A Minnesota community college faculty member tried an experiment recently, attempting to find out if students reacted differently based on what she wore to class.
The data showed that Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein's clothing made a small difference in perceptions of her on the first day of class, with those students in the "formal" classes finding her more qualified and approachable than did those in the informal classes. But four weeks into the semester, wearing less-formal clothes had about the same effect on student perceptions as wearing formal clothes.
Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein says she still prefers teaching in formal clothing, but now she feels more comfortable wearing casual clothes in lectures as well. She says she'd like to do further research that takes into account gender differences, as well as the environmental context of the college or university.
"I work at a college where professors wear a variety of things," she says, "Some wear suits and ties and others wear shorts, so regardless of which class I was dressing for, I didn't really stand out."
That would not be true at every institution, Ms. Konheim-Kalkstein observes. "My husband is going to start teaching at West Point," she says. "If he showed up in sneakers, I think he would have a much stronger reaction there from his students."