Author: Kelly Neukom
It seems unfair. As college students, we are constantly scrutinized and criticized by every one of our professors. Whole days can be either ruined or exalted by a teacher’s comment on something as inconsequential as a reading journal. We can work all night on an essay that a professor can tear down in mere minutes (along with our self-esteem). Quotes from Assistant Professor of ECLS Damian Stocking show up on countless numbers of Oxy Facebook profiles.
We all care a lot more about professors than we’d like to admit, and it doesn’t seem right that they can criticize or praise us without the chance for us to do the same—outside of private conversations with friends, that is.
Well, this would be a reality if we were college students before 1999. That was the year that website www.ratemyprofessors.com was created, and choosing classes has never been the same since. “RateMyProfessors.com is the internet’s largest listing of collegiate professor ratings, with more than 6.8 million student-generated ratings of over one million professors,” reads the “About Us” section of the site. “RateMyProfessors.com currently offers ratings on college and university professors from over 6,000 schools across the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and Wales with thousands of new ratings added each day.”
The premise seems straightforward enough. You don’t even need to register an account—just go to the site and rate your professor on a scale of one to five for easiness, helpfulness, clarity and your interest in the class. There is a box to write in your comments about the teacher and even a chance to give them a chili pepper if you consider them good-looking (the site emphasizes that this is “just for fun”).
Occidental currently has 256 teachers reviewed, with Professor of Politics Larry Caldwell receiving the most reviews at a whopping 41 (his first review dates back to February 2003). Professor of Art History (and Dean of the College) Eric Frank tops the list for overall quality, while Professor of Kinesiology Stuart Rugg takes the cake for the hottest. (15 chili peppers!)
Oxy students are no strangers to the site, with many visiting before registering for classes every semester. “We are paying lots and lots of money to come here and I want to make my time in the classroom as worthwhile as possible,” Britt Karp (junior) said. “Learning that a professor is a heinous lecturer or that the class is considered a total waste of time can be valuable to me. I also like to balance out my schedule. Oxy can be pretty rough and taking four classes from professors that are known to be killers can really kill my GPA.”
Alana Saltz (junior) agrees. “[The site] really helps me get a sense of a professor that I’ve never heard of,” she said. “It isn’t always easy, especially at a small school like Oxy, to find people who have had the particular professor you’re looking to take. It gives me a general sense of what people’s impressions of the professor are and how difficult the class is. I’ve always been a big fan of looking up reviews online to help me make decisions.”
Kristin Beck (first-year) likes the site because students will rate professors on how well they do as advisors as well as for their teaching skills. “I like to just get a feel for how students interact with teachers,” she said. “A professor’s quality can change a lot when it is a class versus just advising students. It also allows you to anticipate what teachers are looking for. It isn’t in any way a foot up, but taking the mystery out of things is beneficial.”
But college students aren’t the only ones looking at the site. Professors sometimes visit “Rate My Professors” to see what their students think of them as teachers.
“My dad is a [professor] and says that rating systems are universally dreaded by professors because they are so open to students who are just pissed and feel like venting,” Beck said. “He was actually a little horrified to hear that I have consulted RMP when crafting my class schedule.”
Assistant Professor of Psychology Roberta Mancuso agrees that only certain students will grade a teacher, giving a user of the site a skewed perspective. “It doesn’t take a background in psychology to figure out that students who are motivated to rate their professors are much different than those who are not,” she said. “I’d bet that those who are most motivated are those who had bad experiences in a class or with a particular professor.”
Mancuso emphasized the factors that contribute to a student’s choosing to rate a professor. “Is the student struggling in college? Is the student protecting her/his self-esteem by believing that all bad grades and ‘bad classes are the fault of the professor? Is the student getting straight A’s?” she listed. “Does the student feel she/he has some personal reason to ‘take revenge’ on the professor? Does the professor believe in challenging students to work harder than they’ve had to work before? Occasionally, the really good students might rate the professors, but I think it’s more unlikely.”
“RMP is a highly self-selected sample of student rankings,” one Oxy professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “Only highly motivated—usually angry or vengeful—students tend to respond to it, typically to get even if they didn’t like their grade. Very few students who are happy or even ecstatic about a professor will take the time to go to RMP. Besides, Oxy is such a small, gossipy place that student word of mouth is much more reliable and commonly used by students than any anonymous website.”
The site insists that it is not just an outlet for unhappy students—on the contrary, over 65 percent of the ratings are positive. But some Oxy students agreed that talking to friends about a professor they’ve had is much more helpful than the site is. “I would still try to find actual people and friends to talk to about the class and the professor to get a better idea,” Saltz said.
Amber Penland (junior) encouraged students interested in taking a class to simply talk to the professor beforehand. “Definitely don’t take RMP too seriously,” Lauren Mee (sophomore) said.
“I encourage my advisees to get this info by talking with students who are a bit further along in the major then they are and to find students who rank classes in a similar way as they do,” Professor of Biology Gary Martin said. “It seems kind of like rating movies, and there are a lot of movies that I enjoy which get trashed by the critics.”
Another more accurate way to give your professors feedback on their performance is through the course evaluation forms every class fills out at the end of each semester. “In both my own class rankings, and in those of professors whom I know to be outstanding teachers (winners of teaching awards, etc.), the responses on RMP were significantly more negative than those obtained by routine classroom evaluations,” the anonymous professor said. “I know from experience that even the students who give me excellent evaluations in a class are uninterested in spending time adding their opinion to RMP.”
Karp sees the importance of course evaluations as a student. “From my experience, the school puts a pretty big emphasis on the end-of-the-course reviews,” she said. “I had a professor tell my class, while handing out the evaluations, that their salary was somewhat dependent on what we had to say. Another professor almost gave us an extra exam (trust me, we have plenty of work) because previous students had reported that they weren’t tested enough on the reading. Students don’t seem to realize the weight these evaluations hold in re-adjusting course content, giving professors rewards or potentially taking them away.”
Some professors said that they would prefer to have course evaluations posted publicly online, as these are filled out by a larger number of students and therefore have less of a chance to be biased. “I think it would be great if colleges or professors posted overall statistics from course evaluations each semes
ter, as well as verbatim comments from students, to give a better sense of the professors’ overall practices,” Assistant Professor of Politics Caroline Heldman said. “This would give students a better sense of the professor’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Some professors believe that the course evaluations are more for the school than the students. “I take my students’ evaluations very seriously,” Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Kristi Upson-Saia said. “I look for those aspects of the course that intellectually challenged them and highlight those parts the next time I teach the course; likewise, I pay attention to their critiques and hone my courses in response. But I recognize that the Oxy student evaluations seem to benefit the faculty more so than the students. Thus, I appreciate the need for Oxy students to engage in their own evaluation process.”
The course evaluations at the end of the semester do not include one of the most tongue-in-cheek aspects of the site, though: the “hot” chili pepper. Many realize what a joke this is and treat it accordingly. Often, a student will give a professor a chili pepper just because he or she likes the class, not because the professor is good-looking.
“A friend of mine has a dad who is a professor also and she was saying that he was really excited because he had gotten a chili pepper,” Beck said. “That just seems like the fun aspect of the whole thing, the joking part-often because it is funny to see that a professor of yours has a chili pepper when they are really not all that attractive. [But] hotness is always a matter of opinion, so it can’t really be trusted. Besides, that’s a stupid way to decide who to take.”
Karp herself thinks the chili pepper function is “pretty stupid,” but said there is some merit to having it on the site. “My professor told us that studies have been done saying that among the top two factors that influence a student’s rating of a professor, one of them is the professor’s attractiveness (the other is how fun the class is),” she said. “Yes, I thought this was pretty sad and I am still in denial about it because it gives students a bad name!”
The site is now developing a new feature in which professors are given the chance to write a rebuttal to students’ reviews. These blog-like comments will appear after a professor registers to become a certified professor on the site. Although the feature hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet, a new area of the site is now dedicated to videos of teachers responding to comments written about them, including ones like “You’re definitely going to fall asleep in his class,” “Thinks his brain is as big as his hair” and “I want to be her slave!”
Although there are no videos of Oxy professors yet, it is good to know that professors can submit videos of themselves if they so desire. One professor at Honolulu Community College sent in a video responding to the fact that he has never received a single chili pepper, bringing his mom in front of the camera to reassure him that he is “real cute” and to encourage his students to give him a pepper.
With all of these new advancements at the site, it is unlikely that students will stop using it anytime soon. However, there may be room for improvement. “It’s only valid if we [the faculty] can create a ratemystudents.com,” Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Simeon Pillich said.
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