Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Hey Kids, Leave Them Profs Alone

Students bite back at ratemyprofessors.com

I’ve been teaching ESL in universities for six years now, but the day I have to hand out course evaluations still terrifies me. It’s not just that these evaluations help make or break new teaching contracts; rather, I dread the torment of finding out what students really think of me.

In the comments section, I’ve had everything from “nice teacher” to “sometimes unfair a bit” to “sometimes her face changed to getting red…maybe angry?”[sic] Try as I might, I can’t get used to the frustration of seeing hundreds of hours of work boiled down to a few poorly-written sentences. And it just got worse. Two years ago, I stumbled across the website ratemyprofessors.com. I wasn’t one of its victims back then, unlike 1,800 professors from my university. I knew, however, that it was only a matter of time.

Ratemyprofessors.com came on the scene in 1999. This website allows students at almost every college and university in the US, Canada, Ireland and the UK to log on and publicly dish the dirt on their professors. The site is administered by an anonymous student at each school, and registered members can give their profs scores from one to five (five being the highest) based on their “easiness,” “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “rater interest.” The average score composed from the helpfulness and clarity categories determines whether a teacher is rated “good quality,” designated with a yellow smiley face; “average quality,” designated by a green face with a straight line for the mouth; and “poor quality,” designated by a blue face with a surly frown. And to be truly rigorous in its evaluations, the site also solicits information about whether a professor is “hot or not.” More “hot” votes than not garner the lucky prof a chili pepper.

Students can also add comments, which are “self-policed” by ratemyprofessors.com. According to the website, this means that a school’s administrators review each entry and then opt to accept or delete them. There is actually an extensive list of “dos and don’ts” in the FAQ section of the site, intended to guide students towards giving comments that are only related to teaching. But a quick look at the tone of the comments that were singled out for their hilarity (“If I was tested on her family, I would have gotten an A; Emotional scarring may fade away, but that big fat F on your transcript won’t.”), and it’s clear that passing this site off as a neutral forum belies the potency and magnitude of more than 6,750,000 very candid ratings of more than 1,000,000 professors across more than 6,000 higher education institutions.

When I discovered that this well-attended circus existed, I felt like the magician’s volunteer—curious about the trick itself, but terrified of being sliced apart. I honestly couldn’t tell whether it would be nice to know what my students secretly thought of me, or whether I was better off just imagining that we all got along.

After a little informal investigation, I discovered that students who use the website to glean information about their professors usually employ a triangulated approach. The website helps with initial selections, and the students finalize that choice by going to class and getting a sense of the teacher and the course outline. For many, this website is akin to asking another student, “So what’s she like?” Most students are aware that it’s often the disgruntled ones leaving bitter remarks, so they take that into consideration. Many students consider that the prospect of selecting a professor blindly leaves too much to chance.

The first couple of entries I received varied from scores only to comments such as, “She is kinda new, so she doesn’t always know what she’s doing, but she’s easy, so you’ll definitely get a good grade.” The comments were not that bad, but they stung all the same. Was I easier than my colleagues? What did I do to give the impression of ineptitude? Just like that, one student was making me second-guess three years of teacher training and six years in the trenches. The chili pepper next to my name felt like an empty consolation, a vapid reminder that all was not lost. At least I was not ugly. My boyfriend, however, was alarmed. “I don’t know how I feel about having a girlfriend who is easy and hot,” he said.

The initial four combined scores gave me a green face with a thin, straight line. Not a yellow smile, nor a blue frown. Mediocre. Middle of the road. Then, some time in the fall of 2005, the face turned blue and sad. Crap. And my chili pepper disappeared. Who doesn’t wear black pants to work every day?

I told my friends. We all laughed, but it occurred to me that maybe they would go check out my comments and think I must be a bad teacher—a seriously ineffectual communicator on the art of comma placement and verb conjugation. And what if other members of my department were checking out my ratings?

The coordinator of my department does, in fact, check out the website. She even created an account so that she could do her own vigilante work, flagging slanderous comments about professors (a recent one even claimed that a colleague had “no place near a chalkboard!”). While I’m glad she is looking out for us, I don’t want her judging my ratings, my comments, or my emotionless emoticon. Even if this feedback doesn’t factor into the hiring or promoting a professor, it bothers me that it’s still out there.

My classes were still full, so I wasn’t losing students because of that slanderous blue face. But in the winter 2006 term, right before the add/drop deadline, I gave a class in the computer lab. And there she was—this student who hadn’t come to the class before, and was thinking of signing up. Midway through the class, as the other students completed a vocabulary assignment, I discovered her clicking away, all over ratemyprofessors.com. When she offered, “Well, it’s the last day to add/drop classes,” I was fairly certain she was seeing what other students had to say about me, right there in my own classroom. Not only was I mortified, but I couldn’t believe that ratemyprofessors.com was actually being used as a primary source of information. Great.

She didn’t take my class in the end. Maybe it was because of the slight scene I made when I caught her on that website, but I’m betting it was the combination of my angry, red face in the classroom and its sad, blue reflection online.

It’s the end of another term, and I’ve already received the formal departmental student feedback report. It’s fine—in fact, it’s improving. In my fledgling career as a professor, this is encouraging. But the real test remains to be seen. The ratemyprofessors comments usually aren’t posted until after the students’ grades have come out. So now, it’s a matter of willpower: can I stop at this great review, or will I feel compelled to risk deflation by checking out my facial status online?

Perhaps I need to get out of this business. There isn’t a ratemymailman.com yet, is there? I can’t help fixating on the couple of negative comments I get each term. I’ve tried to get comments (“Not good.”) overturned, but I guess the administrator didn’t find this particularly malicious. Heck, I always judged my teachers too; I just didn’t broadcast my opinions to the entire world. Maybe I’ll just add a few new entries of my own—or work on getting back my chili pepper.