The Missing Chili Pepper, Part 1

In a conversation about RateMyProfessors.com, a colleague once yelled (after a few drinks), “I don’t care about the rating. All I want is the chili pepper!” Well, it turns out that if you get the chili pepper, you are more likely to have a good rating, too.

RateMyProfessors.com, or RMP, is a crowdsourced college instructor rating system that our colleagues generally hate, ignore, or know nothing about. There are reasons to be critical of it: It’s anonymous (so people can vent and be mean — or not even be students in your course). Its response rates are spotty and generally bimodal (most instructors have no rating,¬† and mainly it’s only those who like you or hate you bother to rate you). And some of the variables RMP cares about are not conducive to good learning: you can be rated on “easiness,” and, most problematically, students can decide whether you are “hot” by giving you a chili pepper. Why should anyone care about that? Why should they be paying attention to the way you look, for cryin’ out loud?

OK, so it’s not great. But there are things to say in favor of RMP, too. It doesn’t only track problematic things such as easiness or the professor’s perceived hotness. It asks about the professor’s clarity and helpfulness, too. A professor’s score on those items in fact constitutes his or her overall “quality” score. Professor quality simply is the average of his or her clarity and helpfulness scores.

Also, for better or for worse, in many places, such as at the University of Michigan, RMP is the only thing students have to evaluate instructor quality. At Michigan, we do not make our own, official teaching evaluation results available to the students. (We are hoping to change that. Stay tuned.) And despite the things some faculty say about students, they are not stupid. Talking to students about their use of RMP tells me that students are pretty good at understanding the ways in which the tool is imperfect.

But let’s return to that chili pepper. I am heading a project that looks at how we evaluate teaching at the University of Michigan. I have the luxury of working with a talented grad student, David Cottrell, who is doing wonderful things with data analysis. Among other things, he scraped¬† all UM instructors’ ratings from RMP (all 31,000 of them, for more than 3,000 instructors). Below is an interesting chart (click on the image for full size):

hotVnot

In case you don’t want to look at it carefully, let me summarize the details. On the x-axis is an instructor’s easiness score; on the y-axis the “Professor quality.” The red line represents those professors rated “hot” (which means that at least one third of their raters gave them the chili pepper). The blue line represents those instructors who didn’t receive a chili pepper.

Some observations:

  • There is some correlation between an instructor’s perceived easiness and his or her overall quality, but not strict. In other words, quality doesn’t just track easiness. RMP isn’t just a tracker for an easy A.
  • There is a stronger correlation between easiness and quality for instructors who don’t have the chili pepper.
  • So, most disturbingly, if you are not seen as hot, you have to be almost as “easy” as the “hardest” “hot” professor to get the same quality rating as that hardass!

In other words: there is a very significant rating penalty for instructors who do not receive a chili pepper.

A bunch of interesting — and troubling — issues arise. What does the chili pepper actually track? Whereas the other RMP measures are scales, the chili pepper is just a yes-no variable. What leads a student to give an instructor a chili pepper? Let’s assume, first, it is all about “hotness,” that is, some kind of sexual/sexualized desirability. Does that mean that only those students for whom the instructor is in the possible realm of sexual objects are even considering it: women for hetero men, men for hetero women, women for lesbian women, men for gay men, and so on? (My hunch is no — we aren’t all metrosexuals, but lots of people are able to talk about attractiveness beyond personal preferences.)

But I have a hunch that the chili pepper tracks something beyond a purely creepy sexual attraction. In fact, I think it might be another measure of the student liking the instructor. It’s not perfectly correlated, but as the chart shows, there is a correlation. It’s still very disturbing — and interesting — if students sexualize or objectify their appreciation for an instructor, at least when invited to do so in such terms.

Please do not suggest that the easy solution to these questions is for me and David to go through all those 3,000 instructors’ websites and see if they are actually hot. Whatever that might mean. But do suggest ways of thinking about the data. We are interested, really.

And in case you wonder why this post is called part 1: we will be able to see whether the chili pepper effect gets replicated in the evaluation data that the University of Michigan collects — and which certainly asks no questions about the instructor’s hotness.