was not and felt like a mess of a human overly reliant on dry shampoo due to putting happy hour first on the priority list. But when my students explained that the smaller Friday morning class sizes my chair had promised never materialized due to good RMP ratings driving over-enrollment, I ended up enlisting students in a project to trash my rating. (Yes, professors are not only aware of faculty rating sites, but they’re also sometimes manipulating them.) But it seems fair to throw a wrench in the machine given that the reviews — while deliciously time-sucking and a good way to gauge if someone is generally an asshole or not — have been shown to have racial bias.

Problems with student evaluations aren’t limited to RMP. To be viewed as unattractive by students can have real ramifications for one’s career. One study concluded that “likable, good-looking, well-dressed, and approachable teachers” resulted in students saying that they learned more, got better grades, and enjoyed class more. You could say that RMP is just making transparent how appearance influences university-administered evaluations. We — people — are totally looks-biased. From infancy. It’s nice to do away with the illusion that looks don’t influence perceptions of workplace performance, but it’s also a bit humiliating to have a fuckability score on account of wanting to think a lot about dead people available to anyone who cares to Google you.

Despite the many woes of the academy, I’m convinced that it continues to attract new blood in part due to the freedom afforded faculty by the general lack of a day-to-day dress code. When I considered abandoning higher education for good, it wasn’t the long hours stuck in an office that made me recoil, but the symbolic straitjacket of casual dress required by most of the jobs that could pay my PhD-size student loans. These days I work at an academic nonprofit located in a university, and the only way my style has changed is that I’ve gone from band members to cats on my black T-shirts. Despite being in a state of controlled rot, academia has one thing going for it: With some caveats, you can wear whatever you want.

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