Northeastern professor’s work shows gendered language in teacher reviews

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Would you say that a female college professor is more likely to be annoying, bossy, or unfair? Or that a male professor has a better chance of being wise, intelligent, or awesome?

An interactive chart gaining attention on social media this week suggests just that. By using 14 million teacher reviews from RateMyProfessors.com, Northeastern history professor Ben Schmidt created a data visualization that allows users to explore words used to describe male and female teachers. By typing any word into the box, the chart rearranges to display how often the word is used and in which subject areas. Many of the results illustrate gendered language.

Schmidt, who is core faculty member of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, explained the visualization is going viral is because people have a lot of strong ideas about what words to search for.

“I have a lot more people coming to me with questions about it rather than just looking at it and moving on,” he said. “They spend more time with it as well as pass it along, and that’s been really interesting because it gives them something to contextualize.”

Schmidt made the chart as a part of the Bookworm Project, which attempts to visualize large collections of text. It took about two months to download all of the data, which was done one professor at a time through a script on Schmidt’s computer.

He said the most common word people first search is “smart,” which is used about 30 percent more in male reviews than female. Adjectives reflecting even higher levels of intelligence showed even more bias: He found that men were more than twice as likely be called “brilliant” or “genius” than women.

RateMyProfessors.com reviews contain a numbered rating, a text description, and sometimes a chili pepper. The chili pepper designates which professors are hot, arguably encouraging students to think about professors in terms of attractiveness.

“I sort of assumed that women were going to have more comments about their physical appearance than male professors did,” said Schmidt. “For most of the terms I could think to put in, that doesn’t seem to be true. Men are described actually more often as sexy in this particular data set than women are.”

Since publishing his work online last Friday, Schmidt said conversations about the chart have shown him comparisons he hadn’t tested before. Commenters noticed that students tended to describe women as both “helpful” or “unhelpful’  more often than they did the men. And male professors garnered more mentions of “smart” and “stupid”  than women did.

“That’s interesting because it shows it’s not really about, in some ways, the quality of the individual people being graded, but it’s about the way that classrooms are being structured that seem to make it so that women are being assessed on a slightly different set of characteristics than men,” Schmidt said.

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