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When Rebecca Walkowitz enters her classroom, the chatter stops. The 35-year-old carries herself like a woman nearly twice her age, but speaks at a fast clip, as if she has more to say than her 50-minute class period could possibly allow. She is equally comfortable introducing juniors to Ulysses as she is isolating vulgarities in Trainspotting for a close reading of vernacular.
"Plus she's pretty hot," reads one of Walkowitz's University of Wisconsin Madison student ratings on Rate My Professors (ratemyprofessors.com). She "rocks" another student's "socks off."
Visiting ratemyprofessors.com yields similar assessments of thousands of professors at nearly every college across the United States and many in Canada. The forum isn't as flattering to all its subjects. Notorious defense attorney Alan Dershowitz gets several glowing reviews from students at Harvard Law, but also a "Horrida name dropper and cares for nothing except for his own personal self-aggrandizement."
Ostensibly, a student could steer clear of a professor after reading such a recommendation. This was one of founder John Swapceinski's goals when launching Rate My Professors in 1999. Patrick Nagle, one of the site's CEOs, says: "This is to enhance your college experience so you don't end up taking classes that aren't worthwhile."
Sure enough, RMP's hits spike around August and December class registration times. But critical reviews and occasionally vivid descriptions of professors' teaching styles take second stage to the site's other features. Especially the chile peppers.
Once a visitor gets past Rate My Professors' peppy homepage bannered with multicultural undergrads, the site resembles Hotmail circa 1997. After selecting a state and university, readers go to an alphabetical listing of professors. At Tulane, for example, most professors with surnames from Adamo to Bankston have yellow smiley faces, denoting a positive rating, to the left of their listing. Others have seasick-green "neutral" faces, and a few have periwinkle frowns next to their names. A handful of smileys share space with a conspicuous red chile pepper, representing "hotness." Once logged in, visitors can rate professors on their pulchritude, along with perhaps more relevant attributes, such as easiness, helpfulness, and clarity.
Aside from luring hungover sophomores out of bed, what does hotness have to do with an education? Amy Baylor, a Florida State University professor of instructional systems (her rating: green indifferent-face icon; no chile pepper), is researching just that.
Baylor and her staff at the Center for Research of Innovative Technologies for Learning are studying undergrads' learning preferences and designing digital "pedagogical agents" to motivate and mentor students. Her virtual men have hulky chests, broad shoulders, and angular jaws. Her women have flowing hair and Playmate breasts.
"One of the things we find is that in human studies, the most effective kinds of teachers are ones who look like what you would like to be," Baylor says. So a 20-year-old, regardless of class, race, or political bent, will be most motivated by a professor who is "attractive and young" as a "motivator." But the agents that students regard as the "most effective" experts tend to verge on dorky, donning bow ties and glasses.
Dorky doesn't equal unattractive, though. When the attractive model is placed in "uncool" clothing, its credibility skyrockets in studies. Slack-jawed virtual profs with close-set eyes don't seem to educate anyone well, despite the fact that the same words come out of the computer speakers, synced with their pixelated mouths.
But back to the boobs: Baylor has made many skin tones and hairstyles for the female agents, but none are without the balloons-under-tank-top look."
"We call it the 'breast factor,' " Baylor says, laughing. "All my male colleagues at conferences give me trouble about it, but really, we just had trouble getting clothing to fit the female agents," because the digital shirts were designed too big to graft onto the smaller bodies. "So we had to enlarge something."
Although students in Baylor's studies might prefer the cool and attractive agents, their preferences don't correlate to actual learning. In comparison studies, Baylor allows undergrad participants to pick an agent they'd like to learn from. Along with that model, they are presented with an alternative agent with random characteristics. The test subjects "almost always don't pick the best one for them," Baylor says.
Knowing that, how can Rate My Professors, home to immature rants about challenging professors, word-drools about lecturers' sex appeal, and occasional fake listings"Al Einstein," rated with a smiley and a chile pepper, was on Princeton's page until recentlyhave any credibility?
"College students want to know this information. We are for students, by students," says RMP's Nagle, 23, a college dropout with apparently stellar business sense. He and his business partner Will DeSantis (also 23) finalized a seven-figure deal with investors to buy the site last year, and have since seen it follow in the tracks of other youth- and student-dominated social sites such as myspace.com and facebook.com.
Emerging in the past decade, these sites once dwelled in the shadows of academia, drawing little attention from professors or administration. But now that the tech-unsavvy are being ripped, hyped, or mentally undressed online, academics are paying attention. It's hard to ignore the slosh of a giant virtual spitball smacking the ivory tower.