Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Law professor dress

(I’m cross posting this from its original home at Opinio Juris. I apologize to my colleagues there for taking up blog space with trivial stuff ...!)

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in NYC before law school and had a series of, I’m sure, helpfully intended remarks on how my suits were all decades out of date.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.

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