One of my lessons in rhetoric deals with visual rhetoric. We talk about the room the class is in, what it says about the college and their learning experience, and we talk about what they are wearing, and the messages they are sending the world. And we get to college professors. I discovered this in an article I read and can’t recall the name of, but it was dead on. Male professors in the Northeast typically wear black shoes, jeans or slacks, and a collared shirt. That day, I was wearing black shoes, jeans, and a collared shirt. Yep. So okay, I dress like a typical male college professor, so what? And for a few years, I just continued to do so and continued with the lesson. And my students would laugh as they realized that all of their male professors dressed exactly like I was.
But over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that my students were not receptive in class, barely spoke, and I’d never see them during office hours. Once in a year, maybe, but I could go an entire term without a student ever coming to my office. Other professors have also commented on the decline of student engagement. However, something else happened that surprised me. I’m a pretty laid back, casual professor, yet in my student evaluations from the last term, several commented that I was “hard to approach,” and “intimidating,” and “a little scary.” Yeah. I know, I have a physical appearance that is a “well, once you get to know him…” look. But these were students I had for an entire term, and they stayed at that distance for 10-15 weeks depending on the school. Sure, on the first day, I could always see the apprehension in my students, but generally by the end of the first week, they’d realize that “Professor Colombo isn’t actually that scary.” That didn’t happen for Fall 2015. Most of my students stayed intimidated.
Because of said scariness, I decided to do a little experiment. I ditched the collared shirts and traded them in for graphic tees. I wanted to see if I changed my visual rhetoric a little, if it would help my students. And the results are kind of shocking. At once school, I haven’t had an office day go by yet where at least 2 students didn’t come by. For all the schools I teach for, after class, they line up to talk to me and ask for more help, and during class, they’re engaging more than ever before. Sure, it might be harder to actually be scary when I need to, but they’re listening more now.
So…graphic tees. They made me a little more approachable and my students are doing better. And now I have another thing to add to that lesson, and my students laugh about it—we talk about the Northeastern Male Professor look, and then I tell them how and why I decided to stop dressing like one, and they were all kind of shocked that students would go out of their way to note that I intimidated them. My personality didn’t change, only my clothes. But it worked. And hopefully it will continue to work.
Now I just need to find more cool t-shirts. During the Week Deadpool came out, I wore a different Deadpool shirt every day I taught, and my students loved it. We talked about Deadpool for a couple of minutes and then they were engaged in the lesson. I wore an obscure Lord of the Rings t-shirt with “Entmoot Maple Mead” on it, and they were trying to figure it out. One or two actually got it, and then we were talking about citation.
I’ve been teaching for 6 years now, and I’m still amazed sometimes at the little things we can do to help a student learn. And I’m less scary…for now.