John Lemon, whether sparked by my comments this morning or by a slovenly colleague, has two posts on the subject of the way college professors choose to dress themselves, here and here. While I suspect this is a subject that will garner significantly less interest than, say, Carrot Top’s sexual proclivities, philosophical musings of Dennis Miller, or even, apparently, the constitutionality of the filibuster, it is one that has long interested me.

A long time ago in a place far, far away* when I was teaching college, this was a topic of much controversy. When Steven Taylor (not yet known far and wide as PoliBlogger) and I arrived at Troy State in the fall of 1998, we were among very few faculty members who regularly wore a jacket and tie–or, indeed, anything more dressy than jeans and a ragged sport shirt–to teach there.** I had a similar experience the year I taught JuCo and the year I was at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

For whatever reason, very few college professors outside of the business school dress in a manner that is customary in the other professions. This always struck me as rather odd. And it is a recent development. Even when I was an undergraduate, most of my professors at least wore neckties, even if they were often rather dated. Forty years ago, graduate students were expected to come to class decked out in a jacket and tie.**

Like Lemon, I find the slovenly attire of the professoriate disturbing, for similar reasons. Few of us would feel confident hiring an attorney who was in blue jeans and a faded sweatshirt–even if we knew they’d dress appropriately for court. It would convey the message that they were unserious and unprofessional. It is no wonder to me that college professors tend not to be perceived as professionals on par with attorneys and physicians, despite having more education than the former.


*A year and several hundred miles, anyway.

**Yes, I’m being gender-specific. Certainly, not that long ago, the profession was male-dominated. Perhaps because of this, the female professors tend to dress up more in my experience.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MommaBear says:

    IMAO their utterances have done far more damage to their already shaky reputations, by and large, than their manner of dress. Of course, the impact on the students may not be all that great, given the paucity of any apparent intellect in many student bodies.

  2. MommaBear says:

    BTW, this:

    just doesn’t cut it as a link, luv!!

    [that’s what’s underneath that first there…the one with the > stuck on in front!]

  3. James Joyner says:

    Strange; somehow the link essentially double posted as a link within a link. It’s working now!

  4. bryan says:

    I don’t want to give myself away too much, but I only remember one of my college professors (in the mid 80s) wearing jeans and sweatshirts.

    At least, they all dressed in dockers and button-down shirts. I’d say the same thing where I work today. None of us wear jeans, although only a few wear ties with any regularity. I don’t find this too “dressed-down” considering the state of student clothing these days.

  5. joy says:

    I’m trying to remember the last time I ever took a professional academic seriously enough to even consider how they dressed.

    Nope, wait, still can’t remember…. 😛

    To be honest with you, professorial dress was never really an issue when I was an undergrad. I mean, I can’t remember a time when academic staff wasn’t wearing at least business casual. However, I know that grad students did get a pass of sorts for underdressing, for if anything, we (the students) understood that they were overworked and underpaid.

  6. John Lemon says:

    My comments were sparked by a colleague walking by in the hall. I actually had a student come up and thank me for dressing well a few years back, claiming that it showed respect for the students. I since then surveyed some of my students and found that roughly 2/3 prefer their professors to “dress up.” The other 1/3 say it made no difference, but methinks that at least some of those do appreciate it.

    I shall have more to say about this when Blogger (blog*spot) gets back online. Aaaaargh!!

  7. PoliBlogger says:

    I originally started wearing a tie because of two reasons: 1) when I first started teaching my own classes back in 1992 I didn’t look much different than the students, so wanted to distinguish myself, and 2) it seemed to set the appropriate tone for class-that I took it seriously, etc. Now, I don’t think its a crime for someone to dress well, but more casually to teach, but I have found over the years that by wearing a jacket and tie to class, that it does help to establish a useful tone in the class.

    Ours is one of the few (the only?)departments on campus where all the faculty wear ties to class, and the students clearly notice (they make comments all the time) and many of them clearly consider it evidence that we are more “serious” than some of our compadres.

    Indeed, once finals roll around, I step down to tie-less-ness (and for my summer courses) and it freaks ’em out. 🙂