The Professor
and the Fashion Police

Who would judge a person on something so superficial?

“You should wear more green.”

There it was: The obligatory fashion comment on my student evaluations. As a teacher at a small community college, I am evaluated twice a year — at the end of each semester — for all five classes I teach. Usually the students’ comments focus on my teaching style, their workload, my grading, or other classroom-related items.

But ever since I started teaching, I’ve received at least one fashion tip a semester, always from the young women in the class. They range from the more mean-spirited (“She wears so many black pants, OMG”) to the condescendingly helpful (“You should wear more green”).

I took an informal poll among my colleagues, and, sure enough, this was happening to all the women professors. (As you might expect, the men were spared the wardrobe scrutiny.) A close friend’s evaluations had included pointers like “You should wear more bright colors” and “Maybe do something with your hair.”

I generally ignore comments that don’t impact my teaching, and the issue of whether or not my blouse was too matchy-matchy with my pants has always fallen under that category. But I’m always struck by their pervasiveness.

This semester, a student in my literature class stayed late one day to ask if those hand-written comments on evaluations were taken seriously. I told him they were — not only by the teacher, but by administrators as well. That is, except for the fashion comments, I hastened to clarify. Nobody takes those seriously.

And then he proceeded to tell me how a girl sitting next to him in biology hated her instructor and decided to rip her a new one in her evaluation. She wrote about how hideous the woman’s clothing was and how she should just wear a trash bag to school, et cetera and so on.

I was speechless. The young woman hated her professor and wanted her to feel as low as possible, and so she chose to insult … her clothing?

If you really want to make her upset, address her as a professional. Insult her intelligence or her integrity. Imply that her lesson plans were recycled from other classes or that she must have written her marginal comments half-drunk. But if she wears the same brown turtleneck and khaki corduroys every day, how could you ever imagine that angry fashion comments would make her upset? Clearly, that’s not what she cares about.

It struck me: This angry student genuinely couldn’t imagine a woman who didn’t care what others thought about her appearance, who didn’t spend hours matching her purse to her earrings to her skinny jeans. When she saw other women, she saw a slightly different version of herself.

Ah, well. Must be a student thing.

Recently, two colleagues redesigned the English 101 curriculum, trying to improve consistency between each professor’s version of the class and encouraging us to share lesson plans and materials through an online service called Blackboard. The site also has a private discussion board where we can discuss classroom issues.

One discussion earlier this semester quickly became a gripe session — as they so often do — on how lazy students are. How can we get students to stop using EasyBib and other citation software and simply do the citations themselves? one colleague asked. No matter how many times I explain it to them, they use the software anyway, and the citations always come out formatted wrong. It is so frustrating!

I read his post and nodded in agreement. Why don’t they care about the lovely uniformity of a double-spaced hanging indent? Do they even notice how silly and childish the standard 11-point Calibri font looks? They must know how I judge them when their article titles are in ALL CAPS, parading around like a Vegas stripper.

Wait a minute …

Article © 2013 by Melissa Reddish