Monday, January 10, 2011

Dress for Student Success:It's Customer Service Too

As I walked around a college campus last week, something dawned on me dealing with decorum in the classroom and campus. The students were dressed rather slovenly. That was not the great dawning; just an observation. The epiphany came when I realized that the faculty and much of the staff looked quite much like the students. They were dressed to clean out a garage. Not to fill minds.

Dress is an objective correlative of the college. It is an outward metaphor of the feelings, attitude and even value one should place on the school itself and the professionals (or not) practicing in it. Just like in any profession, the clothes reflect the statement of how much value to place on the professional as well as the correlative statement of how much I value the school and myself.

Take for example a medical doctor. If you were a patient and a man or woman started to come into the examining room dressed in rumbled jeans, a tee shirt and say sneakers, would you think this was the doctor? Would you start to worry a bit that this person might not be a real doctor? Would a doctor be dressed this way? Like a…college student. Or at least not a fully professional physician.  If the doctor came into the room wearing neat jeans or khakis and a polo shirt, maybe we would think “this is a very casual doctor. I hope he isn’t as casual in his approach to his work.” Now if the same doctor came into the examining room in a white lab coat we would know this is the doctor. A professional. In fact, if a non-professional came into the room wearing a lab coat we would assume he or she were the doctor and be wrong. The clothes do, in this case at least, help make the professional.

This is true on campus as well. Clothes say a great deal about whom we are and what we are doing. They tell the viewer a great deal about who we are too. I realize the clothes revolution started with my generation back in the sixties and seventies when we rebelled against conformity and the straight-laced approach to college and dress. We were going to show our students that we did not see ourselves as academic bureaucrats. Prior to this time academic dress had been a tie and jacket for men, a dress or skirt and business-like blouse for women.  When students walked into class dressed in chino’s and shirts or skirts and blouses we all could see the roles being played out. The person dressed as a business-type was in charge and we were dressed appropriately to show respect for the professor.

Then in the sixties and seventies as the country underwent a massive cultural shift, clothing started to relax too. Professors came to class without a tie. Maybe even in slacks and a shirt. The tie had become a sign of conformity with the conservative business world that we evolving into something else. We who taught wanted to show a sense of solidarity, of connectedness with our students so we dressed in a way that would show more of that. More relaxed and student-like. And the classroom began to reflect our dress. It became more relaxed. We didn’t lecture as much as try to engage students in the work.
But I also remember that when I went for job interviews, it was suit or tie and jacket time. Had to look professional for potential colleagues; most of whom also wore the suit and tie for the hiring interviews. This was a professional activity after all. Hiring is important so we dressed appropriately as an administrator since they still wore (and still wear) the suit or tie and jacket if a man; business apparel if a woman. This was to show respect and the seriousness of the process and activity of hiring a colleague. But if we taught the same day we may have worn jeans with jacket and tie but when class started, the tie and jacket came off. Back to what had become teaching garb.

Somehow, teaching had become a less professional presentation. One in which we would dress as did our students. In a manner that did not show a separation between student and professor. One that said we are all equal but I am actually an Orwellian so I am more equal to you. I will dress down but demand that you come up to me.

But dressing down has its problems. It really does not show any solidarity with students as much as perhaps a parity that does not exist. When we dress in certain ways we make statements. Tie and jacket is business; professional. Shirt and slacks – business casual – semi-professional. Khakis and polo shirt – simply causal. Jeans and shirt – relaxed and not professional unless you are a golfer. Jeans and tee shirt very relaxed and fully non-professional.

Clothes also set expectations in the minds of the viewer just as the dress examples of the doctor earlier created expectations or even hesitations. Tie says we are here to do business. That’s why administrators tend to always wear a tie or business clothing. It says I am an administrator and a professional doing the business of the college. Jeans says hanging around the mall and chilling with friends.  Jeans and a tee shirt are not serious wear for most people unless of course they are part of the professional dress of the person. Wearing jeans in class usually says this is an atmosphere like hanging around and not serious.

No wonder there are decorum issues in class. We create some of them by wearing clothes that do not say this is an academic environment. That this is an important place for us to learn and for me to teach. It is a place where you are to pay attention and show some level of respect for the activities in which we are engaged. It is not a place for you to chill, IM, browse, talk or leaver early but to engage; not to text but to pay attention to the text. Our clothes too often telegraph to our students that decorum is mall-level; not academic hall level.

Now I am not saying that everyone dresses this way noir am I saying that a professional cannot hold a class’s attention and maintain decorum by her actions and personality. Not at all. What I am saying is that because too many dress too casually it demands greater effort and exertion to maintain an academic atmosphere and teach. Moreover, the complaints I often hear from academic audiences about how slovenly, inattentive and even rude students are while we are discussing academic customer service are most often our fault. We are in charge of the classroom and must demand appropriate academic decorum or we make our own work harder and usually allow one or two students to cheat 20 or more by behavior that often interrupts the class . And dress adds to the problems.

Nor am I saying that everyone should be wearing a tie and jacket. No. That is not the message here though professional dress is called for in all situations Professional dress? Yes. That is whatever the graduate in that major or program would be wearing when he or she gets a job in the area. For example, if someone is studying in a medical field they already have to dress as future professionals. If someone is going into business then the professor should be dressed as a businessperson and should encourage the students to do likewise. Animal husbandry and management may find that boots and jeans or coveralls might be the appropriate dress. And yes, a shirt and jeans could be appropriate professional dress in computer programming since that is normal dress in a position a graduate might go into.  

What I am suggesting here is that we need to begin providing an important academic customer service to our students through our dress. Part of the service we provide to our customers, a major part too, is preparing them for the world after college. We should be working to make them ready to succeed after they graduate. And some of that is knowing the culture they will be entering and how to behave and, yes, dress in that culture. We cannot forget that we are not just there to pour information and skills into them but to make them adults who can succeed beyond out classrooms.

If we dress appropriate to the profession we are engaged in and the one that they will be entering, we will increase decorum in our classrooms and better prepare our students for success.

If this makes sense to you, you will want to get a copy of The Power of Retention, the best selling book on academic customer service by the author of this article.
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