Walk like a woman, teach like a man
By some accounts, college professors are among the most respected professionals. Compared to lawyers, we do pretty well; compared to hedge managers, we are closer to the saints. That is all to the good. With decades of training and not much glamor, unless you are an academic superstar celebrity, the college teaching profession is an honorable way to change lives and make a relatively decent living (unless you are an adjunct professor.) Teaching, as many report, is an art and a science. Any of us who teach know that there are moments that zing in the classroom and others that moan. But what many of us don’t understand is that the students in the classroom have huge influence on the teaching and learning that is done. Although an audience of dolts doesn’t influence whether the film that is being shone is brilliant or inane, a classroom full of half-tuned in disengaged students can make all the difference in the world in the tone and content of what goes in the classroom setting. In other words, what students bring to the classroom in terms of attitudes, beliefs and expectations matter a great deal.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell reports on an experiment conducted in 1993 by psychologists Ambady & Rosenthal on the impact of first impressions of college professors on student evaluations at the end of the semester. The students were shown a ten second clip of a professor teaching a class and asked to evaluate their effectiveness. The sound was muted. Those ratings correlated highly with the end of the semester rankings of students who had actually had the professor in class. Even when the clips were shortened to five seconds, the correlations between the immediate impressions of the professor and those earned after an entire semester of exposure to the professor were unexpectedly high.
This suggests that after the first five seconds of interaction, the battle is over. Either we are effective or we should sit the semester out, perhaps conceding the class time to other activities.
As a professor, I often think about crafting each lecture, with points carefully drawn to enhance learning objectives, to align my work with that of the mission of the university, and to advance the progress not only of Western civilization but of all the other cultures and communities we now have incorporated into our curriculum. So, imagining that a lot of that work done during the fourteen-week semester may be for naught makes me truly reconsider my career. Unless, of course, I can make those first five seconds especially charming and, well, effective. Watching the Grammies may help or maybe appropriating an attention grabber from the halftime the Super Bowl or better yet, Shark Tank when those earnest entrepreneurs make their pitch to their potential backers.
In any case, a recent article in the New York Times brings additional light to this subject. Benjamin Schmidt, professor of history at Northwestern University, examined fourteen million student reviews of professor on Rate My Professor. On this site, students write descriptive comments on professors. These are by no means a scientifically designed sample. It could be argued that students who go to the trouble of filing reports on the site are either very happy with their professors or quite the opposite. Because students can write whatever they want, “Professor Brown reminds me of a jellyfish—bland but dangerous when poked” or “Like lemonade on a hot summer’s day, Professor West is a brilliant and satisfying answer to what could have been an awful course.” And because students can use whatever descriptors they want, a resourceful researcher can try to make sense of these comments to discern interesting patterns. Once you have fourteen million responses, something interesting is certain to surface.
Schmidt has not only published his research, he has created an interactive chart displaying how these descriptors break down by department and gender. The level of detail is amazingly disorienting. For instance, you can enter “funny” and see not only which disciplines are rated by students as most funny but also whether students are more likely to label men or women with that value. Across all disciplines, men are more likely than women to be described as brilliant. Women are more likely to be described as bossy, disorganized, annoying and nice than as men. The descriptors for men focus more on skills; those assigned to women aim at personality.
Playing with the interactive chart yields some interesting results. As shown the Times’ article, searching for genius display music at the top with criminal justice at the bottom with men far out distancing women on this measure. My own discipline of sociology is close to the bottom on the genius scale. On the other hand, searching for funny finds psychology at the top followed closely by languages with sociology among the top five. Still here, men are far out front. The least funny professors are the engineers, the computer scientists and the accountants. Sociology and psychology are the top disciplines when the term “interesting” is used with very small differences between men and women. Math and chemistry are at the bottom of this list. Like the overall finding, women professors are more likely to be described as moody. The fine arts (the tortured woman artist?), music and communication studies top the moody list while the political scientists, philosophers (really?) and physicists are at the bottom of the list.
Although not widely reported, men are much more likely to be described as goofy with music and science professors heading the top of this list. Men are reported to be a lot goofier than are women by the students. At the bottom of the goofy hierarchy are the professors of criminal justice, business and accounting. I am not certain if “goofy” is a term of endearment. Maybe, the students mean pleasantly disorganized, forgetful and spaced out which in men is charming and in women is seen as annoying and disorganized. The goofy professor teamed with the right faculty wife may be quite the prize.
So, armed with the information about the importance of first five seconds of the semester and the findings from the Rate My Professor analysis, I will swear to move into new semester by introducing myself this way.
Good morning, class. My name is Professor Enos. (Enter the marching band and the cheerleaders.) This sociology class will be unlike any other class you have taken (Beyoncé’s If You Like It, Put a Ring on It video displayed on every wall of the classroom.) Although I appear to be a woman, I will be teaching like a man—brilliant, commanding, funny, goofy. Questions? Comments?
That should do it.
Ambady, Nalini and Robert Rosenthal. 1993. Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations from Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64(3): 431-441.
Gladwell, Malcolm. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York. Little, Brown.
Miller, Claire Cain. Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant? Much Depends on Gender. New York Times, February 6, 2015
Link to Benjamin Schmidt’s interactive chart