The complicated relationship between male professors and their female students has garnered plenty of wide ranging cultural interest.
There is that early scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones has trouble concentrating on his lecture because of a particularly flirtatious student. The Police scored an early hit with "Don't Stand So Close to Me," a song about a schoolgirl's crush on her teacher. And if your tastes run higher and darker, there is Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace.
A recent study in the Journal of Education and Human Development attempts to quantify this relationship by arguing that male professors perceived to be attractive received higher teacher ratings — but only from their female students.
As Ya'arit Bokek-Cohen and Nitza Davidowitz write: "The main conclusion of the study is that similarly to administrative and other professions, males in academy also enjoy a 'beauty premium,' while women do not. This 'discrimination' stems from the contradiction between two images: role images and gender images. ... When the role image corresponds to the gender image, one can expect the 'beauty effect' to benefit beautiful people. However, when such correspondence is absent, as is the case with female instructors, the beautiful person (and, in our case, the beautiful woman) does not enjoy the 'beauty premium.'"
Women do not enjoy the beauty premium because "their exaggerated feminine attributes are incongruent with those believed necessary for their job. Thus, it may be suggested that when an attractive female instructor receives high ratings, this is not because of their appearance, but rather despite it!"
There are fascinating possibilities for developing this study. The study adds an important layer in understanding how power operates in the classroom. How does the male professor wield it? What different work do female professors need to do to establish their authority? When is power transferred to the students?
We can also explore how the "beauty premium" works in different cultural contexts. (This study was conducted in Israel.) When conducted in the United States, for example, we can build on the gendered focus of this study and consider how race shapes the perception of attractiveness, and the consequent high teacher ratings, when certain racial groups do and do not play roles that they are stereotypically supposed to play within a university setting. For example, how do Asian and Asian-American men fare in this conversation about beauty premiums as professors of history, as opposed to math or computer science? What happens in the case of African-American women when they are law faculty?
These questions need consideration, but for now, we can agree that the university classroom is an extremely complicated ecosystem.