If looks could teach

A researcher at the University of Texas confirmed last week what many of us would have guessed: Better-looking professors receive higher marks in student evaluations than do their less-attractive peers.

The study by Prof. Daniel Hamermesh shows that faculty who rate high on appearance also tend to receive high marks for their teaching. Because administrators are influenced by faculty evaluations when deciding salaries and promotions, the "beauty factor" has economic implications.

The cynics among us would say that this is true in all walks of life: Beautiful people have an edge. But can this also be valid in academia, where intellect is supposed to matter more than appearance?

I prefer to think the UT study doesn't tell the complete story. While it's true that most students in a lecture hall would rather have an attractive person at the podium, beauty doesn't guarantee a scintillating academic experience.

Thinking back over my academic career, I recall a handsome expository-writing teacher in my high school. His lectures were fairly dry, but no female student missed one. My guess is that they, like me, were basking in his presence, rather than soaking up knowledge.

By contrast, a college professor who could only be described as geeky-looking taught architectural history to legions of students who adored him. His enthusiasm was contagious. For years after I graduated, I sent him postcards of buildings I visited in my travels. His love of the subject made me a lifelong devotee of architecture.

Physical beauty may give people - at first - a wider margin for error. But over time, a teacher's enthusiasm and affection for students are the real determining factors.

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