One of the most difficult things to navigate in this world is the fact that presentation matters. This is particularly challenging in a society that claims to value the individual but then penalizes individual expression in the places where it can impact your career and your salary! By presentation, I am referring to a broad class of characteristics and choices, from how you look or sound, to what you wear or how you accessorize, or even what you choose to talk about. Focusing on presentation is especially disturbing in academic pursuits—including the classroom—where we make claims about the fundamental value of intellectual content over style.
As I sat down to write this particular blog post, I realized that this is perhaps one of the most difficult I have written as a white, cisgender, heterosexual male in today’s space of hyper-polarized discussions. After all, I am part of the group responsible for defining almost every standard of “professional behavior in academics.” I know from the inside how cherished and valued many of these concepts are. But I recently saw a Twitter post that reaffirmed a message that has become crystal clear over the last few years—standards defined by a small, select group of people are often not standards. At best, they are constraints, and (more likely) at worst, they are outright racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. This reality can be hard for those who have lived by and embraced these so-called standards, but it is something that we absolutely must come to terms with if our institutions are to thrive and achieve the aspirations we have for them.
In thinking about what would be most productive to discuss in this space, I thought I would share some personal experiences that help drive home how arbitrary our “professional standards” and presentation rules are in general. First, I have seen how definitions of “professional” and “appropriate” dress have impacted my daughters in various ways. A particularly challenging case has been when events require girls to wear dresses. This remains an unfortunately common “standard” for many youth events (though I am happy to see some changes in this space). I still remember having to override the “standards” set by the powers that be so that one of my daughters could wear a suit to her first communion. It was even worse to learn that she ended up skipping a range of school, athletic, and other events rather than deal with the challenges presented by “appropriate dress codes.” Sadly, these gender issues around dress standards did not stop when my children grew up.
Another event that struck me occurred early in my career. I remember having a conversation with a fairly prominent physicist. He talked about how he had to work hard to get rid of his Southern accent, as it labeled him as “not smart enough” in the world of academics. Remembering this incident only reminds me of how many people, even those that would be defined as being part of the majority, have had to get rid of core elements of who they are and what their culture is to conform to “academic standards.”
I want to emphasize that these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. Many people’s careers and well-being are strongly impacted by a fundamental confusion between what I will call “core standards” and “presentation norms.”
What does this have to do with teaching? As a student, I remember regularly being told things like “You do not need to do it my way as long as you present a good argument/solution/etc.” However, it was clear in both my and my peers’ experiences that the closer one’s presentation was to the instructor’s way, the more likely you were to get a good grade. On the one hand, this is completely natural. It is easier to recognize the intellectual content/quality of something done in a style you are used to. It is harder to do so in a style that you are not comfortable with. But, it is not just about the style of arguments students make. It can even be the choice of subject matter that is discussed. This can often stem from the confusing seriousness with academic standards.
For example, when I first started teaching Science of Superheroes, I was interviewed by various reporters. The interview always started out with questions along the lines of “Why would UCI have such a non-academic course?” Once I explained the content and work the students had to do, this generally changed to comments on how hard the course was and that it was in fact academic. It became clear that because the title was fun, people assumed the work was not academic. This was not the only example of my career where work was initially judged by titles. And, looking back, I think the fact that I am part of the majority that typically sets the acceptable standards made it easier to get my fun titles and subjects of study accepted as academic.
Thinking about all the activities we ask students in our classes to do, there are many chances to conflate presentation with standards. Students write papers, give presentations, present solutions to problems, and choose media to analyze and critique. All of these have elements that can be viewed as not serious, unprofessional, or non-academic when in most cases, students are simply approaching the topic from a different perspective. It is not necessarily the perspective that creates the academic standard, but the level and nature of the work that is done.
And it is not just students that are impacted by the confusion of presentation and content. It’s well-documented that students’ implicit biases affect their evaluation of instructors and that students judge instructors based on external factors that are fundamentally irrelevant. So it’s essential that we all work to address the conflation of presentation and standards.
As instructors, we are once again faced with a challenge of intentionality and time. We need to find the time to intentionally reflect on the aspects of the classroom, grading, etc. that are truly just presentation norms and not academic standards so that we can make critically needed changes. A simple way to start is by evaluating the feedback you offer to students. The next time you are providing advice to students on how they look or sound, ask yourself why you are doing so and if the norms you are trying to encourage them to project are truly necessary or simply an evolving preference.
I acknowledge that recognizing and addressing the conflation of “presentation norms” with “standards” is not an easy exercise, as it sometimes requires challenging conversations over potentially cherished ideas. However, this work is essential, and thinking about the impact our current system has on our students illustrates what’s at stake. While some students have already mastered the balance between adhering to presentation norms when needed and celebrating their culture and individuality, this isn’t true for every student, and we cannot expect this from everyone. Many of our students have not had to deal with this until now, and we risk driving them away if we can not support them in appropriate ways. It’s important that we keep this in mind as we work to change our norms and expectations.
As a final thought: if you still doubt that “presentation norms” exist and change over time, all you really need to do is reflect on how many faculty at UCI are teaching in suits, jackets and ties, or formal academic robes. If we trace the acceptable dress for faculty through history, it’s clear that presentation norms can change without sacrifice to core academic standards. Let’s take comfort in that and move forward with the changes that are needed now!