The Missing Chili Pepper, Part 2

Back in June, I reported on the observation David Cottrell and I made that on RateMyProfessors.com (RMP), having a chili pepper makes a difference. The chili pepper, recall, is RMP’s way of indicating that at least third of your raters think you are “hot,” whatever that means.

Here’s an updated version of that earlier result:

The relationship between easiness and professor quality conditional on hotness.

The relationship between easiness and professor quality conditional on hotness.

What this updated visual tells us better than our earlier one is that the effect is not linear. For instructors rated not “hot,” the quality increase as their easiness increases is significantly greater than for “hot” professors, especially at the hardest end.

I wondered at the end of the earlier post on whether we might see a difference conditional on instructor “hotness” in the official University of Michigan evaluations, which of course don’t ask anything about hotness. We now have the answer: weeeell…. sort of, with grains of salt and lots of qualifications.

Here’s what we did. We took our dataset of all UM evaluations for the College of Engineering and the College of Letters, Sciences, and the Arts from Fall 2008 to Winter 2013. That’s about 10,000 instructors, including professors, lecturers, and graduate student instructors. Our RMP data has 3,100 instructors, again of all varieties. We were only able to match 715 instructors in these two sets, largely because instructor names are in different formats — and rely on student spelling skills on RMP. (I admit I have a particularly hard name, but I’ve yet to see all my students get it right, and this does seem like a common problem.)

So, with 715 observations, there’s not much we can say, and the data are not conclusive. Here’s the best thing to show:

The relationship between instructor quality on RMP and "excellence" on UM evaluations.

The relationship between instructor quality on RMP and “excellence” on UM evaluations.

On the x axis is an instructor’s quality rating on RMP, on the y axis is his or her median response to the statement “Overall, this is an excellent instructor” (with 0 as “strongly disagree” and 5 as “strongly agree”). The red circles represent instructors who have chili peppers on RMP, the black ones those who don’t. This data doesn’t have instructors not on RMP.

There is a small positive correlation between RMP and Michigan’s own evaluations, which is good news for RMP (and to be expected.) “Hot” instructors are to the high ends of both scales. But there are also plenty of “not hot” instructors with high ratings.

This is what we feel comfortable concluding: if you tell me that you have a chili pepper on RMP, I can tell you it’s more likely than not that you are highly rated on both RMP and in the official evals. The opposite is not true: if you say you don’t have a chili pepper, I can’t tell you anything about your other ratings. And, of course, most University of Michigan instructors are not on RMP at all.

Still, seeing the “chili pepper” difference in our data takes us back to the question of what it might be measuring. I won’t repeat the speculations of the earlier post, but offer a few more. First, maybe it is about looks, after all, as Daniel Hamermersh and Amy Parker’s fantastically titled 2005 paper, “Beauty in the Classroom: Instructors’ Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity,” suggests. Looks make a difference for professionals’ earnings, so why not for instructors’ ratings? Another, less depressing and creepy conclusion is that the chili pepper is measuring what psychologist Joseph Lowman has called instructors’ “interpersonal rapport”: positive attitude toward students, democratic leadership style, and predictability.

Of course, those two don’t have to be mutually inclusive: for a few students, the chili pepper may just be a report on how attractive they perceive the instructor to be while for others, as our anecdotal evidence suggests, it may be a measure of positive rapport. Either way, it’s too bad that RateMyProfessors.com has to frame the issue like a horny eighteen-year-old frat guy.

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