Maybe it is a little about the clothes

I seem to have fallen into the habit of starting blog posts with disclaimers, so let me just say this first off. Before anyone forwards this to the president of my college, I want to be clear that this isn’t a complaint. It’s just an exploration of ideas. Yes, it is about the school dress code, but I really don’t think there’s a need to complain at this point. I think the administration is well aware that complaints exist. I also think they’re working on it.

Plus…hi, Dr. Smith. Let’s do lunch soon.

Now, back to the dress code. What’s on my mind right now is not whether is it right or wrong to have a faculty dress code at a college, but rather why it appears to be so important that controversy over it won’t seem to just die a natural death.

I wrote about this before, and I regret it. I got more attention than I ever wanted for what I had to say then. I’m not at all interested in stirring that up again. I just feel the need to try to explain to myself why something seemingly unimportant became so contentious. Before when I wrote about it I said it wasn’t about the clothes. I thought then it was just about the stress levels brought on by budget cuts and enrollments increases and so forth. I still think that was a major factor, but after a few months of hearing everyone in three counties weigh in on it, I think there’s more to it than that.

Understand two things at this point. One, I’m about to talk about my own personal theories about dress codes in general, not about the dress code at my own school in particular. Two, I have no expertise in this area. These are just my theories, nothing more.

I’ve decided in retrospect that clothes do matter to people more than I understood previously. I’ve decided that the psychological impact of a dress code is much greater than I understood. I think it is for these reasons: (1) A dress code is experienced as a loss of autonomy; (2) A dress code is experienced as a threat to personal ethos.

Before I explain what I mean by that, let me also say that not everyone will experience these kinds of threats to autonomy and ethos in the same way. You’ll have right brain and left brain divides, and you’ll have generational divides. Autonomy matters more to Gen Xers than Baby Boomers, and expression of a personal ethos matters more to right brained people than left brained people.

When you institute a new rule then, a left brained Baby Boomer might see no problem with it at all while a right brained Gen Xer acts like it’s the end of the world. You might hear no complaints out of a math department and a cacophony of grievances from your arts and letters people.

These are stereotypes, of course, but stereotypes are often a place to start understanding differences (though they certainly aren’t the last word). So there’s that. You can pretty well guess ahead of time who will balk against new rules because you can’t run Arts and Humanities programs without creative people, and creative people like new ideas, but they hate new structures. And if they are both creative and under the age of 45, the world may not be big enough for them and a new structure both. Not unless they are really sold on the need for it ahead of time.

Now let’s go back to these ideas of autonomy and ethos–the freedom to make your own choices and the freedom to express your own identity. These are huge issues in workplace psychology. Dan Pink in Drive argues for giving workers more autonomy if you want more productivity out of them. He ranks autonomy as one of the top three motivating factors in any work environment.

As for ethos, this is what I’ve been thinking after listening to people talk about how they dress for class. I’ve heard all sorts of comments: “I like to set myself apart from students”; “I like to be approachable to students”; “I want students to respect me”; “I want students to trust me”; “I want students to know they can’t give me any trouble”; “I want students to know I’m on their side.”

All of these have been said in relation to what people wear to class. This professional identity is deeply ingrained in a personal ethos that includes (but is not limited to) what people wear to class. If you believe deep in your soul that before you can teach people anything you first have to win their trust, how you dress becomes part of your strategy for winning that trust, and when you no longer have total control over how you dress, you experience that loss of control as a disruption to the relationship you have with your students. You experience it as suppression of your ability to express who you are as a teacher in the classroom.

That is a big deal. It’s also something I never thought about before we had a new dress code and something I wouldn’t have guessed would turn out this way. You live and learn, right? Who knew? Who knew indeed?

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