Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Pajama Phenomenon

I have been teaching at the college level for over twenty years, and I have seen many styles of student attire come and go. Black-and-white photographs of college students from the 1950s or earlier show men in jackets and ties and women in dresses, but those days are long gone. Jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts, and t-shirts are now the norm, but sweatpants, track suits, and other forms of workout clothes are also common. Some of my colleagues were annoyed when their students started wearing baseball caps to class. More popular with men than women, these head coverings are often worn backwards with the bill going down the neck, but they also commonly appear frontwards, straight on or at a variety of listing, half-twisted angles. The hats-in-class trend has persisted for over a decade with little hint of decline, and most college professors hardly notice anymore.

But over the last couple of years I have witnessed a new development. Students have started coming to class wearing pajamas. In most cases, flannel pajama bottoms are worn with some kind of conventional, non-sleep attire top. My first encounters with this fashion were with male students, but I have also seen women dressed this way for a Psychology 101 lecture.

I am a casual dresser myself. I often wear jeans and running shoes to class, generally with an oxford shirt and/or a sweater on top. I rarely wear a jacket and almost never a tie. Furthermore, I consider myself fairly accepting of the fashions worn by students. I was young once, too, and what matters most is the student’s attentiveness and motivation to perform.

But something about the pajama thing bothers me. Perhaps it is an artificial distinction, but it seems to me that pajamas were not intended for use outside the house. I know that at the small liberal arts college where I work, students sometimes feel like they live in a bubble. The classrooms are just steps from their beds, and it must feel like they have tumbled down the stairs to a class at the kitchen table. Furthermore, many adults are comfortable wearing a bathrobe to drive their kids to school or to go through the drive-thru window a Dunkin’ Donuts. In addition, pajamas seem to be a general college-age phenomenon not limited to small residential institutions. On a recent trip to the University of Massachusetts I watched a pair of red and blue flannel Red Sox pajamas stride through the student union building.

I have never before felt the need to introduce a dress code for my classes, and I probably will not do so now. But here is the problem. I recently had a good student start wearing pajama bottoms to a small seminar class, and then midway through the semester he asked me to recommend him for an internship at a prestigious university. To make matters worse, his academic performance—which was usually quite good—had recently dropped off. I told him I would provide the recommendation, but I urged him to consider what effect the pajamas combined with his recent decline might have on my impressions of him. Undoubtedly, the bubble clouded this student's view of the future. He probably had not considered that advancement almost always requires that people who know you be willing to vouch for you to people who don’t. At least in my case, wearing pajamas to class does not enhance the image of students I send forth to future employers.