In a behavioral pattern that might be justifiably characterized as borderline abusive, this professor, who certainly did not deserve the position he had attained, took on this constant air of superiority as if each and every day of the week it was his job, and his job alone, to impart all of his precious knowledge to me about how great of a teacher he was and how much I had to learn from him. This was several years ago but even at that point I had taught at four different institutions of higher education and to say the least I resented his attitude and demeanor. Just a real unpleasant, in-your-face type of guy who got irritated and upset if you tried to engage him in debate and offer countervailing evidence to his sweeping proclamations. Oh, and he wasn’t a historian either, never finished his doctorate, and yet had the temerity to tell me that I had gotten my facts wrong in class when he evaluated me; that the subject of eugenics I had spent only about 10-20 minutes covering in lecture was a “footnote to history,” and therefore shouldn’t be covered (even though there are entire classes taught on this subject at R1 institutions). As if this wasn’t enough to stomach, he told me that the absence of white men in my classroom on that day, and that day alone, was proof that I was alienating students. This was a class of only about 20 students at a college in a heavily non-white part of California. To write about this belittling experience at the hands of a crackpot professor is almost as painful emotionally as it was to experience it in real time. Having been so troubled by the experience, I wrote down the details and am, thus, able to recall them with a fair degree of accuracy. It was deeply insulting and beyond outrageous that such a contemptible human being, so lacking in character, knowledge, and the subtle graces of interpersonal communication, would have a tenured position and be in any position of management over others.
I bring up this experience because he was one of many professors I’ve encountered over the years who cite their own reviews on ratemyprofessors.com (RMP) as incontrovertible evidence that they are, in fact, good and respectable teachers. I shake my head in disgust to even write that sentence, as if we should take these reviews at full face value, with no grain of salt. He had noticed a few negative reviews of me on RMP. It just so happens that his reviews on the site were by no means perfect, seeming to capture the very qualities I described above, so in my mind he was in no clear position to be telling me what to do. But that is besides the point. It was because of these RMP reviews and a few poor student evaluations at the college at which we were both teaching at the time that he suggested that I should not be teaching. Let me say that again because it bears repeating. Because of a few poor student evaluations, some of which were from a highly questionable website, he recommended that I should consider giving up on my chosen career path. Again, a contemptible human being I had the unfortunate experience of knowing.
I did not intend for a blog post on the interrelated phenomena of grade inflation and student evaluations to turn into a five-part series. But I came across so many articles and so many legitimate points made by professors and researchers that I had to explicate them. I wish to reiterate that the conclusions I've reached in this blog series are based on my reading of 12 opinion pieces from outlets such as the Washington Post, Slate, the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Guardian, and more importantly, 17 peer-reviewed articles written by 34 authors, almost all of them published within the last ten years.
Because of its fairly extensive usage by students, RMP deserves its own post. For those of you who have not thought critically about RMP, here are just a few of the negative characteristics:
* Students and professors can manipulate it easily. Students, upset by the grade they earned, can write nasty reviews anonymously and even get their friends to do the same, regardless of the merits and veracity of the comments they write. Professors can log onto the site and promote themselves, too
* It allows reviewers to rank professors by their “hotness,” or whether they are physically attractive. This, of course, has no bearing on the intellectual worth of a class.
According to one professor, “I am rated very well on Rate My Professors. I have a colleague who is an excellent teacher but who is far stricter with her students who gets a much lower rating. It is a popularity contest.”
* There is no way to tell if the person who has left a review on RMP has actually taken the course in question
* One student can leave multiple reviews so long as they use multiple IP addresses, which can be accomplished by switching computers and other techniques
* RMP is run by the Princeton Review, which is not associated with Princeton University. It is owned by Viacom, a large media monopoly. Like any corporation today, Viacom is concerned chiefly with short-term, consistent profits that it can deliver to its shareholders in the form of dividends, not the long-term goal of an informed populace necessary for the healthy functioning of a constitutional republic.
* The “About,” “Contact Us,” and “FAQ” pages on the website present no specific information about who staffs the website or what people manage it beyond claiming, without evidence, that it is “built for college students, by college students.”
Chances are likely that you or someone you know has owned or worked for a small business. Have you ever received an unfair review of your business on Yelp? If so, would you like it if one bad Yelp review plunged your business into bankruptcy? Business owners, operating under the trite cliché that “the customer is always right,” sometimes have to swallow their pride and do things that they otherwise would not do because it is too costly to potentially alienate their clientele. If this mentality is applied to higher ed, unfortunately, the lowering of standards is the inevitable result. Ratemyprofessors.com is basically the Yelp of academia. Imagine that a few bad reviews on RMP got a highly qualified professor fired. Would this be right? Can you see, then, why we should categorically reject the pro-business philosophy that has infected academia?
Let me return to Stroebe’s thoroughly-researched article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Stroebe cites a study by Felton et al. (2008) showing that if a professor graded easily, reviewers on RMP were much more likely to view the professor favorably. What is more damning to the site is that the reviewers gave higher ratings to professors they deemed “hotter” (806). I spent a decent amount of time examining numerous studies from many articles to show that my perspective here is not some off-the-rails rant; more and more professors have come to the same conclusion about student evaluations, despite the risks and obstacles to publishing their findings. Indeed, Davidson and Prince (2009) put it nicely: “In a consumerist environment, student evaluations are not ‘good’ data. They measure how easy the instructor is, how fun, and sometimes, as in the case of the Rate My Professor website, how sexy he or she is. Such data should not be used by students or organizations to evaluate an instructor’s ability to teach.” It would be one thing if students took official, in-class evaluations seriously and used RMP to air immature grievances. Unfortunately, social scientists have found that students essentially took the same approach to both (806-807). In both instances they considered superficial qualities like “good looks” when evaluating professors. If a) studies show that RMP is flawed; and b) studies show that students take essentially the same approach toward RMP as they do for official evaluations, then it follows that c) we should be highly critical of the utility of student evaluations.
We have not descended to the point, as far as I can tell, of including RMP as part of the official evaluation of college professors. But anyone who has witnessed the steady decline in professors’ salaries and bargaining power since the 1960s will not be fully shocked if this terrible, nightmarish scenario were to occur one day. RMP may be used informally and unofficially to gather information about a job candidate a university is thinking of hiring and if this is the case, it should be discouraged at all costs. A website that dares to judge the worth of professors by their looks, and not their works, should be confined to the dustbin of history. It is garbage. And not one person should ever hold it up as justification of whether or not a professor is effective. I need to close with a specific message to my fellow educators…If this blog series has shown anything, it is that you may very well be a great teacher and if so, I commend you. But if you are truly a great teacher, it is almost certainly in spite of your student evaluations, rather than because of them.