Long Live The Blank Slate

It’s the first day of school. I always loved this feeling as a kid. You’ve got your shiny new notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils, and your first day outfit all ironed and ready to go. Nothing can really compete will that feeling of having a totally blank slate, a reset, a fresh start. This will be the year you go home and copy all your notes after class, this will be the year you ask thoughtful questions. This will be the year you finish your homework ahead of schedule. This will be the year that you dazzle the academe with your brilliance.

Unsurprisingly, as a professor I still experience many of those feelings. A new batch of classes, a fresh crop of students, I’m bristly with ideas about alternative assessment strategies and non-traditional classroom models. On the first days we feel each other out, as we jointly embark on this magical journey into the unknown.

Of course in our modern day the unknown quality of the journey is slightly compromised. The omnipresence of social media and anonymous online forums steal some of the mystery. And then there’s the greatest blight of them all: RateMyProfessor.com.

This is a site that collects brief narrative reviews of thousands of professors by their students. Some reviews are helpful “definitely buy the textbook, it helps a lot,” to lewd and ridiculous “her class was ok but mostly I just stared at her butt.” I’ve often wondered about some of the biases that appear in these reviews, for example, do butts come up more often in reviews of female faculty? Luckily for me Ben Schmidt swooped in this year with his blog Gendered Language in Teaching Reviews. Schmidt scraped the data from 14 million RateMyProfessor reviews to study the occurrences of particular words across genders and disciplines.

As reported on NPR earlier this year, men are far more likely to be “brilliant,” especially when they are philosophers, while women are more likely to be rated as “friendly.” In mathematics, we see some really egregious (although unsurprising) gender splits with the words “genius” and “funny.”

It looks like physics, chemistry, and math professors are most likely to be "too smart"...whatever that means.

It looks like physics, chemistry, and math professors are most likely to be “too smart,” unless they’re women.

But don’t worry, not everyone thinks we’re too smart, math professors also have the highest incidence of the word “stupid,” with it showing up 160 times per million words of text regardless of gender.

And if you’re curious, the word butt doesn’t really seem to follow a distinct gender pattern, but mathematicians seem to rank quite low as compared to the other lab sciences.

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