Teaching in Pajamas: Put On Your Pants, Please!


RussellBy Rich Russell

The answer to the question I get asked “all” the time is, yes — I do actually sometimes wear pajamas while teaching online. I’m an early riser, and usually by 5/5:30, when I’m drinking my inaugural 24 ounces of coffee for the day, logging in to check my personal e-mail, my Google Reader, my two faculty e-mail accounts, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I will eventually be awake enough to check in on my online classes. I check my mail on Blackboard to see what individual student crises have occurred while I was sleeping. Then I make a quick sweep of the discussion boards, to make sure no students have posted more public meltdowns requiring immediate mitigation. Then I usually switch back to Facebook for a few more minutes during a second cup of coffee.

Later, once I’m showered, dressed, and have prepared a face to meet the faces as Eliot notes, I will get to work planning, grading, and engaging in the online discussions surrounding course content. Usually, even if I’m not on campus that day, I am wearing something that I would consider presentable, if not full-on professional: something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed about having a student see me wearing.

Why? Wasn’t teaching online meant to liberate us from collared shirts and pantyhose? Am I stuffy and old-fashioned in still wanting to wear pressed slacks while I teach, even at home? I’d like to think not. But this is also my view on how to dress in the real-life classroom: in a way that shows one is respectful of the institution, the subject matter, and the students. I always wear a tie, and often a blazer in the fall and winter months, to school. Believe me: students notice what we’re wearing; one student even remarked, as a coda to a glowing evaluation last spring, “Professor Russell is also the best dressed teacher on campus.” Why should I change my sartorial style when teaching online? Should I, as an online educator, be returning home each day to enact a Fred Rogers routine of melodically changing out of work clothes into Land of Make-Believe attire? (Is that what some consider online leaning to be, then — education for kings and queens, tigers and pussycats?)

When being interviewed over the phone, it’s telling that experts suggest you “dress up” as if you were having a face-to-face meeting — that somehow that sense of professionalism in dress will transform your entire mindset — an implicit tocsin that the interviewing panel will know if you’re wearing your ripped jeans, Chuck Taylors, and flannel attire from the 90s. Somehow I believe that holds true for teaching online as well.

When Henry David Thoreau warned against professions requiring new suits, I wonder if he also would’ve meant for us to be wary of jobs requiring a fresh plaid pajama set. My mom loves living in her pajamas: sometimes I wonder if she finds anything she has to do out of her pajamas as being suspect. I can call her at 3:30 in the afternoon for a favor, and she might admit, “I can’t — I’m already in my pajamas.” For my mom, pajamas signify the end of her workday; for me, pajamas signal the start. (And, again, to a certain extent, the teaching day never really ends online. It is up to the professor to set limits.) But my mom has been telling me, since my student-teaching days — since high school maybe (when I was wearing that flannel, those ripped jeans), to “always look clean.” She took this advice from her own mother: to look clean meant to look respectable. This doesn’t mean spending a fortune on clothes (my mother is a T.J.Maxx devotee). It just means being mindful in this aspect of one’s life as one should be in all others.

So even when online, I remember my mom’s advice — and what Clinton Kelley echoed on an episode of NPR’s Tell Me More. The co-host of What Not to Wear told host Michel Martin, “How you dress tells the rest of the world how you expect to be treated.” While I don’t champion materialism, there is something to this notion that what we wear transforms everything we do.

When I tell a Facebook friend that I teach some of my classes each semester online, he jokes, “Does that mean teach naked?” NO, [shudder] — please, whether you wear pajamas or a three-piece suit to teach online, please at least have the decency to wear pants!

(Happy New Year!)

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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