Teaching Pedagogy, or, I Wore a Suit and Tie to Teach Class Every Day This Semester

by Kenneth Anderson

Classes have ended, exams just begun, and I’m feeling into the pedagogy of international law teaching and intellectually shallow, all at the same time … so, further to Professor Erik Jensen’s widely read (1748 SSRN downloads, which sure beats me), if not followed (abstract, in full:  “Law professors dress scruffily, and we need to do something about that”), admonition to better classroom dress by law professors, and further to my dean’s remarkably non-judgmental observation, some ten years ago (I’m slow to respond, as some editors have noticed over the years), that I had “single-handedly lowered dress standards” at our school, I embarked this term on wearing not just jacket and tie, but suit and tie, to each and every class.  As an experiment, to see if a 52 year old bald and paunchy law professor would get Great(er) Respect by looking professional for class.  Large classes – IBT with almost 90 students and Corporate Finance with 75.

Well, not every single class; my car didn’t start one day and I showed up in jeans and a t-shirt.  But every other day.  I asked the students straight out, allowing them to post anonymously to Blackboard, whether my formal dressing had any impact, positive or negative, on how they viewed me, the class, the Respect and General High Esteem  – Reverence, even – with which they held me and Every Word I uttered, etc., etc.  

One young woman told me it impressed her because it was more than how law professors normally dressed (maybe jacket and maybe tie for men, maybe not, approximate equivalent for women although, she added, the women professors dressed far better than the men, pretty much always).  She was impressed with me because I scored better on a relative scale – she candidly said that if most or all male law professors wore a suit, she wouldn’t care, because it would turn into a genuine professional uniform.  

Special case, though:  she had also worked in fashion in NYC before law school and had a series of, I’m sure, helpfully intended remarks on how my suits were all decades out of date.  Her best advice, though, was to go to Ebay and get super-expensive second hand suits from unemployed bankers and lawyers – which, having just surfed around Ebay, is great advice.  (But then she added, “and some of them might have been your former students.”  Hmm.  How should I feel about that?  Vulturous?  Reverse-oedipal?  What’s the right word?  I’m sure Freud has a term, but we’re all Evolutionary Psychologists now, and what is the EP characterization of this?)

Other than that one student (who will go far in her career, I predict), however, all other students overwhelmingly indicated it made no difference to them how I dressed.  Period.  But should I believe them?  Does it matter – but they don’t realize it unless I show up looking scruffy and slobbish every day?  Are they victims of self-deception and shining examples of Behavioral Economics?  

There.  I have just successfully channeled Ann Althouse: this is a perfect Althouse culture post!  Which is to say, it doesn’t really belong here on OJ, but I am genuinely curious how law teachers approach the dress issue.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/12/10/teaching-pedagogy-or-i-wore-a-suit-and-tie-to-teach-class-every-day-this-semesteras/

3 Responses

  1. I would argue that the suit is less important than the overall personal presentation.  Clean, put-together ‘business casual’ attire can project a much better image than a crumpled suit and tie.

    Of course, jeans and a t-shirt are never going to reflect the care and time you put into your preparation and teaching.  ‘Clean and coordinated’ projects confidence and authority.

    And yes, as a former law student, we do notice what our professors are wearing, if only because we spend a lot of time sitting in front of them.  Usually (fortunately?), only those professors on the extreme ends of the fashion spectrum provoke comment (3-piece suit? Tie-dye shirt and green shoes? Shorts when it is snowing?). 

    Nevertheless, take the fact that your students are not concerned with your appearance as a compliment.  If they are engaged in what you are saying, they are much less likely to find the time to critique your wardrobe.

  2. As a current law student, I don’t particularly mind what a professor wears to class as long as he/she he continues to outdress the students somewhat regularly.  Here at the University of Oklahoma we have professors from the full range of sartorial ability. 

    Professor Coyne, our scholarly expert in capital punishment, does not even regularly comb his hair.  Professor Richter, a former practitioner from Georgia, is always business casual.  But Professor Tepker, who has argued before the Supreme Court, reliably wears a suit and tie, along with a constantly changing lapel pin.  But then there is Professor Knippenberg, who proudly attended Woodstock back in 1969, who has been spotted wearing jean shorts in class.  I am pretty surprised the murmering whispers and laughter have not embarassed him into retiring them permanently.

    Yet regardless of their dress, I get the impression that we all respect our professors nearly equally.  An aura of intellectualism, and an upbeat, professional demeanor will always trump clothing.

    That, thankfully, seems to apply to students as well.

  3. We have a prof who I see all day in khakis and a polo but in class always in a suit and tie. I’ve come to appreciate the gesture as an indication of how seriously he takes what he does in the classroom and it encourages me to do the same.

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