Fat Female Professors and Student Evaluations of Teaching

Some time ago in a discussion of how to get high scores on student evaluations of our teaching, a friend who teaches in another department remarked that the easiest way she knew to boost student evaluations was to lose 20 lbs. I laughed but I have been thinking about how norms of various sorts affect student evaluations of teaching ability. Recently I read “They Are Weighted with Authority”: Fat Female Professors in Academic and Popular Cultures,” by Christina Fisanick (in the journal Feminist Teacher volume 17 number 3). I know that women often do worse on evaluations in contexts in which a male professor is expected. Women aren’t punished for being women if the students expect a female professor. But it hadn’t struck me until reading Fisanick’s paper that students might also expect their professors to be slim and that fat women might face additional burdens beyond gender.

Fisanick writes: “Many researchers (Lewis; Weber and Mitchell) have argued that the “normal professor body” shares the same characteristics of the “normal body” in society. Most depictions of the “normal professor body” are white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, able, heterosexual, and thin. Where did this image of the “normalprofessor body” originate? How does it affect students’, professors’, administrators’,
and society’s expectations of what a professor should be or should look like? In a series of experiments, Claudia Mitchell and Sandra Weber discovered that images of teachers in popular culture greatly influence students’ and teachers’ expectations of teachers…..

For fat women, it is vital not only to pass as an academic, but also to pass as a woman. According to Sheila Kishler Bennett, women are unfairly evaluated by students, colleagues, and administrators, especially when they fail to follow “gender appropriate expectations” (177–78). Such expectations as niceness, friendliness,
pleasantness, and approachability (Bartlett 196) can be viewed differently by women and minority faculty and by students whose cultures interpret femininity, teaching, and even professionalism in ways not anticipated by the dominant culture. Therefore, women who fail to occupy typical gender roles are in double jeopardy of failure in the academic workplace. Female professors especially vulnerable to this second level of passing are often those who further occupy “othered” subject positions, such as women of color, fat women, women who are disabled, and lesbians.”

In order to counter bias in promotion and tenure decisions Fisanick suggests that we expand the methods used to measure teaching excellence for example by including case studies, student focus groups, ongoing peer observations, teaching portfolios, and a critical examination of teaching materials, such as syllabi, handouts, and assignment sheets. Do your institutions do any of these things? What other strategies do you think might be useful? I also wonder if anyone has done a study of how BMI correlates with teaching evaluations.

20 thoughts on “Fat Female Professors and Student Evaluations of Teaching

  1. Of course being fat puts academics, particularly women, at a disadvantage professionally. It puts everyone at a disadvantage professionally. And heuristic, fuzzy measures of professional effectiveness, particularly when as with course evaluations they’re impressionistic and anonymous, pick up all the implicit bias in the clientele.

    One semester, one of my classes trashed me. They actively ridiculed me, leaving notes on my desk like: “Oooh professor Baber, you’re sooo logical–I’d love to go out with you” was one I remember and trashed me in the evaluations. Two years later I happened to have a conversation with one of the students in the class and revealed that during that semester I was pregnant. The student was taken aback and said, “Oh, sorry, we thought you were just built like that.”

    How’s that for appalling? I couldn’t make this up.

  2. Many years ago one of my colleagues pointed out that there was a serious “age” effect, as well. I was young at the time (and even younger-looking, quite often mistaken for an undergraduate) and got good ratings. My colleague pointed out that he was (then) at the median age of the students’ parents, which was *exactly* the wrong dynamic. He was waiting to be the “grandfatherly” age, at which he expected his ratings to go up again…

    Now that I am the age he was then, I see what he meant. However, in the meantime, the focus on teaching at this university meant that standards have raised ANYWAY and so I’m not sure that even the young me would get the ratings now that the young me did then (if that makes any sense). Anyhow, it’s all just support for the idea that inessentials (schemata?) play a role in teaching ratings. One particularly telling quote on a colleague’s ratings: “He looks just like Chucky”.

    Well, what the hell has THAT to do with how well he taught?

    So I am saddened but not surprised that crazed social norms can affect a teacher’s ratings….

    Sometimes the students are pretty fair (more so than one might deserve, but that’s maybe my privilege having its effect), but sometimes they’re just crazed. The only recent comment on ratemyprofessor.com for me, for example, says that the quizzes go “way beyond” the book. …um, the quiz questions are TAKEN from the book, word for word? I had to shake my head at that one.

    When teaching evaluations are done, I tell my students the following. First, their evaluations are very important—they can make the difference between tenure and not (this is true at this University). Second, their comments are most important for junior faculty, and in particular for me the numerical rating is unimportant (…actually I do care, and the numbers can affect my mood, but I don’t tell them that). But that juxtaposition of statements encourages them, I think, to rate junior professors more highly.

    I also tell them that I read the comments carefully, and I ask them to think their criticisms out and detail them. This works; I get good and useful comments. Often contradictory, but still useful.

    I just realized this year that I could ask the same thing about comments on ratemyprofessor.com. The idea being that anonymous comments will be allowed to be nasty (even vile) but can be more direct and honest also, because of less fear of reprisal.

    Maybe I’ll try it.

  3. “Most depictions of the “normal professor body” are white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, able, heterosexual, and thin.”

    Not that I’m typical, but my conception of the “normal professor body” is white, male, middle-class, middle-aged to older, heterosexual, frumpy, fat, gray haired, and often bearded. Perhaps because I’m trained in philosophy? There are probably very different stereotypes in each discipline. For example, my conception of an English professor is a graying, frail, slightly crazy, non-fashion-conscious woman with glasses on a chain around her neck. Part of the difference could be my conception, drawn from my experience, is not affected by whatever “depictions” to which Fisanick and the others are referring.

    Regardless, the point stands that women are held to stricter standards of presentation than men are. Good to know for someone who will eventually be on the job market.

  4. I’m a grad student in a solid philo program, a TA; our program has only a handful of women. I regularly get this comment from students: “she acts like she knows it all.” Ok, while I might be acting arrogant (I plea for excuse: I do look really young, am quite short, blond and have a thin voice, so I put effort into looking like an authority figure) my female friend, on the other hand, is quite shy and miles away from any hint of arrogance, but she too frequently gets that “knows it all” comment.” We recently asked our fellow male grad students about such student comments; and no, they have never had evals like these. Also, every quarter both of us get a few students who feel free to mention that they way we dress or look is either “cute,” or not cute enough. Just throwing in my two cents…

  5. I thought I would chime in as the author of the piece being discussed.

    I am so glad that you read this piece. I wish I had more data, like a comparison of BMI and teaching evaluations!! What an interesting study that would be.

    I am currently working on a book about the relationship between student, colleague, and administrators’ ideas about the professor’s body in “Hollywood” and other pop culture cites and perceived teaching effectiveness. Sadly, as long as the mind/body split endures in academe, the body will continue to play a (often negative) role in the way these groups see us and we see ourselves.

  6. H.E.’s comment reminded me of this anecdote I like to try and forget. When I was teaching while pregnant, I didn’t say anything to the class about my pregnancy, in part because I didn’t think it was the kind of thing I needed to announce, but also in part because I didn’t see its relevance to teaching. Anyhow, one of my students actually went to the Dean to tell the Dean he was worried about me, I seemed to be gaining a lot of weight and he was worried that something might be wrong!!!

    The Dean (male) then called me to tell me about it, and suggested that I work it in some how to my class lecture that I was pregnant. Somehow this suggestion seemed to make a bad situation even worse.

    Then, on my course evaluations, several students commented that my not saying anything about my pregnancy had been distracting for them, since it was the subject of much speculation throughout the semester.

  7. On the question of being a teacher in a body, I really recommend “What Her Body Taught (Or, Teaching about and with a Disability): A Conversation” by Brenda Brueggeman, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Georgina Kleege, in Feminist Studies. 31.1 (Spring 2005): 13-33… It made me think and also made me smile.

  8. It seems that many, many extraneous factors affect teaching evaluations. I’m not surprised by the gender/fat connection. Yet, as a thin woman professor, I wonder sometimes whether my female students in particular react negatively to my thinness. After all, it’s one thing to be a smart, authoritative woman, but then to be thin as well (given prevalent social norms favoring thinness) may be just too much to, um, stomach. I sometimes think that were I fatter or heftier or more buxom, I’d fare better with female students–seeming perhaps less alien. Of course, it’s just speculation.

  9. I’ll never forget, when I was a TA, the time I was told by a student to wear better shoes. Interestingly, the were men’s brown, leather loafers–perfect for a budding philosophy professor, no? But, alas, I was a young, small, blonde female. So, obviously, I should have been wearing heels in the classroom. Butchiness…shame on me!

  10. And I should say in terms of meeting normative standards that I suspect butch women or anyone with a gender queer identity or appearance pay a higher price than the merely overweight. Combine any of these factors and I’m sure it’s worse. Again, this seems to me worthy of empirical study. In the case of beauty some of this work has been done by economists, See, for example, “Beauty in the classroom: instructors’ pulchritude and putative pedagogical productivity”

    Daniel S. Hamermesh
    Department of Economics, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712-1173, USA


    Adjusted for many other determinants, beauty affects earnings; but does it lead directly to the differences in productivity that we believe generate earnings differences? We take a large sample of student instructional ratings for a group of university teachers and acquire six independent measures of their beauty, and a number of other descriptors of them and their classes. Instructors who are viewed as better looking receive higher instructional ratings, with the impact of a move from the 10th to the 90th percentile of beauty being substantial. This impact exists within university departments and even within particular courses, and is larger for male than for female instructors. Disentangling whether this outcome represents productivity or discrimination is, as with the issue generally, probably impossible.

    It’s available on his website here https://webspace.utexas.edu/hamermes/www/Beautystuff.html.

    And a Chronicle of Higher Eucation piece on this research is here http://chronicle.com/article/Do-Good-Looks-Equal-Good/45187.

  11. Thanks for the links. I don’t doubt it, especially given how many times I had complaints, in general, about my “man shoes” and other masculine/unfeminine items.

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