Your professor holds forth in class, lecturing, orating, gesturing, bantering — equal parts pedagogue and performer.
But never mind his or her grasp of subject or teaching style.
Is your professor hot?
For years, that’s been a critical metric used by RateMyProfessors.com, the online review service clicked on by four million college students a month to evaluate the quality of their teachers. To drive home the point that a professor was physically appealing, the most-attractive academics were awarded a chili pepper for being caliente.
But not any longer.
Come September, when school starts, the spicy symbol will be no more, thanks to a timely tweet late last month from a fed-up assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University:
“Life is hard enough for female professors,” tweeted Bethann McLaughlin. “Your ‘chili pepper’ rating of our ‘hotness’ is obnoxious and utterly irrelevant to our teaching. Please remove it because #TimesUP and you need to do better.”
Thousands of other professors and students concurred, and with a swiftness that’s become elemental in the digital age, the website, run by the entertainment entities MTVU and Viacom, answered: “The chili pepper rating is meant to reflect a dynamic/exciting teaching style. But, your point is well taken and we’ve removed all chili pepper references from the site.”
Hallelujah, say faculty members who’d long wondered why the peppers existed.
The hotness ratings struck a nerve among professors who said with no small amount of disappointment that America isn’t nearly as culturally advanced as some would like to think. The controversy laid bare an uncomfortable fact about academia and beyond: We remain awash in notions about the superiority of men and the outsize respect they garner.
“The chili peppers undermine your authority,” said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a Temple University sociologist who has received peppers from RateMyProfessors.com. “They asked students to think about the sexiness of a professor. It activated prejudices around women and how women of color should be acting — sexualizing Latinas like me as being exotic.”
Van Cleve said such evaluations might be read by senior faculty who judge young professors for tenure. Dragging looks into the equation could subtly work against a candidate for advancement:
“You’ve gotten a Ph.D, awards, written books — and the chili pepper undermines that.”
Dustin Kidd, another Temple sociologist who received a chili pepper, said that for him, the distinction was no big deal.
“It just felt amusing,” he said. “But it doesn’t work the same way for men as it does for women. Calling a woman attractive in a university can take away credibility, take away presumption of intelligence.”
The whole idea of students rating the physical appeal of a professor “ties into adolescent notions of sexual attraction between teachers and students,” Kidd said. “They have to do with fantasies, not the reality of teaching or learning.”
Janet Chrzan, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, said that she deliberates on the types of clothes she wears to make sure she looks suitable.
“Look,” she said, “we’re all human and want to be seen as attractive, but the question is where it’s appropriate. By the time you’re teaching, you’ve hopefully absorbed how not to wear short skirts and tank tops.”
At a time when many baby boomer and Generation X icons are being castigated for poor and alleged criminal behavior against women — Harvey Weinstein, Mario Batali, Louis C.K. — observers says it’s distressing that millennials still objectify women based on physical appearance.
“People that age are appearance-oriented,” noted Deborah Carr, chairwoman of the sociology department at Boston University. “You’ll see young women tirelessly pose and primp for Instagram accounts.
“The sad fact is that looks matter in this world in ways they shouldn’t necessarily.”
Perhaps we can’t help it. Long-standing social psychological research on the “halo effect” suggests that observers tend to assign more positive traits to physically attractive people.
Other studies show that tall people generally make more money — $800 more a year per inch, actually.
Psychology Today reported that attractiveness tends to be a more important factor in our dating decisions than traits like personality, education, and intelligence.
Even newborn babies prefer attractive to nonattractive faces, which means lookism may be genetic, said Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and expert on the dynamics of attraction at the University of Louisville.
Aside from hotness, the practice of rating professors has teased out important — and troubling — aspects of how we view gender in the academy.
Work by a Northeastern University history professor showed that where male professors are called “brilliant,” female professors are labeled “bossy.”
Male instructors had overall teaching scores higher than women across most fields, according to a major national study last year.
In a March study, a male and female professor taught identical online courses at Texas Tech University. Their RateMyProfessors.com evaluations were higher for the man in every category, though he graded lower than the woman.
Students were much more likely to call the woman, Kristina Mitchell, a “teacher,” while referring to the man, Jonathan Martin, as a “professor.”
Mitchell concluded: “I was either getting comments that my personality wasn’t good or that my body was being sexually objectified. Students were looking at me not as a source of expertise … but either as a barrier to them not getting what they wanted because I’m too mean, or as a potential sexual conquest.”
Overall, said Cunningham, of Louisville, women professors are expected to be nurturers and are not seen to be as competent as men.
And almost always, he said, “younger, prettier female professors get more early enrollment in their courses.”
In the end, it behooves students to get more serious about their education, Cunningham said.
“If you’re looking for entertainment, watch something with the hottest actress,” he added. “But in school, treating your classes like TV shows and going for attractive professors is silly and stupid.”