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‘Hotness’ rating on RateMyProfessors.com can do more harm than good, faculty say

Published: Thursday, March 3, 2011

Updated: Thursday, March 3, 2011 07:03

Hot for a teacher? Join the club — or the website, that is.

RateMyProfessors.com, a frequently used resource at thousands of colleges, allows students to assess the easiness, helpfulness and clarity of a professor, along with — most controversially — his or her hotness.

Although discussing the attractiveness of teachers may lend itself to amusing gossip, professors themselves see it more as the elephant in the room.

Over 240 professors from Tufts have earned a "red chili pepper" rating on the site, representing nearly a quarter of the university's rated professors. The criteria for being considered "hot" enough for the rating isn't exactly strict — the rating is based on the sum of the "hot" and "not hot" ratings, with a chili pepper indicating that the total is positive — but the system does open a can of worms regarding the nature of the attraction, mutual or otherwise, between students and teachers.

Associate Professor of Psychology Sam Sommers attributes the sexual allure of professors to what he calls the "captive audience" effect.

"Passionately talking about a subject you love to a captive audience twice a week makes you look really interesting to people who are interested in what you're talking about," he said.

But not all professors are as tolerant of their physical appearance affecting their students or their teaching. Associate Professor of Psychology Keith Maddox believes the rating trivializes the responsibilities required of professors.

"While [the "hotness" rating is] potentially flattering in one regard, it can undermine a person's activities at Tufts," he said. "It can undermine the perception that you have of [a professor] as an instructor or a researcher because you're only focusing on the dimension of physical appearance."

Gender politics also play a role, according to Maddox, who said that the ratings are more harmful to the reputations of female professors than their male counterparts.

"Women in academia and in other domains are constantly fighting stereotypes about them and their appearance," Maddox said. "It's a sexist practice to evaluate people on their physical appearance."

While most students and faculty agree that relationships between the two are inappropriate, the rating system persists. RateMyProfessors.com briefly explains its decision on the site's Frequently Asked Questions page.

"We don't dictate what's important or relevant when selecting a course or professor — students do," the website states. "We were told that clarity, helpfulness, easiness and attractiveness are the key attributes considered when choosing a professor. We are simply delivering a platform where you can make your voice heard."

Despite the site's explanation, Maddox likens the practice to the Miss America pageant, which has come under fire for claiming to be a scholarship contest, when the "poise" displayed by contestants during swimsuit and evening wear portions comprises 35 percent of the scoring system, according to the pageant's website.

"They want to focus people on substantive personality characteristics of the women who compete, and if they want to uphold those values, they should not have the kinds of evaluations that are just going to objectify women, like a swimsuit," Maddox said.

Numerous professors declined to comment on the matter to the Daily, citing the "hotness" system's objectification, by definition, of its subjects.

The ratings also illuminate a potentially dangerous concern among teachers: relationships with their students. Though sex appeal is obviously in the eye of the beholder, a professor considered attractive could receive the type of attention that can lead to the crossing of boundaries, specifically the rule banning fraternization between students and faculty.

"That's obviously not acceptable," Sommers said.

Tufts' Policy on Consensual Relationships forbids any kind of "amorous, dating, or sexual relationships" between students and faculty — including graduate students with teaching responsibilities.

"When I have training sessions for faculty I have very simple advice: Don't have a relationship with your students. Don't do it,'" Director of Diversity Education and Development Margery Davies, who trains new faculty on school policies, said.

Because of the nature of the power dynamic between teachers and students, the latter are absolved of responsibility for any violation of the Policy on Consensual Relationships, which states that "voluntary consent by the student in such a relationship is suspect, given the fundamental nature of the relationship."

"You have the ability to grade someone, and even if the relationship works and it's a long term thing [and] it's continuous, it's still not OK because it makes other people in the class feel like they have to work harder to get the same grade than this one person who has a relationship with the [teaching assistant] or … professor," Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman said. "Not to mention if the relationship goes bad … you have to deal with the possibility that the person will accuse [the professor of] grading them down because of it."

Davies believes the "hotness" rating is responsible for opening this particular can of worms.

"I wish [RateMyProfessors] wouldn't do it," she said, adding that it "introduces the topic" of sexual contact between students and professors.

Maddox sees things a little differently.

"I think that it means you think someone is attractive, but not that you necessarily want to have a relationship with them," he said.

But Maddox does not let RateMyProfessors completely off the hook for what he deems the suspect nature of its other ratings.

"It's a trivial rating, like ‘easiness,' that when making a decision on whether or not to take the class, I don't want students to take it just because it's easy," he said.

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