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January 8, 2004
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Rating professors: The inside story


By Dr. Chris Youé
Special to the Gazette

It all began in 1999, when an American graduate developed a new Web site called RateMyProfessors.com. Originally intended for a U.S. audience, RateMyProfessors.com soon became so popular, and so unwieldy, that John, the owner, Webmaster and “one man show,” hived off the Canadian section as a separate Web site, RateMyProfessors.ca. Memorial, at the time of writing, has over 1,000 hits. At the end of every day, all new entries, scoring professors out of five for the categories of helpfulness, clarity and easiness and containing comments like “She’s the best ...” and “He really sucks ...” are monitored by a local administrator. Students composing at their PCs or picking at their palm pilots may also choose the red chili pepper option if they think the instructor is “hot.” Does RateMyProfessors (RMP) give an accurate assessment of professors? What makes a good professor good? Does it matter if a professor is “hot” or not? How does RMP deal with abusers, grudge-holders, multiple-hitters and even vain professors who masquerade as students so that they can move up from the miserable purple face, through the neutral green one and into the realm of the bright yellow sunshiny one? These are questions that dominated my thoughts and I needed answers. I contacted the local administrator, whom I can only identify as Double-A and an upper-level undergraduate, to see if he or she was willing to be interviewed. Double-A was ready and willing. Here are extracts from the interview:

Q: How did you get to be the MUN administrator?

AA:
I was on the Internet one day, found the site, and it said that this school needs an administrator and if you’re interested, e-mail us. So I answered a few questions about myself and on dealing with administering a Web site and I got the job. It’s volunteer.

Q: What do you know about John, the Webmaster?

AA:
Not much, except that he graduated from San Jose State University in 1999 and his name is John Swapceinski. He owns both sites, the American and the Canadian. The reason he had to set up the Canadian Web site was that there were so many Canadian schools.

Q: Does he have a job?

AA:
This is his job. He does all the work. It’s way too much work. It’s not a profit-making venture. We just break even. Basically it’s just to try to help students pick out their profs. We’re trying to make more by getting more advertising. And you can become a gold member for a one-time only payment of $6.95. At the moment those that log on have access to the last 10 hits for each professor.

Q: Isn’t that denying students accessibility because the previous hits are blind?

AA:
Quite a few students are willing to pay the $6.95, and the payment makes your access advert-free.

Q: What you’ve seen from MUN, what do you think are the most important criteria that make a professor a good teacher?

AA:
I think the most important is helpfulness outside of the classroom. That’s what I get a lot of the comments on. “The professor was good because he helped me outside of the classroom” sort of thing. And what’s makes a prof bad is they have no time for the students. I get a lot of those comments.

Q: So you think a professor can be a really good teacher in the classroom and get bad reviews if he fails to engage the students outside of the classroom?

AA:
Yes

Q: When I was at Dalhousie, in the days before PCs, perhaps even before electric typewriters, students produced an anti-calendar, something conceptually similar to your Web site. At Queen’s, my first teaching position in the early ’80s, student reps for history classes would provide a one-page synopsis of each professor after consultation with the entire class. So the idea has been around for some time. But do you think that something as open as the Web, as RMP itself, might lend itself to abuse? What’s to stop one student doing multiple hits on a professor they don’t like and what’s to stop a professor from supporting his or herself?

AA:
Right. Well, we’ve had both those cases, and we’ve had one where a student was abusing the prof through our Web site, saying really bad things, and what we had to do was we had to tell John, the Webmaster, and he had to get the police involved in it because it was bad, so bad. That was here at MUN.

Q: Could you identify that person?

AA:
Through IP addresses, yes, you can.

Q: What about less dramatic cases?

AA:
Well, I check the site every day in the evening and I go over all the new hits, and if I notice something fishy like, say, a succession or high number of perfect scores and the comment is the exact same thing, I check to see if it’s coming from the same source. We look for suspicious things.

Q: And if you do find a fishy thing, what do you do?

AA:
We usually remove it. We tell John and John will monitor that particular thing for a while.

Q: A friend of mine, a female professor, forty-ish, got good hits but she really objected to her characterisation on the RMP as a cougar or sexual predator. She found this offensive, as I do. Can you remove comments such as that?

AA:
All she has to do is click on the flag on the same line as the offensive comment, and then she can register her complaint. Libellous and sexist comments will be removed.

Q: The chili pepper thing. Why?

AA:
Just for fun. You get profs, some people, you know — “oh yeah, that prof is really hot.” We used to say “sexy” but quite a few moderators objected to that, and quite a few teachers complained about it, not just the teachers that were called sexy, so we moved to “hot.” We get complaints about that too.

Q: Is the whole thing, the Web site, a serious or fun thing?

AA:
It’s serious. I’ve actually used the Web site to see if I should take a course, and I’ve actually decided not to take a course because a certain prof was teaching it. Of course, we also check with other students, word of mouth, and that gives use a good idea of what courses to take and which ones to avoid. Many students do this.

Q: In thinking about the students rating professors on your Web site, I think that one of two things has happened — either that student has been inspired by that professor or they absolutely loathe them. It’s a reaction thing. But if a professor is so-so he or she is unlikely to elicit a response, so the in-betweens are missed out.

AA:
Yeah, probably. I can see that.

Q: There are institutional evaluations. What do you think of them?
AA:
I know when I rate my professors in class, I’m afraid that they’ll see this, he might be biased. And, of course we don’t see the results. This is where RateMyProfessors comes in.

Q: Actually, the professors don’t get to see the individual assessments via the institution, just the summaries.

AA:
I didn’t know that. Anyway, I think most students are careful what they say with university-administered evaluations, more positive than need be about the professor. RateMyProfessors is more honest. It’s by students for students. The institutional ones are for the university. That’s the difference.

Q: So, in the end, if you get a professor who is well-organized, exciting and really cares for her or his students, that person is going to get a really big score on RMP?

AA:
Yes, and there’s going to a line-up of people trying to get into that class.

Q: And the moral is — if the professor respects the students, the students respect the professor?

AA:
That’s probably always been the case, but it’s RMP that spreads the news.

Dr. Chris Youé is the recipient of first MUNSU [CSU] Teaching Award. He lost all his hot peppers (he claims 20-odd) when he became head of the Department of History in July 2003.

 


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Next issue: January 22, 2003

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