How Well Does 'Rate My Professors' Rate?

“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.”