How Well Does 'Rate My Professors' Rate?

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.