Just laugh it off, it’s better than it seems

I get it now.  I’m supposed to dress in business casual because it sets me apart from the students.  (And when I’m younger than the average student on campus, this is of utmost importance.)  Instead of people asking me, “You work here?” with a twinge of disbelief, they ask me, “Do you work here?  I need help.”  My attire is like a uniform, letting the students know whom to turn to if they’re having trouble finding a classroom or needing assistance with their research.

At first, I resented the notion of having to change the way I dress.  After all, I’m a professional!  I should be judged on my performance and not on my appearance.  However, my performance is, unfortunately, sometimes judged by my appearance: patrons who come to the reference desk don’t always take me seriously because of how young I am. I can sometimes see in their eyes their incredulousness when they approach me. (At my previous place of employment, one student didn’t even try to conceal his hesitation to ask me a question. Without saying it outright, he basically told me there was no way I could possibly help him answer his Very Complex Question.) I have noticed, though, that when I don pumps, slacks, and a button-down shirt, students don’t seem as wary of coming to me with their research needs.  Except some of the younger students (read: the few who are younger than I am), who are the most dubious of my role in the library.  They are usually the ones who remark on my age, telling me I look too young to be a librarian.

…I still don’t know whether to take that as a compliment.  I did have one older patron tell me I should be in movies rather than behind the reference desk.  “You’re like Natalie Wood!” he remarked.  Now that I’ll take as a compliment ;) (Admittedly, I did have to Google this Natalie Wood person… but she died before I was born so I feel justified in not knowing who she was!)

Do you worry about what you wear to work? Do you think it matters how you dress in the classroom / on the job?


helldriver 2010-12-03 Reply

Thanks for this. My classroom uniform is a dress(y) shirt, dockers, and something unlike sneakers on my feet. Another wrinkle: I’ve sometimes wondered whether there is something classist about it … is appearing “professional” or “authoritative,” this attempt to create a visible difference between students (some of them anyway) and teacher (or librarian), more common in schools with mostly working-class students than in schools of predominantly middle-class students? I don’t know. Maybe not. I do know that I adopt a professional persona as a teacher, and the dress is part of that role. Maybe if we dressed like Wal-Mart greeters …

Alevtina Verbovetskaya 2010-12-06 Reply

I don’t know about classist. In my case, I just need to set myself apart from the students. If I were to come in to work dressed like I do in my non-professional life, you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint me as the professor in the room. (Outside of work, I’m very much the 24-year-old: Converses, jeans, and t-shirts all the way! And when the weather turns cooler, I’m known to throw on a hoodie.)

James Lang (who works at a private Catholic college) had a piece in the Chronicle five years ago about looking like a professor. He described it as sending a signal to the students about the kind of classroom that you run. This may, of course, be based on the student population that you serve… but a teacher must always be aware of his/her audience.

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