July 28, 2003

Beautiful Minds

Via Critical Mass, the Washington Post reports (scroll down to "Looking Good, Grading Well") on a study by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, which finds that "the most beautiful university instructors get the highest rankings on student evaluations." Since

most universities consider student evaluations when giving raises and promotions, the study shows that professors' looks could affect their salaries, said Hamermesh, who has written papers on the correlation between physical beauty and earnings.

Hamermesh believes that "in a strictly economic sense," this may not be unfair: "If students pay more attention to good-looking instructors and thus learn more from them, then professorial beauty could have a 'productivity effect,' Hamermesh said." I'm not quite sure what Hamermesh means by "strictly economic." He seems to rely on the very dubious assumption that the higher a student's evaluation of a professor, the more that student has learned.

But speaking of "strictly economic," there's a profit-making opportunity in here somewhere. "'I don't know how much you can do' about beauty, Hamermesh said. 'You're stuck with what you've got.'" Obviously this professor is unfamiliar with the concept of the makeover (and is probably innocent of all knowledge of Glamour's Do's and Don'ts). I'm thinking lifestyle coach for sartorially challenged academics, which would surely be more lucrative than the adjunct career coach game (for more on this, see the comments to "An Adjunct's Commitment to Adjunctification"). But before I start charging for my services, here's a freebie that applies to both women and men: Never underestimate the importance of quality footwear, for shoes can make or break an outfit.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 09:27 AM

I knew there was a reason I'm a computer-room hermit. I knew it!

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 28, 2003 10:20 AM

This confirms what I've always known. The humanities and faculty are the ugly nerds. The administrators and business faculty are the cool, beautiful, rich people. University life is just the high school culture we though we could escape, but the beautiful (unethical, mean, vulgar, stupid-and-proud-of-it) ones rule everlastingly.

Posted by: Ugly Prof at July 28, 2003 11:47 AM

UP: And this is a surprise?

Posted by: Chris at July 28, 2003 11:50 AM

This also opens up the old question: What purpose is really served by student evaluations of teachers?

*Do they really make us better teachers? (My answer: no--they make us better at getting good evaluations)

*Do they empower students against teachers? What are the outcomes of this empowerment? (grade inflation, dumbing down, entertainment rather than teaching).

*What institutional function do they serve? (empowering administrators against faculty who they do not like, eroding tenure.)

*On what professional basis do the students and administrators assert the right to judge what faculty do? (none--prejudice, self-interest, and laziness)

Posted by: Anonymous at July 28, 2003 11:56 AM

Well, if it makes any of you people feel better, people say I'm very good looking. I also did well on student evaluations. Fat lot of good any of that did me in the academy.

As for student evaluations, if you do very well, the empowered people will often label you a 'cult' instructor. Of course, if you do poorly, it's a convenient stick to beat you with. You really can't win.

High school all over again? I wouldn't argue with that. Maybe it's even more petty.

Posted by: che at July 28, 2003 12:03 PM

if it makes any of you people feel better, people say I'm very good looking

Strangely, that doesn't make me feel better at all. Thanks for trying though, che!

Seriously, I'd make a distinction between the evaluations and the uses to which they may be put. If an instructor keeps reading that his lectures are rambling or that he speaks too softly, that can be useful feedback. Maybe the solution is to do away with the fiction that teaching can be evaluated through teacher evaluations and make them a private, anonymous communication between students and teachers.

Posted by: ogged at July 28, 2003 12:25 PM

My current institution has done just that, ogged, although perhaps not fully intentionally. They recently computerized the evaluation process (students log in and fill out a computer form rather than doing the bubble-and-comment thing). This in itself would not address the issues described above, but they also made it possible for the instructors to determine their own questions (or modify or use pre-existing templates) and to set the time when they will be viewed (during the semester, after grades are in, etc.).

The upshot is not only is there greater flexibility, but _it is impossible to make comparisons_. No two evaluation forms are the same, nor is there a master form everyone must use. Indeed, use of evals, while strongly encouraged, is not even mandatory.

Pretty cool, eh?

(You can see why I'm going to miss this place!)

Posted by: Rana at July 28, 2003 01:20 PM

For what it's worth, I'm a fairly nonattractive human being, but I tend to get pretty good evaluations. Despair not, ye fellow XL-sized academics with bad haircuts and untucked shirts!

Posted by: JW at July 28, 2003 01:21 PM

He seems to rely on the very dubious assumption that the higher a student's evaluation of a professor, the more that student has learned.

No, I don't think so. He (and a female co-author, btw, see my blog FMI) is saying that if it is easier for students to focus on good-looking faculty, that may lead both to better evaluations and more learning. He has provided support only for the former hypothesis and is only speculating about the latter. But it does seem plausible, doesn't it?

Posted by: kb at July 28, 2003 01:30 PM

KB, It seems to me that an equally plausible hypothesis would be that students are distracted by good looks: sure, they're focusing on the professor, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 01:33 PM

It would be interesting to know if there is a difference in the strength of the correlation of beauty and effective/enjoyable teaching (by students' lights) between male and female professors.

Posted by: LibraryGryffon at July 28, 2003 01:34 PM

According to kb, who has actually read the report in its entirety, "the effect of beauty on student evaluations is stronger for men than for women." This is interesting. Any ideas why?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 01:42 PM

The best part of this paper [PDF file] has to be the epigraph by supermodel Linda Evangelista: "It was God who made me so beautiful. If I weren't, then I'd be a teacher."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 02:05 PM

*blush* I read it very quickly. I still think they're missing the age issue -- younger faculty relate to students better, by and large. Not a perfect correlation, to be sure, but just telling the students "don't think about age" isn't going to get the bias out of the evaluations IMNVHO.

Posted by: kb at July 28, 2003 02:13 PM

I heard Daniel Kahneman talk about a study that asked subjects:

1. How many dates have you been on in the last month?
2. Overall, how happy are you with your life?

This yields a high corellation between 1 and 2. Asking the questions in the opposite order destroys the link between dates and overall satisfaction.

Possible explanation: asking about dates first raises the salience of one particular life-evaluation vector, which then plays a larger role in self-assessment.

After I heard about this, I changed my written comments form so that it reminds students of what a swell guy I am (e.g. "was it helpful to have class notes online?") just before they fill out forms with very broad questions such as "overall, how would you rate this instructor?" I'm not sure this has much effect, but it's worth a shot.

Posted by: Fontana "Derek Zoolander" Labs at July 28, 2003 03:39 PM

Perhaps female beauty is associated with a lack of intelligence ;)?

It is baffling that they haven't controlled for age, kb. It's hard to swallow that the perceived beauty measure wouldn't be correlated with age, and that age wouldn't be correlated with other factors that would affect student evaluations (such as the incentive effect of not having tenure, relating to students better, seeming 'cooler' etc.).

Posted by: Matilde at July 28, 2003 04:02 PM

Some people are very attractive; some have been beaten with the ugly stick. Most, however, are in-between, and there's a great deal of variability in how attractiveness is assessed by different people.

One thing that is constant in assessing attraction, however, is the attitude of the subject towards you. I believe it's likely that people will rate those towards whom they feel warmly as more attractive than those they perceive to be cold or hostile. Similarly, students tend to personalize teacher-student relations, often thinking that a teacher has a personal grievance if she gives them a lower-than-expected grade, for instance. Students tend, as everyone else does, to overestimate interpersonal factors at the expense of situational ones when assessing motivations for actions.

This study asked students to rate attractiveness outside the context of an interpersonal relation, however. I would be in favor of adding a "How physically attractive was your instructor (1-5)" question to the standardized forms, however. I'd guess you'd then see a correspondence between high evaluations in other areas and this one not shared by independent evaluation.

It's true, however, that good-looking people do better in every aspect of life than the homely. They earn more, have more and better sex, have richer inner lives, and are generally more likely to become self-actualized. Two of the peak performers in my profession, for instance, whom I'll call "HB" and "SF", are unusually attractive men. David Lodge has even written paeans to latter's sexual magnetism.

At a certain combination of attractiveness and narcissism, the fashion model syndrome develops; and the benefits sharply decrease. I'd bet that in most hiring situations, ceteris paribus, the more attractive candidate always gets the job.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 28, 2003 04:32 PM

So perhaps adjuncts aren't as good-looking as tenure-track faculty? Though, on the other hand, perhaps they are slightly better-looking, or perceived as better-looking by their students: among the more interesting findings of this study is that "Non tenure-track instructors receive course ratings that are surprisingly almost significantly higher than those of tenure-track faculty" (pg 6). Which finding might seem to call into question Hamermesh's idea that good looks (or students' ideas of good looks) result in promotion and higher salaries.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 05:15 PM

I think this can be empirically tested. Look at your fellow adjuncts (or tenured faculty, as the case may be) and compare their looks to those of their antagonists (it's definitely an undeclared war at this stage). Adjust for age, etc. as necessary.

There's a pretty clear reason why adjuncts get better evaluations, and I don't think it's because their better teachers. They probably are, in many cases, certainly, but the evaluations are most easily explained by the threat of instant dismissal if low ones are received.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 28, 2003 05:24 PM

Fontana, on the sequence issue, a quite rigorous study found that compliance with vaccination increased when the dangers were explained to patients *before* they heard about the benefits. Simple recall bias maybe -- last heard, first remembered.

I now use this technique when selling potential hires. 1 for 1 so far -- time to publish!

Posted by: BAA at July 28, 2003 05:38 PM

IA, re comment #18, the way these estimates are supposed to work is that if you had two instructors with identical "composite beauty indices" as well as identical everything-else-in-the-regression except that one is a t-tracker and the other an NTT, the latter on average has a higher evaluation. Economists like regression analysis because the coefficients lend themselves naturally to the assumption of ceteris paribus (all other things equal).

I hate to harp on the point, but you have just got to take this with a healthy dose of skepticism because of how age is (not) handled in the estimation. I'll spare you the detailed statistical critique, but as a referee for several journals I can tell you I wouldn't recommend that paper until they addressed my and Matilde's concerns; proper handling might change all the results, or it might not. But the reader has no way to tell that just yet.

Posted by: kb at July 28, 2003 05:46 PM

"but the evaluations are most easily explained by the threat of instant dismissal if low ones are received."

Yes, I agree. I was being facetious. Or at least partly facetious. I guess I was serious about pointing to yet another absurdity of the ancien regime division between tt artistocrats and non-tt peasants: no matter how high their evalutions, adjuncts will not be rewarded (though of course they will be summarily dismissed for low evaluations).

I hear you on the scepticism, kb.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 06:06 PM

I think we're being misled by the word "beauty." These are academics after all (relax, you're all beautiful in this light), and I started to wonder, around comment #16, if we were keeping to the proper frame of reference.

Sure enough, if you look at pg. 4 of the paper, you get this coy admission,

"The students clearly had some difficulty holding to the instruction that they strive for an average rating of 5, as the averages of three of the six raw ratings were significantly below that, and none was significantly above (perhaps reflecting the students’ inability to judge these older people, perhaps reflecting the choices implied in the epigraph)."

Wouldn't it change our speculations if the effect wasn't due to a "beauty dividend" but an "ugly penalty?"

Posted by: ogged at July 28, 2003 06:18 PM

I think the real question here is whether academics have more, less, or about the same level of attractiveness as the general population. The answer, clearly, is "less." So, the real real question becomes "why?"

Does nerdliness explain it? Partially. A relative indicator of how attractive someone is the age at which they have a legitimate chance to lose their virginity. Studies would show, I'd predict, that this averages around 21.5 for academics as opposed to 16-17 for the general population. Does being in academia reduce your previous level of attractiveness? Possibly. Fluroescent light exposure, dusty pores from old books, stooped backs, and squinty eyes don't work in our favor.

Furthermore, attractive women academics experience several types of conflicting discrimination. They are more likely to be hired and less likely to be taken seriously. Thus, once hired, it's advantageous for a female academic to actively reduce her level of attractiveness.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 28, 2003 06:34 PM

My wife recently applied for jobs at law firms. At one particular firm, she was struck by the fact that the attorneys were all better looking than at the other places she interviewed. It wasn't until a few days later that she realized the attractive firm was the only place she visited where formal business attire was still required.

If academic are less attractive than other professionals, it may just be a factor of how poorly they dress.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at July 28, 2003 06:43 PM

Here's an article on academic fashion (though according to this piece, that phrase is an oxymoron).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 06:56 PM

Chun, I wonder if the more attractive are more likely to be hired. I think "nerdly" academics are probably more drawn to individuals (this applies to both men and women) who resemble themselves than those who don't.

Posted by: Chris at July 28, 2003 07:00 PM

By the way, the author of this study has a bit of style: here's a picture of Hamermesh in a tux.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 07:20 PM

"Wouldn't it change our speculations if the effect wasn't due to a "beauty dividend" but an "ugly penalty?""

Read further. The authors test for asymetry in the beauty effect and reject that this is driving the result.

"If academic are less attractive than other professionals, it may just be a factor of how poorly they dress."

The authors also control for dress, and reject this explanation.

Posted by: Matilde at July 29, 2003 01:13 PM

Now, IA, on the business about how important shoes are. I've heard that before, always from women and gay men. Capozzola of Rittenhouse Review says terrible things about heterosexual men and shoes.

So apparently, a woman can immediately tell if a man is heterosexual by his bad shoes. And she's invariably put off by it.

Aren't we in double-bind territory here? Isn't this one of the mysteries, like the transsubstantiation, the Virgin birth, and the three persons of God? No wonder the majority of marriages end in divorce.

Posted by: zizka at July 29, 2003 01:18 PM

Matilde at #29,

I don't understand what "test for asymmetry in the beauty effect" means. Can you explain?

Posted by: ogged at July 29, 2003 01:25 PM


If the effect of beauty were asymmetric, then the return to increases in 'beauty' would matter more at the 'ugly' end of the distribution than at the 'pretty' end.

To see if this is driving their beauty effect, the authors decompose their beauty measure into 'worse looking then average' and 'better looking than average' and reestimate the return to beauty. Their results show only very weak evidence that the effect of their beauty measure is asymmetric, are are certainly not consistent with the notion that 'ugly dislike' is driving the result.

However, I'm surprised the authors haven't controlled for age in their equations, and I'd like to see how strong the beauty effect is once age is controlled for.

Posted by: Matilde at July 29, 2003 04:52 PM

"So apparently, a woman can immediately tell if a man is heterosexual by his bad shoes. And she's invariably put off by it.
Aren't we in double-bind territory here?"

It's not a double-bind, Zizka. It's more of a fine line. She probably wants your shoes to be good, but not too good: better than really bad, but perhaps not better than her own.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 1, 2003 08:54 PM

I don't see why Hammermesh should control for age. It's not unreasonable to say being old is the same as being ugly. Ear-hair for men, chin-hair for women. (And members of the academy --alas -- are more likely to not employ proper grooming to fix these age-related deficiencies.)

So controlling for old age would be like controlling for big noses, body odour, or facial disfigurements. It may be that, after controlling for schnoz-size, the beauty effect is smaller. But that isn't telling you anything interesting.

And it may be that women are less likely to get uglier than men. After all, (cue music) Stacey's mom has got it going on...

On a personal note, I recall one of my University prof as being very attractive. And I learned a great deal more from her course than any other. But, looking back, I now realize the only reason I found her attractive was because she was a good teacher. Is Hammermesh sure he has the right causality? Maybe if Linda Evangelista was a bad teacher, her students would think she was ugly?

Posted by: Not in the academy at August 29, 2003 03:30 PM

This isn't particularly surprising. There was a study done (I forget the reference) that put forms with personal essays (something like college apps) and attached pictures. The pictures were rearranged and given to other sets of people. The pictures were also judged for attractiveness.

Not only were people more likely to judge an essay with a more attractive attached picture as more intelligent they also rated the author as more moral. In general it appears that being attractive inclines people to assign you pretty much any positive quality.

Should we be surprised by this? I think not. How many of us have met attractive women or men who acted ditzy/unprofessional in a manner which would not be tolerated in a less attractive individual. How often have you heard people making excuses for attractive colleagues regardless of the situation? Cops surely let pretty people get away with more than ugly people (I wouldn't be surprised if peoples asthetic preferences were partially responsible for the apparent racial and economic discrimintation).

Also I'm not surprised about tenur v.s. non-tenur track. After all non-tenure track people are professional teachers with that as their primary responsibility as well as performance measure. Tenure track faculty are not only much more focused and concerned about reasearch than teaching they are primarily held accountable for their research not teaching.

In regards to evaluations they are certain usefull as suggestions but as an administrative tool to evaluate performance they are absurd. By choosing when to give out the evaluations as well as other personality tricks not associated to teaching ability the marks seem hardly correlated to performance. The *obvious* measure of performance is to look at the performance of your class versus the same class taught by other professors.

Posted by: Quale at August 30, 2003 02:00 AM

I think your publication is great.

I believe you can help me. I am doing my dissertation on the topic of student rating of instruction.

Specially, To assess whether providing the University’s adjunct faculty with feedback from student ratings contributes to an improved performance, which should cause higher ratings during the next evaluation cycle for that course as taught by the same instructor.

I would appreciate any literature references and personal experiences you can give me on this topic.



PS: I have been adjunct faculty since 1976 for several universities in the area.

Posted by: Les at October 17, 2003 10:05 PM