October 17, 2003

Not Just Another Pretty Face?

Arts & Letters Daily is linking to "Do Good Looks Equal Good Evaluations?" by Gabriela Montell, which looks at the study by Daniel Hamermesh and Amy Parker that I blogged about here. A & L Daily introduces the piece as follows:

Good-looking profs get better teaching evaluations. Ugly, unkempt teachers who refuse botox, diets, or fashion advice are asking for trouble...

Now that's putting it rather strongly. No wonder Daniel Drezner is concerned.

Not to worry, Mr. Drezner. Even if looks do count in student evaluations, there's little evidence to suggest that higher student evaluations translate into better promotions and higher pay. Indeed, the Hamermesh and Parker study found that adjuncts get higher evaluations than tenure-track faculty.

Let me urge all faculty (male and female; adjunct, tenure-track and tenured) to continue to refuse botox. Just this afternoon I saw real-life example of the effects of botox in the cosmetics department at Bloomingdale's. I interpreted the frozen features on this woman's face as a cautionary tale.

You know, some people view this weblog as a real downer, a relentless chronicle of academic disappointment and despair. My fault entirely, of course, for taking it all too seriously. So I've decided to take a different tack, which involves treating the academy as an elaborate comedy of manners, or perhaps as a theatre of the absurd. I don't mind admitting that I've been inspired by Professor Rocky "Studmuffin" Kolb:

[Rocky] Kolb, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, ... notes that teaching, like acting, is a kind of performance art in which looks play a part. Besides, even nerds must answer to beauty standards (albeit lower ones), says Mr. Kolb, who posed in 1996 for a calendar featuring hot scientists, called the 'Studmuffins of Science.'

He added: 'It's a little known fact that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has a swimsuit competition for the Nobel Prize.'

Mr. Kolb, or Rocky, has a home page with a link to his publicity photograph.*

I think every faculty member should have a portfolio of publicity shots, with a generous supply of 8 by 10 glossies always at hand. These should be distributed along with course syllabi at the beginning of semester. Airbrushing is not only acceptable but strongly encouraged. And please practice signing your autograph with a dramatic flourish. Extra points if you can bring yourself to write "love you," even more bonus points if you are capable of writing "luv ya.'" Any female faculty member who can dot her i's with heart signs automatically qualifies for a Guggenheim.

*Just so you know: I do realize that Kolb has tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 17, 2003 08:24 PM

Actually, I don't think your blog is grim at all. A good number of your regular posters are major downers, yes, but you set a brisk, smart tone I find impressive and attractive. If no one else has said this yet, let me point out that you have a great writing style. No one who writes with your verve can come across as depressing.

About teaching evaluations - there's a decisive evisceration of them in the latest Academe(it's online - hey, maybe I got the link from you!), and the article only confirms what I and every other sentient professor knows - teaching evaluations have become one of the rottenest, most destructive aspects of American university life. I stopped handing them out years ago (I'm tenured) and have probably suffered somewhat in terms of salary, but it's worth real money to me to be done with them in all their foulness.

Posted by: sympatico at October 17, 2003 11:42 PM

I have read your blog off and on for several months and have never thought of it so much grim but realistic. As someone who is considering a professional academic career, it is important to realize how strange the university is and while it is a place to hide from the real world, it is impossible to escape the human realities of it.
On teaching evaluations, I find that they the best evaluations are given to those who put the most effort into their lectures. That is usually not the chair of the department but rather the hired lectures and adjuncts. As for looks, well, maybe that is part of putting effort into lectures.

Posted by: Ben at October 18, 2003 12:23 AM

So there is a professional reason why I am most concerned about my "hotness" rating on RateMyProfessors.com. (BTW, it's about 50%, which I guess is about where I'd want it--but maybe there are ways to break the gender barrier.)

I see another opening for academic reality programming: "Queer Eye for the Straight Professor." My I'd get better ratings if I DID buy that pair of cowhide chaps and dropped the chalk more often.

Or, maybe, instead of being a Tom Selleck-esque, 70s gay stereotype (like Kolb), I could go for Goth androgyny like Marilyn Manson.

Better yet, I think the goal must be a really high "Q" rating--women love me and men want to be me. Yeah, that's it. It's all about ME. The rest is just trivia.

Remember that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie, when Harrison Ford is lecturing and a girl in the front row blinks slowly, revealing "love" and "you" written on each of her eyelids? Yeah, baby! Want to read my copy of _Lolita_?

Didn't Jane Gallop say teaching is all about seduction and refusal? Maybe the ban on teacher-student relations runs against the demand for high student evaluations.

(PS--To my dean and provost, and my wife: I AM kidding. Really.)

Posted by: THB at October 18, 2003 10:46 AM

Maybe the arrow of causation runs in the other direction. Don't we tend to think people are more attractive (extreme cases apart) when we actually *like* them? Did the study authors make any attempt to control for this factor?

Posted by: David Foster at October 18, 2003 12:59 PM

I took a class recently with an up-and-coming novelist. It was a great class, the readings were great, she taught well, but she was also cute as a bug and that increased my enthusiasm significantly.

The women in the class were not as shallow as that. They just kept notes on what kind of shoes she was wearing every week.

Posted by: Zizka at October 18, 2003 03:54 PM

1) Zizka thinks bugs are cute.

2) Eschew botox, makes expressionlessness your practice of the self.

3) Nothing is more depressing than "luv ya."

3a) Ok, maybe "luv ya, babe."

Posted by: ogged at October 18, 2003 05:21 PM

Ogged is mammalocentric. He probably reads Playboy. The fight against speciesism is the next frontier. Eve Kosofsky-Sedgewick, outta my way!

Posted by: Zizka at October 18, 2003 08:42 PM

I have a friend who as a first year graduate student wore hot pants with heels to the APSA conference. A very well endowed friend. Let me tell you, a long line of senior faculty members waited to get her informed views on a range of topics. It's not just students who are suckers for long legs and cleavage.

I'm with you, girl. I'll skip the Botox, but I'm going into class on Monday with a mini skirt and lip gloss. Should we take make-up tips from Brittany Spears?

Posted by: Laura at October 18, 2003 08:49 PM

When the original article on the relationship between looks and evaluations came out, I printed it out left it for the faculty member in my department who actually was generally concerned about adjunct evaluations. I recommended that there be an additional question on future evaluations on how good looking the student thought the professor was. Then it would be a simple statical procedure to factor it out, and get a more fair score that was free of this bias.

While he was worried about this, he told me that there was no way to implement this.

In my own department, an adjunct's reappointment is, to a small extent, dependent on student evaluations. Our provost likes it.

Since then, I have to admit, I have been trying to wear more clean clothing. I guess I am a sellout.

Posted by: Karl Czemer at October 18, 2003 10:10 PM

I think special attention should be paid to Hamermesh's comment - "what we really don't know is whether better looking professors are better teachers or whether students evaluate better looking professors better."

I can think of a number of plausible reasons why better looking persons might also on average be better teachers. First, the experiment does not control for the age of the professor being evaluated. It would not be at all surprising if the better-looking professors were also younger. And I can think of a number of competing hypotheses why younger professors might be better teachers other than the fact that they are better looking - better incentives (i.e. tenure), better raport with students, more energy.

Second, better-looking professors (or 'better looking nerds' I like that phrase better) may have a number of traits (confidence, ability to please others, more refined social and diplomatic skills) that, like it or no, translate into a better performance in the classroom. That's a very plausible alternative interpretation of the results.

Posted by: Matilde at October 20, 2003 10:01 AM

Matilde, obviously you're good-looking. We have to disqualify your opinion for conflict of interest.

Posted by: Zizka at October 20, 2003 10:43 AM

I agree with Matilde---I can think of several reasons why good looking professors may get higher ratings than their plainer colleagues. I think a lot is revealed in that word "unkempt." Personally, I always found my colleagues who were unkempt in their appearance (scraggly beard, complete disregard for their clothing etc.) tended to be highly disorganized in other parts of their lives. Plus (and I'll say this as a woman who likes to read fashion magazines and shop), I found that my colleagues' contempt for fashion often indicated a contempt for the world. There is, alas, a tendency for academics to see themselves and their profession as distinctly different from the "real" world (even that phrase, which is so common, among academics speaks volumes). I can't help but think that academics who scorn fashion are indicating a weird disinterest or even contempt for the world at large (which often translates into a contempt or disinterest in students). Demonstrating a disregard for fashion does not necessarily mean that you possess a great mind.

The one part of this whole discussion which I find hilariously strange is the emphasis on youth. I'm a really small woman (5ft/less than 100 pounds). Despite being in my 30s while I was teaching, I had a really hard struggle convincing my students that I was not their age. I actually thought my youthful looks were a terrible handicap. Freshmen were disappointed to find a young woman (who likes clothes!) as their professor as opposed to the bearded paunchy professor which tv and film had taught them to expect. I did really well on evaluations but I never did as well as I expected on "mastery of subject material." My department did a study and we found that women invariably did worse on mastery of subject material---as did younger-looking faculty. This had nothing to do with ability (the stars of the department---in terms of their published works---did not score high on "mastery of subject material" if they were female and/or young in appearance).

Posted by: Albion at October 20, 2003 12:45 PM

Actually I know a lecturer who has had $200k plus in plastic surgery. She's 62 and attempting to look 35. It's horrible. And guess what, her students still hate her because she's so awful in class!!

Posted by: Fiona at October 21, 2003 05:19 AM

This hits a pet peeve of mine, so this may be harsher than it really deserves.

You can't really judge research like this, or any research, based on a "newspaper article", let alone someone's response to that article. The original paper is here. If there is a covariate that you think of in five minutes, odds are the authors thought of it as well. If they didn't, I'm sure the reviewers did (but I don't think this specific article has been peer reviewed yet). All of the reservations mentioned here, are mentioned in the original paper.

The paper clearly says that age was entered into the regression, and it wasn't significant. Tenure status was entered into the regression and it wasn't significant either, but it was left in the regression since it was almost significant. This means any results due to beauty are on top of tenure status. It should be noted that the people rating the beauty are not those rating the classes, so this isn't a reverse correlation. While this is somewhat harder to do subjectively, especially when looking at headshots that may not represent what someone wears in class, they also controlled for the clothes people were wearing (basically suit vs. no-suit), and this was significant, but physical beauty was still strongly significant. They did this to try to deal with the fact that people that dress better may also be more organized and put more effort into the lecture.

To be honest, this result really isn't surprising. One of the strongest results from social psychology is that beauty effects most ratings that you give a person, no matter how unrelated they are. Now of course a good looking, bad lecturer will get better ratings than an ugly, bad lecturer, but those ratings will still be poor.

Note, I also posted this to Uncertain Principles where I initially saw this discussion.

Posted by: Ben Hiles at October 21, 2003 11:48 AM

Ben, you aren't the only person who reads a paper before commenting on it. I read Daniel's paper months ago, and I don't find their treatment of age very satisfactory. I wouldn't be at all surprised if their reviewers also bring this up.

I actually quite like this paper, but I think Daniel's right to caution that the direction of the causation has not been firmly established.

Posted by: Matilde at October 21, 2003 01:52 PM

Someone mentioned taboos on another thread, and I think this too is one, though perhaps more so in academia than outside it: the idea that looks, appearance, style, etc. (as opposed to substance, meaning, "inner" ability) do or should matter. Of course they do. They aren't ALL that matters; they weigh in with other qualities. But I think we are still a bit too reliant on these old distinctions between reality vs. appearance, mind vs. body, etc., when life is manifestly not so simple.

The Chronicles article reminded me of three things: first, articles by an anonymous lecturer in the magazine of the UK academic union (AUTLook - unfortunately not online) about being a young female teacher and about fashion (or the lack of it) in the academy; second, the furore around some of Naomi Wolf's comments about feminism, beauty, and sexual attraction; and third, another article on Chronicles (probably mentioned in another thread) about constructing your teaching "persona" and teaching as something like acting.

I don't have a well-developed position on why appearance matters or whether it should, but I'm firmly convinced that it does (appearance is not just about "beauty" but also whether one comes off as professional, authoritative, confident, whatever), and I work with that. (Also, as a young woman who might sometimes look even younger than I am, I like to wear suits or similar at the start of teaching to distinguish myself from the students, and to communicate in a way that projects an "I'm-in-charge" image.)

Posted by: reba at October 25, 2003 10:55 AM