Why you should major in Psychology

So, the Chronicle of Higher Education teaching newsletter I subscribe to recently featured the really cool work of Ben Schmidt, who looks at the impact of gender on class evaluations of professors via the words used at ratemyprofessor.com.  Unsurprisingly, some pretty significant biases

Here’s Becky Supiano’s excellent summary of the findings:

Student evaluations of teaching are both widely used and, as a host of studies have shown, deeply flawed. They don’t measure teaching quality particularly well. They also reflect students’ bias, in that women and minorities tend to receive more critical evaluations. The problem is significant enough that 18 scholarly associations signed onto a statement in September asking colleges to not rely on them heavily in determining teaching effectiveness.

Thanks to Ben Schmidt, a clinical associate professor of history and director of digital humanities at New York University, we also have an interesting way to visualize the differences in the ways that students evaluate male and female professors. And we can see how different disciplines are described.

A few years ago, Schmidt mined 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors to create an interactive tool, Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews. Plug a term into the chart and you can see how many times per million words of text it is used, broken down by gender and discipline. It’s a fascinating — and highly addictive — look at the way in which students perceive their professors. At times the results can seem absurd.

Schmidt’s original plan was to write an article about the tool, which he created in 2015. But, he says, “I couldn’t quite figure out what that article would say, so I just put it online.”

The tool turned out to be quite popular: People have entered about 50,000 to 100,000 search terms every month. “It’s been interesting because I see a lot of people use it for a lot of different things,” Schmidt says, including introductory teaching workshops and diversity training programs. While data from RateMyProfessors obviously has limitations — the reviews are voluntary, for one — Schmidt says that a lot of his findings correlate with what the research shows about how students evaluate professors differently, based on gender.

So, how do students describe their male and female professors? Let’s take a look.

Who’s funnier? Men, apparently. Male psychology professors, it seems, are particularly hilarious. Men are so funny, in fact, that even the most somber among them — that would be engineering professors — are funnier than most women, scoring 797 references per million words of text, a higher number than women in 16 other disciplines.

But take heart, female psychology professors. Like your male counterparts, you’re also funnier than your female colleagues in every other discipline.

Here’s a look at who comes out on top based on other terms. Let’s start with a few used to describe intelligence:

Brilliant: That would be men, by a long shot. In every discipline students are more likely to call a male professor brilliant than a female one, with the biggest gap in English. There are also certain disciplines that attract that term more than others. Professors in philosophy hear that word the most, male and female. Accounting: not so much.

Intelligent: Men are given the edge here, too, in every discipline except criminal justice. Expert is also more likely used to describe men in most disciplines, although not many students use that label.

Then there’s a group of terms that describe personality.

Mean: Women are more likely, in every discipline, to be described as mean. The same holds true for rude, demanding, and crazy.

But there’s also this:

Nice: Women are described this way much more frequently in every discipline, and by a noticeable margin. Also, who is more likely to be caring and warm? Yup: women.

Schmidt says this seeming paradox can be explained by the fact that students often evaluate men and women using different criteria. Men are more likely to be evaluated on their intelligence, negatively or positively. Women are more likely to be evaluated on personality traits, like whether they are caring.

I also typed in a frequent complaint by students:

Boring: Men, you win this one. The most boring among you are anthropologists. Yet you are also the most interesting. Go figure.

And on a final note of confusion:

Unprepared and prepared: Women are more often described as one or the other, compared to men, although the term “prepared” is used more frequently, overall. So, chalk one up for women?

Schmidt says he hopes the tool “can take the sting out” of some negative evaluations by illustrating how gender bias plays a factor. “Evaluations are such a personal thing and when you read them you feel like these are really about me,” he says. “But there is this really strong structural thing about the way that language is used to describe people.”

Very interesting stuff.  Though, sadly, cannot say I found any of it particularly surprising.  So, that’ why the title of this post.  What I did learn is that Psychology professors are the funniest (both genders) which strikes me as a damn fine reason to major it in.

In all seriousness, for persons interested in social science, but not politics in particular, I think this is by far the best major.  I almost surely apply major findings from social psychology to my interpersonal interactions every single day– I cannot say the same for political science.  Plus, apparently you get the funniest professors.  Win-win.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Why you should major in Psychology

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    As a former high school teacher and, later, a community college prof, I’d take funny any day.
    Students have to have been paying attention or they wouldn’t know I’m funny.

    Oh ,yes – My BA was in Psychology.

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