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.”

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.