ratings of college instructors
Do Good Looks
By GABRIELA MONTELL Chronicle of Higher Education
October 15, 2003
Professors aren't known for fussing about their looks, but the results
a new study suggest they may have to if they want better teaching
Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas
Austin, and Amy Parker, one of his students, found that attractive
consistently outscore their less comely colleagues by a significant
on student evaluations of teaching. The findings, they say, raise
questions about the use of student evaluations as a valid measure of
In their study, Mr. Hamermesh and Ms. Parker asked students to look at
of 94 professors and rate their beauty. Then they compared those
to the average student evaluation scores for the courses taught by
professors. The two found that the professors who had been rated among
most beautiful scored a point higher than those rated least beautiful
a substantial difference, since student evaluations don't generally
While it's not news that beauty trumps brains in many quarters, you
think that the ivory tower would be relatively exempt from such
Not so, says Rocky Kolb, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at
University of Chicago, who notes that teaching, like acting, is a kind
performance art in which looks play a part. Besides, even nerds must
to beauty standards (albeit lower ones), says Mr. Kolb, who posed in
for a calendar featuring hot scientists, called the "Studmuffins of
He added: "It's a little known fact that the Royal Swedish Academy of
has a swimsuit competition for the Nobel Prize."
Anyone who thinks looks don't count in academe is foolish, says Judith
a psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who studies
relationship of physical beauty to aging, income, and work. "It's sad
they make such a difference, and I'm sure there are many people who are
to read this and say, 'Well, they don't matter to me.' But they matter
large numbers of other people, including students," she says.
James M. Lang made that discovery. Mr. Lang has always earned high
from his students at Assumption College, but he doesn't consider
a "Baldwin" (for the clueless, that's a term for a hot guy, popularized
the movie Clueless). Apparently, though, some of his students do. More
one of them has made comments about his "buns" on student evaluations.
Now the assistant professor of English says he's self-conscious about
looks and his teaching. "I work very hard at my teaching," he says,
I am a little disturbed at the possibility that students are evaluating
courses based on such a superficial criterion." He wonders if he's as
a teacher as he thought he was, and he's afraid to turn his back to his
to write on the chalkboard.
Kate Antonovics says she can relate. The 33-year-old assistant
of economics is a "Betty" (that's slang for a
gorgeous woman, also from Clueless) in her students' eyes. She has
e-mail messages from her students at the University of California at
Diego that include remarks such as, "Where do you shop? My friends and
can't get over how cute your outfits always are (I suppose because of
usual professor clothing-style stereotype ... which I apologize for),"
"I think you are very very hot." (One student even asked her on a date
the middle of the semester. She declined.)
Despite some awkward moments, Ms. Antonovics (who also gets high
from students on her teaching evaluations) says she's not bothered by
the remarks. "I mostly think they're hysterical," she says. "I've never
like I'm getting good evaluations just because they think I'm
And if students like her, and her teaching, then maybe they're paying
attention in class, she says.
Mr. Hamermesh says his student ratings are above average, but his looks
average -- though he adds, "Hopefully, I'm being too harsh on myself."
years ago a young woman wrote on one of the professor's evalutions,
in bed with you would be exciting and economically beneficial," but
that, the only comments he's gotten related to his appearance have been
his neckties (generally favorable) and his cowboy hats (also generally
though one student once wrote, "All hat, no cattle").
The big question, he says, is: Do students discriminate against homely
or are attractive professors better teachers?
Unfortunately, the study is inconclusive on that count. But if the
is that students discriminate, "and if you think this beauty variable
shouldn't matter, and yet it does, then maybe we should discount
evaluations somewhat," Mr. Hamermesh says, "because clearly they are
by something which most of us would argue should not be something that
should be accounting for."
Some male professors also may be dismayed about another finding of the
"Good looks generated more of a premium, and bad looks more of a
for male instructors," say Mr. Hamermesh and Ms. Parker in a paper
their findings, "Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and
Pedagogical Productivity." According to their data, the effect of
(or lack thereof) on teaching evaluations for men was three times as
as it was for women.
The two also found that both female and minority professors earned
overall ratings for their teaching than their white, male peers. That
is worrisome, but hardly astonishing, says Susan Basow, a professor of
at Lafayette College. "It just shows that white, native-speaking males
still the norm for professors in students' eyes. When they think of a
they think of a Mr. Chips type." More surprising, she says, was the
that the teaching ratings for men were more affected by their looks.
Dina Ibrahim, who is herself no stranger to objectification by
says she can't help being amused by the notion that men
are being judged on their looks more than women are. "It's nice to have
the males objectified for a change," says the assistant professor of
journalism at San Francisco State University. Every semester, Ms.
who is from Egypt, must put up with student comments like, "She can be
Egyptian queen any day."
Of course, not all student comments are flattering. A glance at Web
such as ProfessorPerformance.com and RateMyProfessors.com -- where
rate their instructors on criteria such as coolness, clarity, easiness,
and hotness (on RateMyProfessors.com, hot professors get chili peppers
their names) -- leaves little doubt about the viciousness of some
Petty comments abound: "Someone fire this fat bastard" and "Looks like
hobbit, is not a nice person!"
Harold Glasser has been a victim of such comments. One of his students
the following remarks on ProfessorPerformance.com: "Glasser where's
the same blue fleece sweatercoat thing, and this awful matching blue
hat that looks like the one Elmer Fudd wore. If this wasn't enough, he
some of the same mannerisms as Dr. Evil," from the Austin Powers
Mr. Glasser, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Western
University, says he doesn't take such remarks seriously. "I care more
my teaching than what I wear. I think my appearance is irrelevant."
he adds, "I don't even have a blue fleece sweatercoat."
Students are not the only ones in the academy biased by looks, says Ms.
the psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson. When she first started
she says, she was a little on the chubby side. "But after I went on a
diet, my faculty evaluations went up," she recalls. "I wanted to laugh.
the same person, yet suddenly I'm a genius?"
Unfortunately, professors who look more like Gollum and less like
(aka Viggo Mortensen) may have their work cut out for them. "Looks
count, but clearly they do," Ms. Ibrahim says. "That means ugly
have to really, really know what they're talking about if they want to
good evaluations, as horrible as that sounds. They have to work
Short of botox injections and plastic surgery, there's not a lot
can do about the looks they were born with, so most of them should
on improving the things they can control -- like dress, grooming and,
all, their teaching, says Ms. Basow of Lafayette College.
The good news is that looks are just one of many factors that affect
evaluations. In addition, the bar for beauty is probably low for
(beautiful professors are about as rare as genius members of the World
Federation, says the University of Chicago's Mr. Kolb), so clearing it
Upon hearing about the study's findings, one anthropology professor
asked for anonymity), said, "Given this information, I'm wondering if
better looking than I thought I was because my evaluations have been so