Thursday, October 16, 2003

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The substance of academic style

Via Glenn Reynolds, I discover one more thing to worry about as an untenured professor. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Professors aren't known for fussing about their looks, but the results of a new study suggest they may have to if they want better teaching evaluations.

Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and Amy Parker, one of his students, found that attractive professors consistently outscore their less comely colleagues by a significant margin on student evaluations of teaching. The findings, they say, raise serious questions about the use of student evaluations as a valid measure of teaching quality.

In their study, Mr. Hamermesh and Ms. Parker asked students to look at photographs of 94 professors and rate their beauty. Then they compared those ratings to the average student evaluation scores for the courses taught by those professors. The two found that the professors who had been rated among the most beautiful scored a point higher than those rated least beautiful (that's a substantial difference, since student evaluations don't generally vary by much)....

Some male professors also may be dismayed about another finding of the study: "Good looks generated more of a premium, and bad looks more of a penalty, for male instructors," say Mr. Hamermesh and Ms. Parker in a paper about their findings, "Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity." According to their data, the effect of beauty (or lack thereof) on teaching evaluations for men was three times as great as it was for women. (emphasis added)

Here's a link to the actual Hamermesh and Parker paper.

A few serious and not-so-serious thoughts on this:

  • This is why, despite her intellectual attributes, I'm glad Megan McArdle is not in academia. For students who compare and contrast, Megan's presence as a teacher on my campus would drag my ratings way down. [Oh, c'mon, could she be as bad as if say... Salma Hayek decided to teach at the U of C?--ed. Hmmm..... I'm not sure Salma looks as good in glasses, which is a must on this campus.]

  • Perusing the actual paper, I came across Hamermesh and Parker's method of gathering data on professors' looks:

    Each of the professors’ pictures was rated by each of six undergraduate students: Three women and three men, with one of each gender being a lower-division, two upper-division students (to accord with the distribution of classes across the two levels). The raters were told to use a 10 (highest) to 1 rating scale, to concentrate on the physiognomy of the professor in the picture, to make their ratings independent of age, and to keep 5 in mind as an average. In the analyses we unit normalized each rating. To reduce measurement error the six normalized ratings were summed to create a composite standardized beauty rating for each instructor.

    Wait a minute -- an N of 6 on judging looks?!! On matters as subjective as attracyiveness, I'm going to want to see a larger number of raters -- get these style mavens on the task, stat!!

  • The paper focused on physiognomy, which suggests that the "beauty" under discussion is a natural endowment. However, there are man-made elements to attractiveness -- i.e., clothing, hair, makeup, posture, etc. A sense of, well, style. I have a strong suspicion that these matters -- which can be altered through personal effort -- matter just as much as sheer physiognomy. The Invisible Adjunct makes this point as well.

    Should professors care about this? Damn straight. Teaching is all about capturing the attention of the student. Every little bit helps. [So, you're advocating that professors should dress like this to keep the students focused?--ed. Obviously, that would be distracting. However, a proper sense of style can attract attention without it morphing into something inappropriate.]

  • Finally, the dependent variable in this study was student ratings. This story in Academe suggests that perhaps this tool of analysis has been overrated. [What are you worried about? You're doing fine!--ed. Because at best, there are cross-cutting incentives with regard to student evaluations. Besides, this topic just makes me uncomfortable.]
  • posted by Dan on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM


    One possible explanation could be that people who are more physically attractive develop different personality traits than those who are not blessed with "good looks". So the students may not in fact be evaluating professors in such a shallow manner, but rather on how the professors' "looks" have contributed to their personalities.

    posted by: Buda on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    Nice to see my academic career is over before it starts ;-)

    Seriously, I get good student evals. Just imagine how great they'd be if I dropped 50 pounds...

    posted by: Chris Lawrence on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    If you see Dogma, you'll learn that Selma looks mighty fine in glasses.

    posted by: Ted Barlow` on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    Reminds me of the study that showed that beautiful people were more likely to have sex and people interested in having sex with them. Duh! I don't need no stinkin' study to tell me that.

    My student evaluations also tended to show that students like teachers to spoon-feed them the exact wording they will need to put on the test in order to get an A.

    posted by: Norman on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    How is this any surprise? I mean, it's well established that on average more attractive people are rated higher in terms of job performance as it is, so why shouldn't this be true in academics as well?

    posted by: Andrew on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    Average Easiness: 1.2


    posted by: George on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    allow me to pile on. The result has been known for years, beutiful people are seen more favourably and have an easier life (in general).
    The theory is that people are predisposed to equate beauty=good, though admittedly that is a pretty shitty theory, it's explicative value borders on zero.

    More interesting IMO: Pennebaker, Gyer, Caulkins, Litowitz,Ackreman, Anderson, Mc Graw (1979) Don't the girls get prettier at closing time?

    Answer: yes, which probably explains the number of contributing authors.

    posted by: markus on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    I always assumed my lowish student evals were more of a function of my harsh grading, sarcastic sense of humor, and being a prick. So it was really a commentary on my appearance? That hurts.

    posted by: James Joyner on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    allow me to reassure you James::
    looks do strongly affect judgement of popularity and social skills. the impact is moderate for judgements on influence, and intellectual capacity. There is no influence of looks on judgements of integrity.
    Eagly, Ashwore, Makhijanil & Longo, (1991) What is beautiful is good, but...: A meta-analytic review of research on the physical attractiveness stereotype. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 109-128.

    So don't worry James, students will notice you're a prick, no matter how good or bad your looks.

    posted by: markus on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    perhaps schools can advertise that they have attractive teachers for recruting purposes now. if i had lots of attractive teachers here at chicago i know id probably at least have better attandence.

    posted by: carl on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

    You got nothin to worry about HotStuff. I've seen your picture on the Poli Sci website.

    posted by: To Drezner on 10.16.03 at 12:21 PM [permalink]

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