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.
A lecturer in the US is in hot water for questioning a student's attire for a presentation in class. What say you #AcademicTwitter - is it ever ok for academics to comment on students' clothing?— Sara Custer (@sarakcuster) May 15, 2018
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.
My view: I don't want students to comment on my clothing in lecturer feedback forms, but on the content of my teaching and knowledge. I owe them the same courtesy... https://t.co/Ieiv9msMXU— Katy Barnett (@DrKatyBarnett) May 15, 2018
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.
I suppose it would depend upon the course. For #StudentNurses, we have a code of conduct to adhere to and it's important that we are professional and maintain an approachable image. Offensive slogans, for example, would be comment worthy. #WeStNs #WeNurses— Leanne Patrick (@LeanneHPatrick) May 15, 2018
It would depend on the context - if it's a formal presentation, then yes, as part of the assessment a professional appearance might be a requirement. In other contexts - for example informally feeding back on results in class - commentary might be inappropriate.— CarolynTH (@Carolyn_Ten) May 15, 2018
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.
A lecturer should assess what s/he has taught. So, if dress sense has NOT been covered in a formal part of a given course,eg in a seminar or lecture, it would be academically dishonest to mark student for her/his attire .Clear marking criteria would be required.— Mike Healy (@mikehealy61) May 16, 2018
Perhaps, if the presentation was designed to imitate a work-based scenario where smartness was required, and only if this requirement was made clear in advance.— Max Harvey (@maxharvey79) May 15, 2018
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.
The student could have just as easily said "I will be wearing something more appropriate for the actual presentation". The student could have just said "I think my attire is okay for a college class" and gone on with the presentation.— Gabrielle (@CogSciGirlPhD) May 16, 2018
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.
False question because if a student was wearing racist, homophobic or other such clothing it should be challenged/questioned. Otherwise, it is a student's right to choose.— Mike Healy (@mikehealy61) May 16, 2018
I unfortunately have reached my limit of free articles, though have heard vaguely of this case. In most cases the answer to your survey will be "no", but exceptions exist. And "never comment" seems too strong - "nice shirt", "oh, you went to concert X!", etc.— Tanya Urrutia (@astrobellatrix) May 15, 2018
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.
For one lecture my professor stated that I looked like a 'South American Garage Attendant'.— Samogotchi (@samogotchi) May 15, 2018