Diminishing Power and Authority Through Modes of Dress: Toward a More Equitable Writing Center

Lou Herman and Crystal G. Herman, The University of Texas at El Paso
Rachel Hinman, Independent scholar


In this article, we examine the concepts of power and authority in the writing center, the basics of dress codes, and how dress codes can mediate, complicate, or reinforce power and authority in a writing center. We will use Bourdieu’s “Field Theory” to situate styles of dress as semiotic shortcuts to understanding the power and authority in the field of writing centers. We argue that prescribed dress codes invoke specific messaging about the presence of power and authority and can thus be detrimental to the writing center consulting environment. From an administrative standpoint, creating or enforcing a particular style of dress for a writing center shifts both the consultant and the consultee away from the possibility of “peerness.” We argue for an open and inclusive Dress policy as a way to challenge power structures that inhibit collaborative and cooperative knowledge sharing and meaning-making.

Writing centers are implicitly part of a power dynamic within the structure of an institution of higher education, part of the institution’s doxa as defined by Bourdieu. Students tend to view writing centers (at least initially) as a facet of an unknown, intimidating organization, much as writing centers attempt to portray an image of equality. Institutionalized conceptions of writing centers as the place where “bad” or underperforming students go reinforce students’ perceptions of writing centers as spaces of power and authority. However, a self-identified mission of writing centers is to mitigate implicit power and authority to promote retention of the student’s voice in their own writing.

When studying the effects of power and authority on the consultant/consultee relationship, it’s helpful to use the heuristic of “social field” advanced by Bourdieu (2008). He describes the “social field” as a space which “operates semi-autonomously. It is a human construction with its own set of beliefs, which rationalize the rules of field behavior – each field has its own distinctive ‘logic of practice’” (p. 70). The writing center is, at its surface, a place where students can come and interact socially with peers to get assistance with writing. The writing center also has intrinsic social constructions created both by the institution where the writing center resides and by writing center employees and “users.” These social constructions come with a whole “field” of expectations about power, authority, knowledge, and the ways to behave. In addition, Bourdieu uses and defines the terms habitus and field as symbiotic and always in dialogue. So the way that we, and our consultants, behave as representatives of a writing center is a reflection of our habitus in the particular field of a university writing center. So too are the expectations and actions of students visiting the writing center a reflection of their habitus. We will discuss these concepts in more depth later in the article, when we explore the ways Dress is defined and used in the field of writing centers.

How Dress Works (in general)

In the modern era, clothing is more than a form of protection from the elements or a tool for physical modesty. Dress helps to visually define our vocation, social class, and personality. The way in which we choose to dress ourselves, including the use of clothing, accessories, hairstyle, makeup, and grooming habits communicates many things about ourselves and as such Dress has become a way to communicate important information without the need for a verbal exchange.

Vocational Dress consists of a cluster of dress norms that are collectively agreed upon by a group. While the norms can vary greatly depending on the context, uniforms (or dress codes) are a common method for communicating vocation through dress. Some uniforms are more visually distinct than others. For example, a police officer’s uniform is both striking and immediately apparent, especially in the community or culture where the police officer works. The distinctive look of a police officer’s uniform is useful when one wishes to identify a police officer quickly or at a distance, or when the officers themselves wish to be quickly identified. Individuals may have an emotional response to the uniform. It is important to note that an emotional response is less reflective of the uniform itself and more indicative of the experiences of the viewer, their opinions about the society/system they are part of, and their feeling of belongingness within that system. That is, a person’s response to a uniform or dress code is not so much about the physical clothes, but rather about the habitus and field those clothes represent. Thus it is relevant to discuss how Dress operates at our institution in general as well as the expectations and preferences of the writing center, as well as how those two behaviors collide.

The dress code of faculty and staff at our public university might be described closest to “business casual.” This style of dress is less formal than “business attire,” which usually consists of suits (or some variation of suit coordinates), and more formal than “casual,” which ranges anywhere from shorts and flip flops to jeans and t-shirts. In general, business casual dress is most often described as slacks and a button-up shirt for men, and slacks or skirts and blouses for women. Depending on the context, this particular code may be more or less formal. Our academic community tends to orient its Dress as slightly more formal than business casual in business-oriented units and less formal in student-serving units. Of course, even this generalization varies depending upon the field. For example, employees in the Office of the President may wear formal business attire, while employees in the Office of Student Life may wear fully casual clothing. For the sake of levity, we’ll refer to the dress in our University professional field as academic-professional. The writing center is often considered an academic unit, thus most employees, consultants, and students have an intrinsic, university-driven expectation of academic-professional Dress when they interact with the writing center. However, at the writing center, consultants are allowed to dress in any fashion they deem comfortable for both themselves and their confidence in assisting students. The Director of the writing center, Dr. Lou Herman, frequently wears shorts and a t-shirt to work as that is what he feels most comfortable wearing while interacting with students and employees at the writing center. However, on days when he needs to interact with administration of the university he will often wear pants or slacks as well as a collared shirt to fit in with the expected normativity of the audience he is interacting with. Understanding how the change of Dress affects the perception of the person through their power and authority – particularly at an academic institution- is central to the argument we are making here. It is important that the style of Dress, or at least the expectations of Dress, are outwardly noticeable to communicate the power and authority that may or may not be present.

How Dress Codes Affect Power & Authority in Writing Centers

In many ways, seeing writing centers as a place of equal footing and “peerness” does much to alleviate the pejorative view students have of writing consulting. As a result, modes of dress and consultants’ appearances play a significant role in the immediate perception students have of the writing center. The ways consultants and even full-time employees dress (i.e. habitus) can support or challenge students’ assumptions about the writing center environment, or field. The question we must ask is: how do consultants’ style of dress affect students’ perception of how a writing center operates and assists them? Further, a larger theoretical question inherent in this discussion is how can Dress push back on the assumption that writing centers are a place of power and authority?

Writing centers are systems within the larger institution of higher education, so the style of dress that consultants use within the center can perpetuate or diminish the view of the system and how students fit in with that system. Based on how a student understands the field of the larger university, Dress may either align or disrupt their expectations about the sub-field of writing centers. A style of dress that mimics the academic-professional found in other academic units might be what students expect to see in the writing center. However, our experience has been that prescribing this expected style for employees, especially student employees, reaffirms those power dynamics of the University that students often fear or avoid.

Put another way, we argue that Dress is a social construct of both field and capital, a type of social or cultural asset (Bourdieu 2008, p. 98). Dress codes in University communicate power and authority, knowledge, and ability within a specific field. While writing centers are implicated in those things as a consequence of being part of University, part of our mission is to attempt to resolve or disrupt those implications. When we dress in the “uniform” of institutional employees, we identify ourselves and our space as a part of the dominant field. Our dress code becomes a shortcut for students, a way of identifying us as complicit members of the hierarchical power and authority of the University. This might be useful for a few students, those who are seeking an authoritative voice to pass judgement on their work. However, this kind of identification is detrimental to the larger mission of the writing center as a place of collaborative, inclusive learning. Additionally, students who are unsure of their skills or uncomfortable with the authoritative structure of University will be actively repelled by a uniform dress code in the writing center.

Writing centers attempt to create a space where students feel comfortable and welcome so there is one less fear or trepidation to developing better writing, and Dress can contribute to that goal. Mary Louise Pratt (1991) would describe writing centers as a “contact zone” in which “cultures meet, class, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.” However, the writing center’s goal is to initiate relationships between students and consultants without these asymmetrical relations of power from the start. Therefore, “comfortable and welcome” styles of Dress are enacted and understood differently in different fields, and are thus inherently tied up in power and authority. The style of dress communicates precisely what the wearer wants to embody and communicate to their clients. Thus, formal business attire contributes to a feeling of comfort and trustworthiness in an attorney’s office, because that habitus of Dress matches the field in which it is found. Alternately, if we were to walk into the same office and find everyone wearing bermuda shorts and tank tops, we would most likely feel uncomfortable and leave quickly. This kind of discomfort comes from experiencing something we consider inappropriate for the field in question. These notions of expected Dress are explicitly tied to creating a good peer relationship at writing centers, as students feel more comfortable seeing their peers at the writing center on equal footing from the beginning and make writing a collaborative act.

So, in our exploration of how writing centers are understood as a field, and how Dress operates in that field, we must recognize the expectations of the writing center. Because it is part of the University, the default expectation of a writing center is a place of knowledge, power, and authority – a reflection of the larger University as a whole. Thus, we might assume that Dress in writing centers should be academic-professional, to reinforce the writing center’s position as an academic unit. This would certainly meet most students’ expectations, resulting in initial comfort (familiarity is comfortable). However, we consider it an essential mission of the writing center to challenge and disrupt the hierarchy of the University. This doesn’t mean anarchy (much as some of us would enjoy that) but rather a focused and critical eye on the doxa of knowledge, power, and authority as it exists both in the University at large and in our writing centers. If, as administrators, we began enforcing dress codes in our writing centers, we would be favoring the short-term benefit of recognizable instructional authority to the detriment of a more complex but longer-term benefit of defining our field as pro-student and our mission as lifelong learning.

Comfortable, Welcome, and Confident

Due to writing centers’ tenuous positions at most institutions (Clark & Healy 1996, p.42), it is important that students continue to feel welcome and see themselves in the writing center. Uniforms or dress codes allow for quick and easy identification of consultants as trusted members of the teacher/student-oriented institution. In many student service units this might be a beneficial attribute, as in financial aid offices, classroom-linked labs, etc. However, the mission of the writing center as focused on long-term (even lifelong) learning means that a student’s first impression of consultants should not be as a representative of institutional power and authority. That kind of introduction reinforces the divide between “teacher” and student, rather than contributing to a collaborative or cooperative learning environment. Carino makes this point when it comes to how people wish to interact, “None of us likes to feel less empowered than another in interpersonal relations, and students who enter writing centers should be made to feel as comfortable as possible, if for no other reason than basic human decency” (2003, p. 98). What better way to do this with first impressions of the consultant through the style of their dress? Hopefully, at this point, we have made a convincing argument for some style of dress other than a uniform or prescribed business casual code.

So too is it important for the consultant to feel comfortable and confident in their ability to assist students and effectively aid in strengthening students’ writing skills. Writing center consultants embody both peer and expert positions; this negotiation is and has been a well-documented tension in writing centers for decades (Bruffee 1978, Trimbur 1987, Clark & Healy 1996, Leverenz 2001, Carino 2003). To allay that tension, it is beneficial for the consultant to feel comfortable in their position, within the field of the writing center and also within their embodied physical space, so that they can operate to the best of their ability. A uniform or dress code is, by definition, more restrictive than self-chosen clothing. Further, a dress code will decrease the confidence of consultants who do not consider themselves members of the University field by forcing them to wear a symbol of knowledge, power, or authority they do not feel they can appropriately represent. Finally, a dress code reduces or destroys a consultant’s anonymity as a student, and forces them into a position other-than that of their peers, effectively reducing or destroying a powerful opportunity for them to establish a collaborative or cooperative partnership with other students.

Dress should be chosen by the consultant because a consultant-mediated style of dress mitigates the power and authority dynamic inherent in a writing center. A writing center filled with consultants who are wearing clothes in which they feel most comfortable results in a more comfortable writing center overall, as consultants make up the vast majority of employees present at any given time. Additionally, when student consultants are invited to dress in ways that are most comfortable — this may mean a suit and tie if the student feels comfortable and confident wearing one — and natural for them, they are able to sidestep at least one embodiment of the teacher/student tension present in writing centers. If a consultant feels most comfortable wearing a purple t-shirt with basketball shorts to work, then we invite them to wear that exact thing. By avoiding the negotiations inherent in the capital of dress codes, we allow the consultants and visiting students a bit more room to negotiate the truly important space – that of the writing center consultation.

Part of our mission is to challenge the traditional teacher/student power structure of University. As such, we aim to create a collaborative/cooperative environment in our writing center, where knowledge-making is dialogic, rather than a uni-directional style of learning. We want students to recognize a student-oriented field when they visit the writing center, and so we encourage all employees of our writing center to dress in a way that reflects student habitus. An absence of formal dress code encourages a collaborative work structure, mimicking collaborative peer writing/editing/feedback structures at higher levels of scholarship.


Dress is a way to reinforce or challenge the habitus of regular players in the field of University professionals. In that particular field, capital in the form of authority, is often communicated via a type of business casual dress (called academic-professional, here). Adhering to to this specific dress code displays a comfort level with the doxa of dress within the University field. Those who are “part” of that field demonstrate the habitus of academic-professional dress. So, when writing center employees dress in academic-professional attire they are participating in the dress habitus of the University hierarchy and reinforcing the power and authority of that field. Thus, when we encourage consultants (and staff, in our writing center) to dress in clothing that makes them most comfortable, we subvert and challenge the often unquestioned habitus (i.e. doxa) of a university unit and change the terms of capital within our field. That is, by challenging and subverting traditional or expected modes of dress we take a significant step toward a more equitable writing center.


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