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How Well Does ‘Rate My Professors’ Rate?

The Website is a barometer of the perfect storm battering the modern university.

by
Janice Fiamengo

Bio

February 23, 2013 - 12:05 am

“I fell asleep often.” This is an anonymous comment by a student on the website “Rate My Professors,” where instructors are ranked as “Good Quality,” “Average Quality,” and “Poor Quality,” with anecdotal assessments included. The comment by the sleepy student is not an admission of ill-preparedness, a confession of intellectual laziness, or even simply an acknowledgement of too many nights at the pub. It is a self-evident accusation: the professor who can’t keep this student awake is a dull fellow, and other students should beware.

As anyone knows who has checked this public site, Rate My Professors is full of such accusations against professors — for being boring, overly demanding, or ungenerous about marks or deadlines. “He means well but his grading is very hard on students,” reads one such complaint, with the implication produced by the ambiguous wording that low marks are an unjust hardship. Professors are frequently castigated for sins of “over-intellectualizing,” “droning on about versification,” and — a frequent lament — having “unreasonable expectations.” One instructor is “not very personable” while another “does not give students the opportunity to excel.” Another prof “makes such meticulous effort to choose her vocabulary that much of her lecture loses all meaning.” The same commentator warns, in explanation of a “Poor Quality” ranking, “Be prepared to listen HARD and think.”

Such accusations reveal little about the professor in question; no one ever satisfactorily distinguishes a boring professor from a boredom-inclined student — which is not to suggest that boring professors do not exist, simply that Rate My Professors cannot recognize them. What the comments reveal are students’ assumptions about what they are owed by their teachers and what constitutes a good classroom experience. Most pointedly, they show the extent to which higher education in North America has become a consumer product like any other, catering to client satisfaction and majority appeal. Reading through the comments, one is disheartened not only because so many are crude and illiterate but also because they indicate how deeply most students have imbibed the canard that university is about being entertained and helped to feel good about oneself.

No one, likely, will be surprised to discover that students are critical of instructors who have a high standard and mark them down when they fail to reach it:  “A sweet person who seems to really care about her students,” runs a typical comment attached to an “Average Quality” ranking, “but don’t expect an A, even if your [sic] sure you aced the test.”  Statistical researcher Valen Johnson has demonstrated in Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (2003) that student responses to their university experience have been corrupted by an entitlement mentality about grades. Because students tend to excuse poor performance by pointing to external factors, they often blame their teachers when marks are lower than expected — when, as one student wrote on the site, they are “completely blindsided by a bad grade.” The problem is acute in the grade-inflating Humanities disciplines, where an element of subjectivity is always present and where one instructor’s decision to give higher marks than the material deserves — whether from pedagogical principle or to grease the wheels of a happy classroom — creates pressure on other instructors to do the same, and leads to negative evaluations of those who will not. As even a cursory perusal of Rate My Professors uncovers, “Very hard marker” almost always equates to a “Poor Quality” evaluation. This fact alone, as Johnson concludes and as many thoughtful observers can attest, makes teacher evaluations, which are widely used as a ranking method in the modern university, next to meaningless.

In such a context, it might seem that the most valuable commendations are those — and they are certainly the most heartening — that warn against the professor’s difficulty or dryness while still recommending him or her. “Sure, he’s tough, even mean. But he is also brilliant.” “You’ll find no great excitement in her lecture room, but you will have the chance to hear tremendously intelligent and thoughtful ideas on life and literature that will stay with you outside the classroom.” For a student to find a professor’s teaching valuable despite the instructor’s refusal to provide esteem-boosting marks or a jazzy presentation speaks to some other quality that has touched the student. But what is the quality, exactly? Can it be distinguished from personal charm, winsomeness, superficial articulateness, or an engrossing manner?  Can the vast majority of students tell if an instructor actually knows his subject or has wisdom to impart?

Not very likely. Given that a significant percentage of students, according to a recent National Post article based on a study by a Memorial University (Newfoundland) professor, cannot locate the continent of Africa on a world map or even identify the Atlantic Ocean, how can they possibly locate their professors on the scale of intelligence and knowledge? Too frequently, the most enthusiastic declarations about an instructor’s “amazing lectures” and “brilliance” also dwell on the sexy looks and other forms of personal appeal that make him or her so easy to listen to. “Never worked so hard for an A. Loved the material, and his lectures were stimulating and hilarious. He’s hot too, great outfits.”

This, really, is what Rate My Professors most consistently highlights, that physical attractiveness, a magnetic style, and the ability to relate good stories, deliver witty one-liners, or toss off nuggets of seeming profundity (with today’s short attention spans, they can only be nuggets, usually liberally interspersed with jokes, chitchat, and sentimental fluff) have come to define “good teaching” — and make it nearly indistinguishable from a diverting performance — for the majority of students. In the main, such teaching does not meet the standard that David Solway defined in Education Lost (1989), where he analyzed education as a performative co-encounter in which the teacher “performs” the “initiating presence” and the student “impersonates his ideal or projected self” in a complex drama taking full account of the “prolonged” and often “agonistic” process of learning.

Mass-appeal education, in contrast, is a slick and unexacting affair relying heavily on simple enjoyment. The words one encounters over and over in the “Good Quality” evaluations pinpoint the feel-good factor: “positive,” “fascinating,” “approachable,” “nice,” “encouraging,” “hilarious,” “sweet,” “supportive,” “quick witted,” and “helpful.” A beloved instructor is one who “respects his class and will bend over backwards to help you out!” (This same instructor “brought candies to first and last class.”) Good lectures, we come to see, involve the delivery of memorable bons mots (and bonbons) and riveting stories that have little to do with the painstaking acquisition — through sustained reading, practice, and memory work — of knowledge and skill. And one cannot help but notice that much of the space on Rate My Professors is taken up with arguments over whether an instructor is legitimately “hot” or not (students can assign “chili peppers” to those they deem sexy).

None of this is, of course, startling. Students and teachers are, after all, human beings, and human beings respond to one another on a variety of levels, with verbal manner, wit, and physical attractiveness mattering to all of us. None of it would be cause for more than a rueful chuckle if the consequences were negligible, as they surely deserve to be. If administrators and teachers, and maybe even students themselves, recognized the frivolity of Rate My Professors, it would be merely an amusing and sometimes chagrining cultural phenomenon.

But Rate My Professors is far from a marginal entity. It has been around for over a decade and seems here to stay. And although Rate My Professors itself is not an institutionally sanctioned tool of evaluation — no one’s career will be made or broken by what students write on it — it functions as an all-too-accurate index of the current state of university education, and for this reason is far from irrelevant. A perfect storm of circumstances have combined to give Rate My Professors an undeserved but undeniable cultural power.

Some of these myriad reasons include increased competition amongst universities for enrollment. Poorly-prepared but emotionally coddled students accustomed to leniency, praise, and high marks. A government policy dedicated to “credentialing” increasing numbers of young people regardless of their aptitude or commitment. A post-secondary administration that is ever-more cravenly in thrall to university buzz words such as inclusivity, diversity, respect, relevance, and personal development. University leaders who promote a pedagogy of student-centeredness. A vulnerable cadre of part-time instructors who make up an ever-larger proportion of university faculty.

Beyond those explanations, there is a general culture in which respect for elite knowledge and intellectual rigor has never been lower. It symbolizes the falsely egalitarian spirit and consumer-oriented ethos of the modern university, in which a “rich student life,” “unparalleled university experience,” and “sense of belonging” are promised by the highest levels of the administration on down, and it reinforces a corrupt system in which decisions about academic programs and budgetary allocations are made based on course popularity.

In the last forty years, the university has become a numbers game in which, in the name of democratic freedom, students are left with little scholarly guidance to choose their programs and subjects, and departments scramble to offer courses that meet demand. Traditional disciplines such as Classics and Philosophy — with sober, heavy-reading courses — have declined, and others such as English and History — once sober, now trending to the frivolous — have been reshaped to appeal to professors’ ideological agendas and popular tastes. More and more programs in the Humanities are constituted by a variety of soft courses featuring such phenomena as Harry Potter, the Dixie Chicks, lesbian imagery, witchcraft, peace studies, journaling, fat phobia, and therapeutic self-awareness. The ability to boast about popular instructors — and to offer courses guaranteed to be fully enrolled — has become every administrator’s dream.

For the large cohort of part-time and sessional instructors, good student ratings are now a necessity. Formal teacher evaluations (which ask students to determine whether, for example, the instructor “comes to class well prepared” and “presents material effectively”) determine who is reappointed and what courses they teach. These instructors naturally look to Rate My Professors for up-to-date information about how well they are doing. They know better than anyone that student satisfaction (a pleasant classroom experience and the ability to pass well with minimal effort) will translate into the rankings needed for another contract offer. Even for teachers whose position is institutionally secure, the temptation to be influenced by the website is hard to resist. In former times, when scholarship was valued more highly than it is today and when academic authorities were respected if not liked, it might have been a badge of honor to be a curmudgeonly scholar feared or misunderstood by one’s students. But those days are long gone in a world where most everyone, from the local high school principal on a first-name basis with students to the parent who smokes marijuana with his kids, wants to be well-liked. Education, like the Hollywood world that exerts its influence everywhere, aspires to the criteria of mass access and inclusion.

Thus every professor who looks at Rate My Professors is affected by seeing how one has been publicly approved or disdained, how one stacks up against one’s peers. Even for those who refuse to look at the site, the knowledge that every facet of one’s teaching behavior, pronouncements, decisions, appearance, voice, manner, and perspective are now the subject of anonymous commentary exerts an insidious pull. All come to see themselves, to some extent, as Rate My Professors sees them, as vaudevillians rather than teachers, putting on their show for a demanding crowd and hoping to achieve, if not a box-office smash, at least something better than a prolonged chorus of boos. Decisions about how to teach a subject are likely, then, to be influenced at least as much by what students will “like” as by what they need to know.

What is perhaps most disturbing about Rate My Professors is the impression it conveys that education takes place only in the classroom, that it consists of an interesting or boring presentation by a professor who engages or fails to engage his students’ interest. In fact, this is a part, but only one (insufficient) part, of what education involves. What Rate My Professors entirely obscures is that education happens primarily (or, more often, fails to happen) outside the classroom: in the students’ reading of course materials, reflection on them, review of course notes, drafting and re-drafting of term papers, memorization of facts in preparation for exams, consultations with the professor in his or her office, discussion with other students of course ideas, and so on. That many of our students no longer do any of these things tells us why Rate My Professors has become such a central part of the modern university experience, and why professors face an uphill battle in their classrooms. In its emphasis on likeability and ease, Rate My Professors symbolizes much that is wrong with university education in the Humanities.

Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).

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Top Rated Comments   
I took classes as an adult back in the 80's, after having spent a dozen years riding nuclear submarines and while working full time.

I observed two things then, that I have no reason to believe are any different now. 18 and 19 year old college students are not engaged, and this is particularly clear when you realize that I was taking evening classes populated by the little darlings who couldn't seem to get out of bed in time to attend day classes. Additionally, these kids, if they had a problem with the prof or if they weren't in agreement with whatever political line of BS the prof was feeding the class along with the stated curriculum, never ever called him on it.

I was not so afflicted, but then I was in my 30's and I was not hampered by the cultural more that juniors should not question their elders. In retrospect, it was probably not a pleasant experience to have me as a student.

Mom and Dad, if your child hasn't the aptitude to become a university educated scholar, maybe you should point them in a direction that will better reward their self respect and ease off on the never-ending self esteem crap. A four year degree in race baiting or gender studies won't prepare them for dealing with the likes of me, if and when they ever get a job in my industry.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Having observed both sides of this fence, I can tell you this: in today's world the students generally punish the profs unless they make the class easy and grade generously. And the university administration uses the student evaluations as a prime indicator for retention. Since most college instructors now are non-tenured "guest" faculty (and poorly paid) the result is easy classes and easy grading. Thus the dumbing down continues -- which both the administration and the students prefer.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (24)
All Comments   (24)
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I wish I’d checked Rate My Professor before attempting my master’s degree. Later perusal during my second year showed the ratings to be almost spot-on: many of the professors were fossils who hadn't changed their lecture content in years (and this in a technical field).

One professor required the college to maintain obsolete versions (more than five years old) of software so he wouldn’t have to update his lecture notes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You have too cheap loans driving education prices through the roof. You have kids raised in a "self-esteem" based educational system. As a result, kids and parents demand and expect high grades. (Kids- "I'm a genius, give me high grades". Parents- "I'm paying $160,000 for this, give my kid high grades"). On top of this, there is an element I think of professors wanting to be liked, wanting to be considered cool. (In my experience, professors tend to be more insecure in this area than regular folks. Maybe because they were geeks/nerds during their adolescent years. I think that's why they vote as a block for democrats- Now that they are in the "in crowd" as professors, they don't dare let their politics jeopardize that.) And now you have this- the ability of students to publicly shame professors they don't like...Expect MORE grade inflation, MORE watering down of content. At some point, we'll start seeing famous successful people who will say, "I educated myself through the internet for free." It will someday be accepted that there are alternatives to this broken university system. Employers will someday see that a diploma is not the only way to guage a potential skills- in fact, that maybe the diploma doesn't necessarily reflect any useful skills at all.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Professor Pamela Mitzelfeld, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, threw me out of her English class even after I followed her syllabus and repeatedly asked for instruction in front of her female assistant. I haven't reported this incident to RMP because I was sure it would be deleted. You can read about it at www.thefire.org
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
phenomenal piece.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The real issue is that college is now big business. In order to maintain their profitability, they must maintain students . No students, no tuition or funds from the government. That being said, colleges have, over the years, altered how they "educate" students. First, they did not want to flunk out students because every student that fails out is a lost revenue stream. Also, grade inflation took over so that the students became more comfortable and stayed at the institution. Lastly, colleges realized that there was a finite number of qualified students and this limited their ability to expand. The only solution was to lower entrance requirements and, by the same thinking, make passing easier so that the college could bring in more of the population and keep them present. Money and profit motive have ruined our colleges. I know because I quit teaching when I was told I had to pass a student who was clearly not performing work deserving a passing grade and performed over 50% below his colleagues on exams. Can't lose that revenue stream.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Ratemyprofessor is a valuable and useful website that informs students about great professors, lousy professors, and so-so profs, their quirks, availability outside class, teaching style, etc. My three kids in college use it to pick highly rated teachers. Each prof that they have taken, which was highly rated by many students, has not been a disappointment. Of course, there are idiot comments, but patterns often become apparent after a dozen or more students comment; not always, but enough to make the site a welcome adjunct to course selection, particularly for gen ed requirements outside one's major. College classes are expensive, ratemyprofessor used judiciously can help a student get the most value for their dollar. It may be that the quality of the student reviews vary from college to college as does the quality of student. Not every student is looking for an easy "A", well maybe they are in the humanities, but some students actually do go to college to learn and are not afraid to take difficult subjects, and difficult classes. They just do not want to pay for a bad teacher. Assistance in avoiding the mumblers, the incompetent, the absent, the hard to find after class profs, while at the same time illuminating the helpful, the inspiring and the interesting teachers should not be minimized. The author's final paragraph is a red herring. So what if students don't discuss the class with other students or read the course materials? Why is that an indictment of the website whose goal is to rate the professor, not the student body. Anyone using ratemyprofessor, should be capable of discerning the limits of its usefulness which is perhaps more readily apparent to one not overly steeped in the symbolism of modern fiction.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Too frequently, the most enthusiastic declarations about an instructor’s “amazing lectures” and “brilliance” also dwell on the sexy looks and other forms of personal appeal that make him or her so easy to listen to.

Hey... exactly the way we chose President's these days!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Perhaps because we are a sex-obsessed culture that does not even understand sexuality, let alone romantic love and how it is like/unlike pornography. I wrote about the problem here: http://clarespark.com/2013/02/23/peter-gays-freud/.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I think there is some value to the site (besides being a cultural indicator). When my son was at a public university his senior year of high school and had dozens of choices for classes like Freshman English, it was helpful for weeding out some clunkers. When you have dozens of students saying the same thing about a professor ("She's late all the time" or "He does not have a good grasp of the English language") it's probably more than overly indulged students who don't want to work hard.

Also, my son is dyslexic, so knowing the professor's style is helpful to him. If it's a choice between a professor who grades only on two written exams during the semester and a prof who assigns a lot of homework and gives weekly tests, the second option might be a better choice for his learning style. You can often glean that information from RMP if you have a large enough sampling of student evaluations.

My son now goes to Hillsdale College and I sometimes enjoy reading the evaluations there. It's generally a huge contrast to most schools. Dr. Justin Jackson is known to be one of the most difficult professors on campus, yet most of his students adore him. Here's an example:

"Very difficult teacher. Nearly impossible to get an A. Most people who get A's go to grad school. Very helpful in office hours; meaning he destroys any idea you come up with and then helps you work from there. But he won't give you any answers. Lecture really are worth it. He could teach the telephone book and make it interesting."

and:

"I hate hearing students whine about how hard he is. I'd take a D to hear the man lecture. He made me a better writer within 2 papers after I spent a long time struggling with others. Very clear and to the point. No one gives better comments on papers."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I accept the general premise regarding what students are looking for in professors (though I would contend that avoidance of work is the human condition rather than specific to this generation). However the baby seems to be tossed with the bathwater.

I have an undergraduate degree in Engineering, and I am now in school working toward an MS. In my experience many professors make material harder than it needs to be. And it is easier to learn the same material delivered by Dennis Miller than by Ben Stein, once again it's a fact of being human, not lazy.

These facts of human existence don't change what has happened to expectations. I would contend the purpose and population of colleges has changed. College has become a place to avoid growing up, so are we surprised that it's populated by children? I found my experience in the School of Engineering to be far closer to the traditional school of previous generations. Why? Because it's populated by ambitious young adults seeking preparation for a profession that clearly demands mastery of specific material.

However, as others have said, college is not a place where good teaching is generally rewarded. My professors frequently teach by moving the exact material in the book to powerpoint format, and then reading it verbatim. Any questions are then referred to the book, or by simply repeating what was just said (like you just weren't listening). Many test on material different from that related in class. And unfortunately in the sciences one must also take into account the teacher's mastery of English. Some of the comments related in this article seem quite reasonable, not necessarily some lazy kid's complaints about needing to actually THINK.

The problem is on both sides, and it's bigger than "kids these days".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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