Do looks matter?

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Gabriela:
Hi,

I'm a reporter with The Chronicle's Career Network. I'm working on a fun story about a recent study that shows that good-looking professors get higher scores on student evaluations than less good-looking professors do (see http://www.eco.utexas.edu/facstaff/Hamermesh/Beautystuff.htm and click on "Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity").

What do you think about that? Do you agree with the findings? Looking at the faculty members you know, are the popular ones good looking? What are the wider implications here? Have you ever gotten a comment on an evaluation about your appearance? (And, on a humorous note: Should academics consider getting a makeover? Do we need a kind of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" for professors?)

Please share your thoughts and insights on the subject. Thanks for your help.

Best wishes,

Gabriela Montell
Assistant Editor
Career Network
The Chronicle of Higher Education
gabriela.montell@chronicle.com

Anon:
I am proud to be the first poster of what will no doubt be a hugely popular topic (once everyone finds the new forum link).

Yes, I have had comments about my looks, the last one an encouragement to dress sexier. What did I think about this?  Well, it was amusing.

Do I think students judge us on our looks? Absolutely, I think students are doing this all the time -- don't we all?  But do I think faculty are more popular who are deemed better looking? In my experience, both yes and no. Students will find novelty in an attractive instructor, and be intrigued and titillated, but students seem to be a little deeper than we give them credit.  

In all the departments I have worked in (and in which I've been a student) the most appalling physical specimens have commanded the highest level of popularity and respect (this must be coincidence, I make no correlations). How they had gained this level of popularity seemed to be a) distinguished credentials, b) charisma, presence and oratorial skill, and c) engagement with students (positive or negative).  

I suppose, in an academic environment where these latter qualities were in short shrift in the faculty body as a whole, students may have to settle with the second-best stimulation of an instructor's beauty. Others may beg to differ, but students, at least in their teachers, appear to be looking for a different kind of sex appeal.

I did however notice an odd occurrence a few years back during a faculty search. The school had several candidates present lectures of their work attended by both students and faculty. All the candidates happened to be female, and one was a young, poetic blonde. Several of the male faculty went wild and suddenly became much less apathetic in their votes.  The students, however, were not moved and voted for another candidate who was frumpy, but more professionally esteemed.

Invisible Adjunct:
If you're interested, we had a discussion of this study at my Weblog at:

http://www.invisibleadjunct.com/archives/000207.html (July 28, "Beautiful Minds")

One of the more interesting comments was made by a reader named "ogged":

"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 studentsí 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?'"

I think he has a point. Though I wouldn't use the word "ugly," which I don't like at all to describe people. I would say "less attractive," and would add that academics as a group probably do come across as less attractive than other comparable groups, but only because of matters of dress and style.

Invisible Adjunct
http://www.invisibleadjunct.com

Gertrude:
There are few places more haunted by sexual fantasies than the lecture hall. We all want to be professional, but we are all overwhelmed by the sexual animal in us. Students get bored with the lecture and focus on your body, clothing, gestures, and all that you think you can hide. In turn, the lecturer cannot not see that gorgeous student who stares at him/her. And then again. A lecture is a site of sexual complicities and that is what makes it bearable for us and them. Beauty comes in many packages. Those deep eyes. That funky haircut. And that horny, stern posture ... . We love our profession because we love ourselves and the love of others. They are younger, and gaining their attention is as rewarding as publishing in top journals. Is this outrageous? No.

Brent Chesley:
I agree with Invisible Adjunct's comment about academics being perceived as unattractive because of their choices in clothing.  

If a professor comes into class the first day dressed as if he or she is ready to meet important, influential people, that sends a message to the students, regardless of the person's ability to teach or do research. If the person looks like a frump (which we in academe all too often do), that sends another message. If the instructor is dressed as if she or he could just as well be shoveling manure, that sends yet another message.

I'm thankful that I work in a profession that doesn't have a strict dress code, but anyone who thinks that clothing choices don't affect students' opinions is a bit innocent about human nature.

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