Hot Prof’ Websites Rate Classroom Eye Candy

Brains before beauty is the adage, but professors might need to trade in the saying for a new tie or shade of lipstick in order to earn higher marks on student evaluations. Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and Amy Parker, one of his students, found in a recent study that attractive professors consistently outscore their less comely colleagues by a significant margin on student evaluations of teaching. Hamermesh and Parker said the findings raise questions about the use of student evaluations as an accurate measure of teaching quality, such as whether students discriminate against homely professors or attractive professors simply receive preferential treatment. For example, www.RateMyProfessor.com — a comprehensive teacher-evaluation site — lists more than 250,000 instructors from more than 3,000 schools nationwide that students can rank according to level of intellectual challenge, coolness, clarity, homework and hotness. Professors get chili peppers beside their names for this attractiveness category. Northwestern’s own Course and Teacher Evaluation Council system uses more traditional prompts, but students often provide anonymous comments on professors’ muscular definition, charm and ability to dress well. “His Biceps!!!,” a Northwestern student said of civil engineering Prof. John Rudnicki’s build. “Can we say Banana Republic Poster Boy?” read another evaluation of history Prof. Peter Carroll.The declaration, “I want him!” followed a student’s 5.5 overall CTEC rating of one NU professor. In their study, Hamermesh and Parker found that good looks generated more of a premium and bad looks more of a penalty for instructors. The professors ranked most beautiful scored a point higher than those rated least beautiful, a substantial difference since student evaluations generally don’t vary by much. The notion of being “fit to teach” soon becomes less about credentials and more about comportment. “If my professor is hot, I tend to show up and pay attention,” said Rachel Sacks, a Weinberg sophomore. “I guess I might learn more that way.” The possibility that students are evaluating classes based on such superficial standards seemed to amuse rather than disturb some members of NU’s faculty. “I’m a bit stunned,” said an NU professor who wished to remain anonymous. “I guess I find it humorous and sort of silly. It’ll be a dark day when I no longer earn a chili pepper.” Whether students objectify their teachers, interpreting good looks as skill in their occupation, remains an inconclusive aspect of the study. Still looks comprise one of the many factors that affect student evaluations. “While I’m delighted that I have a chili pepper or two, I give my students credit for evaluating my class on my effectiveness as a conductor,” said Music Performance Studies Prof. Ryan Nelson. “‘Young, talented and hot’ are enjoyable, but in the end it is the ‘talented’ compliment that must live on.”