Are comments on students’ clothing OK? It depends, say academics on Twitter

A Twitter poll on whether or not lecturers should ever comment on students’ attire attracted almost 400 responses, but the replies quickly became more complex than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’

May 16, 2018
Woman choosing clothes

When, if ever, is it OK for academics to comment on their students’ clothing? This is a question that arose from a story this week about a theatre lecturer at Cornell University who offended a student by questioning her decision to wear shorts during a class presentation. The comment, the student said, was sexist. 

The lecturer apologised for making the remark but explained that she often asked her students to consider their attire because it is a performance course. Was she within reason to question the shorts, or should lecturers never comment on students’ attire? I decided to poll academics on Twitter. 

Out of almost 400 respondents, just under 60 per cent said that lecturers should never question how students dress. 

Some people had a clear opinion on the issue.

Other comments to the tweet, though, revealed the complexity of the issue. When is it ever appropriate for an academic to comment on a student’s clothing? Well, it depends. 

Some argued that if a lecturer wants students to adhere to a dress code, they should state the requirements clearly at the beginning of the course.

But what about the role of the student in this particular case? One person put the responsibility on her to defend her right to choose what to wear.

Others took issue with how I posed the question to begin with, suggesting that establishing a precept on when academics can say something about how a student dresses is complicated. 

But as one researcher’s response shows, comments on students’ appearances that are undoubtedly inappropriate and offensive do happen in higher education, so tackling the complex issue of how and when a lecturer can make these remarks is worthwhile. 

sara.custer@timeshighereducation.com

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