TA’s attire can significantly alter class atmosphere, student relationships

Week seven: Dressing for the part.

I made a big decision at the start of this semester; it was difficult to make and one I still struggle with. Did I do the right thing? Was there a better way?

You see, I chose to forgo wearing shorts this semester and have stuck to pants instead.

Yes, a small change — and moot at this chillier point in the semester — but a significant change nonetheless: It’s the first time I, as a teacher, have let appearance dictate my choice of clothes rather than comfort and practicality.

I do have a fashion sense (really, I do), but it’s only big enough to steer me clear of mismatched colors and very far away from plaid and paisley. I wear what I like to see myself wearing, and how others see me ranks pretty low on my priorities — not so much anti-social as social-neutral.

What amounts to a dress code for a teaching assistant, I’ve long since forgotten; I obeyed all the precepts already. The most I remember is a side comment at orientation telling us to dress neatly. Otherwise, so they said, if you dress like you don’t care about the class, then students won’t care about the class either.

So, among TAs, the standard clothing runs casual — neat but casual: T-shirts, sneakers, shorts, cargo pants, simple dresses, all par for the course. And while it may not appear very professional, it serves a different and useful purpose of its own: It makes us personable.

We TAs often act as mediators between students and professors; we’re closer in age, closer in likes and dislikes, closer in shared culture and closer, too, in the way we dress. Crass though it may be, those similarities mean that students can relate to and trust us more easily than they can the main instructor.

But in my case, I am the main instructor; I’m not mediating between my students and anyone. So I’ve been spending more time — much more time — examining myself and my appearance in the mirror.

Each day, I stand before class as a representative of the University, a very intimidating thought. I’m the first teacher most of them see each day, and I’m also setting up their expectations for what future teachers will be like.

So out go the shirts that are starting to fray and the woven belts that are starting to unweave, out go the pants that are just a little too baggy, and out go the shorts.

But, as much as I could leap to full formality with a nice button-down shirt and polished shoes, I don’t want to.

While I do stand at the front of the class as a teacher representing the University, I’m also representing my profession as a mathematician. I should dress properly as a teacher, since I’m putting myself on display in front of others. But there’s nothing about being a mathematician that requires such clothes, and I don’t want to give the impression that we’re all a bunch of stuffy-shirted fuddy-duds.

But, more importantly, I don’t want to distance myself from my students. That simple act of dressing casually makes TAs approachable to many students. Dressing differently from students puts a psychological distance between them and their teacher; we become “other.”

And sometimes, being “other” is OK. Certain professors have the bearing, stature and gravitas that lends itself to wearing a suit every day; many of them would look down-right odd poised at the front of the class in a T-shirt and sneakers. Their power at the chalkboard and connection to students comes from a confidence born from many years of teaching.

But that isn’t me. Not yet.

I’ve got to find some happy medium between the siren call of professionalism and the childish plea to (please, please, please) not wear a tie, clothing that looks decent and relatable at the same time. For me, the solution is formality with a hint of playfulness, something to remind the student that I am not just The Teacher, spouting Words of Infinite Wisdom from the front of the class, but a human being.

In my case, a pair of nice slacks, a belt and a T-shirt that reads, “Reality is for people who can’t handle the root of -1.”

_Joseph is a graduate student._