In the comments below my "More on T-shirts" post from Friday afternoon, the conversation thread has shifted to how what young women wear on college campuses affects how their professors might see them.
I see a lot of those shirts here on my university campus, usually on the sorority types. I wonder what kind of impression these girls think they're making on their professors. Do you really think your 50-something philosophy prof is going to be inclined to take you even remotely sincere when you've got "Shake your Buddah" written across your bust?
And then they get upset when people accuse them of not taking their education seriously or of being stupid. Some of them even cry sexism. Well, if you have that sort of crap plastered across your chest, of course people are going to assume you have the intellectual capacity of a chimpanzee!
Creeping Jenny responds:
It's incredibly inappropriate for a professor to assume that just because his/her student is wearing a tight top with a slogan across it, the student is dumb and intellectually unmotivated. It's not like tight tops make your brains mysteriously vaporize.
And Andrea writes:
Yes, it's our shared responsibility to see past exterior characteristics, including tasteless T-shirts. But this is a work in progress for the most idealistic of us, and many more don't share this goal. So to optimize, say, a teacher-student relationship, wearing a crude T-shirt and skanky shorts is probably a tactical error. In a perfect world, professors would disregard this offensive appearance and seek to plumb the depths of every student's intellect. But in this world, for now, the student must choose carefully what impression she (or he) cares to give, and accept that reactions will vary accordingly.
I've made it clear that I'm not a fan of the current wave of t-shirts described in the post. At the same time, as a professor, it is part and parcel of my job to see my students as complete human beings worthy of time, attention, and respect, regardless of how they happen to dress themselves. If a student's tight t-shirt says "Girls Rule, Boys Drool" (an example I take from one of the brightest young women in my evening class), that doesn't mean I am entitled either to drool over her or be dismissive of her intellectual potential. Those of us who teach for a living have a moral obligation to look past the exteriors of our students, no matter how revealing, offensive, or downright bizarre those exterior appearances may be.
I've heard some men and women say on this subject: "Respect has to be earned. I'll respect those who respect themselves, and a woman who wears a micro--miniskirt to class, or wears a shirt that says "Slut" or "I'm too pretty to do math" isn't respecting herself, so why should I respect her?" I've never liked that line of reasoning, either on feminist or professional grounds. As a pro-feminist, I'm adamant that respect for women is not conditional on a dress code! Feminism has long insisted that women should not have to forfeit either their sexuality or their right to individual expression in order to be seen as complete human beings, worthy of being treated with dignity. As I've written before in recent weeks, it doesn't matter whether a woman is wearing a miniskirt or a burkah; her personhood is non-negotiable.
I'm 38 years old, twice the age of many of my students. Many of them are at an age where they are, at last, able to make decisions for themselves about what to wear. Most are at one stage or another of their own late adolescent development, still trying on new identities, new beliefs, and new ways of thinking about their bodies. Some are anxious to avoid attention altogether, while others are positively desperate for it. Most want the "right kind" of attention, the kind that makes them feel "seen" rather than stared at. A great many of them care a great deal about what other people think, even as they carefully affect an attitude of indifference to the judgments of their parents, teachers, and peers. They are, after all, in many ways not yet fully adult. We who teach do well to remember that.
As a professor, particularly one who teaches gender studies, I make it very clear that my respect and attention are in no way contingent on a student's appearance. I owe it to my students, and frankly, I think my colleagues owe it to their students, to be immune to the kind of provocations of which so many young folks are fond. However much skin is revealed, however offensive or inane the slogan on the t-shirt, those of us old enough to be entrusted with teaching positions must be constantly mindful of our obligation to see our students as human beings worthy of respect. It doesn't matter whether we think their dress is appropriate or not; when it comes to how teachers treat students, respect must be a given. It does not have to be earned.
I wrote about this subject before, in my post on the Michael Gee case. I talked about two very fine students, Jack and Jill. Jack smelled bad almost all the time; Jill was young and pretty and dressed very provocatively. I wrote then:
Both Jack and Jill had bodies that demanded attention! With both Jack and Jill, my challenge was to be a thoughtful, attentive, loving mentor who saw them as human beings first and foremost. Jill's exposed flesh and Jack's stench both grabbed attention,and at times, in remarkably similar ways, I had to force myself to stay absolutely focused on what each was saying. As with Jack, I had to give Jill what I imagine she didn't often get from men: completely non-sexual attention. I'm not in the business of telling young women how to dress, or telling older men to bathe. Good teaching means dealing professionally and compassionately with the sexy and the malodorous alike!
Short of immediate threats to our physical safety and the safety of our students, those of us who teach must overcome any and all corporeal or sartorial provocations from those whom we serve. No matter what, no matter what, no matter what.