Until I came to college in the United States, all my schooling had been in Pakistan, in schools that followed a British system of education (our colonial legacy). This had some interesting implications for the student-teacher relationship in these schools. To put it simply: we feared our teachers. Although there were some exceptions to this, especially across different grade-levels and types of institution, it held true as a general rule.
Coming from this background, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when I first started teaching as a very young graduate student, I tried to mold my teaching style along the examples of the more “formal” teachers around me. These were individuals who seemed to exude an air of authority, who kept their students at a distance, and above all, who dressed very formally—jackets, dress shoes, dress shirts. Why not follow their lead, I thought? I was after all, 23 years old, teaching my first undergraduate course to students only a couple of years younger than me. How could I make them take me seriously? So, one of the things I did was dress very formally. I never wore sneakers and I never wore jeans. Not once.
My wardrobe suddenly changed a couple of years later when I injured my back in an unfortunate accident and I was scheduled to teach my second course as a graduate instructor. Because of my back pain, I couldn’t stand to wear dress shoes. I wondered: Could I really show up in sneakers and jeans to teach a course (I was still a graduate student, though 25 years old now)? I had seen many male professors in jeans and sneakers, who seemed not to have given a second thought to their outfit that morning. But most female professors are much more conscious of their “presentation of self” and how they’ll be perceived by their students. They have reason to be more concerned, since students do judge female professors on their appearance much more often and more harshly than they do male professors. But I had no choice. I had to wear sneakers, and so I also decided to wear jeans. Much to my surprise, the class that semester went great! I say to my surprise, because in my years in school in Pakistan, and even in the beginning of my graduate school career, I had been taught that a teacher needs to maintain a distance from her students (it was only later that I discovered some of my female role models in graduate school). I had been socialized to believe that if I crossed that line, I would lose credibility and authority in the classroom. Maintaining a more formal style of dress was a way for me to physically signal a sense of distance between me and my students and create the illusion of “separate worlds” which the closeness of our ages belied. But once I shed the formal style of clothing, I noticed that I allowed my own teaching personality to develop.
That semester, I learnt about the importance of developing a teaching persona that I am comfortable with and which is congruent with my pedagogy. My own effectiveness as a teacher depends on my ability to be comfortable in the classroom – not just in my clothes but in my teaching persona as well. I like to joke, I like to tell stories, and I like to connect with my students. As strange as it sounds, it took a back injury, and a necessary semester in jeans and sneakers, for me to come to the realization that I did not want my teaching persona to be modeled after the kind of teachers I had seen for most of my student life.
Now, ten years later, my wardrobe is a mix of whatever I feel like wearing on a particular day, but some of the deciding factors for me are: 1) Comfort –can I teach two or three classes back to back on my feet in this outfit? And 2) Is this “me”? Sneakers only meet the first criterion so they never made a comeback after the semester of my back injury. Jeans satisfy both criteria, so they are a staple in my teaching wardrobe.
And just when I thought I had all of this figured out, “skinny jeans” became all the rage . . . but that’s a post for another day!
Connecticut in the USA
Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. Her forthcoming book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public. She can be reached at email@example.com.