You rating me grading you

Recently, a friend and I were lamenting the fact that, since graduating college and becoming college instructors ourselves, we no longer get to experience the constant validation we received as students. Instead, we’ve become the agents of validation (or, too often, invalidation)—and we both feel somewhat bereft as a result. Although I’m now presumably helping hundreds of students a year, my sense of self worth was never higher than in my grad-school years, when the only person I helped was myself, and I hungrily consumed the grades and comments I received from my professors.

Anyway, as we sat there, feeling sorry for ourselves (and rather naïvely envying our students), I said, half-joking, “Well, at least we’ve got ratemyprofessor.com.”

My “friend,” by the way, who is embarrassed by her own attachment to this website, wishes to remain nameless, so we’ll call her “Stephanie.” Anyway, Stephanie responded by saying something about how pathetic we both were (true), acknowledging that, for good or for ill, the site offered the type of ego boost we both felt had been missing from our lives (double true).

However, I have to admit that when RMP debuted a few years ago, I was absolutely horrified, as all of my insecurities immediately surfaced. My first-ever “rating” was accompanied by a low score, a blue frowny face, and a very concise assessment of my teaching: “too anal.” While I am sort of proud of being anal, at the time I was dismayed—students could log on and write whatever they wanted about me? What if someone becomes unhappy upon receiving an F? Wait, of course that’s going to happen—getting an F equals being unhappy.

Despite being concerned about the public nature of these ratings, I didn’t really think the site would catch on. But it has only grown in popularity, and where I teach, most students seem to arrange their schedules based on the site’s ratings. It has become required reading, a necessary addendum to the schedule of classes.

Luckily, some 50-plus ratings later, my students’ comments have been (for the most part) delightfully positive, reminding me of that ego boost I used to receive on being graded myself. Indeed, there’s nothing like reading that you’re the best teacher in the history of the world (I’m, you know, roughly paraphrasing here). But I’ve received a few bad ratings too, not to mention some lukewarm ones (including my most recent), and the accompanying comments are always much harder to forget.

For instance, a few semesters ago, one student complained that my class was “offil” because the essays I assigned were “stuped.” Based on the quality of writing in this comment, I felt it was almost a compliment that this student didn’t appreciate my teaching; besides, it seemed pretty clear to me who had written this, a girl who had received an F that semester due to her severe grammar and spelling issues, not to mention a nonexistent work ethic. But it still saddened me. Another semester, a student remarked that I was “too sweaty” and “too feminine” (which, not to stereotype or anything, seems like a contradiction to me). Yet another student offered this dire warning: “Zitter is a young guy that wants it his way and no other way!”

I’m thankful that’s as bad as my comments have gotten, since I can only take so much validation.

But I’ve also received ratings that, while not necessarily negative, are still embarrassing, nonetheless. Take, for example, this recent gem (all errors in original):

Only complaint is that sometimes he’s TOO nice and let’s people ramble on when clearly they haven’t read the works before hand. Hard to concentrate in class because he looks a lot like Keanu Reeves less manly half brother and I kept waiting for him to scream “There’s a bomb on the BUS!!”

Though I suppose part of me should be flattered, this isn’t really the sort of validation I seek as an instructor. After all, Keanu is so last millennium.

Otherwise, one of my favorite features of RMP is a list of “funniest ratings,” mostly because my sense of humor kicks in when we’re talking about professors who aren’t me (or my friends):

  • Bring a pillow. Your pillow will need a pillow.
  • He will destroy you like an academic ninja.
  • Teaches well, invites questions and then insults you for 20 minutes.
  • Not only is the book a better teacher, it has a better personality.
  • Evil computer science teaching robot who crushes humans for pleasure.
  • Emotional scarring may fade away, but that big fat F on your transcript won’t.
  • Three of my friends got A’s in his class and my friends are dumb.

Since I make my living by grading students and sometimes forget the effect my own judgments can have on their psyches, I think it’s only fair that students have an outlet for their own corresponding judgments about professors. Besides, what’s interesting about RMP is not that it fuels my own insecurities and narcissism (although it does), but that it furthers the increasing democratization of the web, a place where everyone gets to vote someone else off the island (thank god for tenure). Quite honestly, I think it’s useful, too, providing many students with helpful direction on which instructors to take and/or avoid. (At a school with several intolerant right-wing zealots on the tenured faculty, this direction can be invaluable.)

Ultimately, though, there are precious few legitimate criteria on which professors are actually ranked; these include “easiness,” “helpfulness,” and “clarity.” I don’t mind being rated on how helpful or clear I am as an instructor, but seriously—easiness? No fair! Since I’m “too anal,” I couldn’t possibly get a good score on easiness. And whereas the site doesn’t offer ratings on how challenging or thought-provoking a class might be, it does offer this final criterion: students can assess their instructors’ hotness, represented by a chili-pepper icon. This is so incredibly insulting and demeaning that I’m not even sure what to say… except that I have 22 chili peppers! (Woo-hoo! I’m totally hot!)

But, you know, seriously—who’s counting?

Speaking of counting, as of today my overall average rating is a 4.2 out of 5. So, basically, I’m getting a B. This makes me a little sad because, well, in spite of what I tell my students, a B is sort of lame. Plus, yesterday I had a 4.3, meaning that, in the last 24 hours, I’ve become 2% less effective as an instructor.

Validation my ass.

9 responses to “You rating me grading you”

  1. I didn’t realize RMP existed until an administrator said to me one day at a meeting: “Congrats on your hot professor status.” Someone had apparently told her (she hadn’t seen the site herself) that I’d received some chili peppers. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me to go look at hotprofessors.com — which I will not link to here because it takes you to a site that’s not safe for work or home. It took me a while to figure out what the hell she was talking about, and of course I was perplexed why an admin would send me to a porn site. When I did find the real site she was talking about, RMP, I was disappointed that the comments (I only have a handful) are more about my appearance or taste in music or sense of humor than they actually were about the courses themselves.

    I have to say, Jeremy, your students really use this tool to the extreme. Do you have an official evaluation system whose results they can access? Our regular course evals are sponsored by student government and results go up on their site, which is perhaps why they’re not using RMP as much. I think I prefer official sites to the ad hoc commercial sites or myspace professor pages b/c you at least have the assurance that the people posting responses were actually in your class!

    Have you ever seen the professoriate’s rejoinder to these sites?

    p.s. I sweat like hell, too, especially in large lectures. But so would they if they were in your shoes!

  2. Jeremy Zitter says:

    What’s the deal with administrators? I was on a hiring committee last year and read a letter of recommendation, written by a dean, that referenced the instructor’s positive ratings on RMP. During one colleague’s tenure review meeting, a committee member remarked on the number of chili peppers my colleague had on the site. I wonder when RMP ratings will become part of the hiring and official faulty-evaluation processes (I’m only half joking).

    Unfortunately, Bryan, our school does not have a very reliable evaluation system, certainly not one that students can access. When I was an adjunct at the university level, official student evaluations were a requirement for every class (though these were not made available to students). Now that I have tenure at a community college, I believe I am required to have official student evaluations for one class every four or five years. These evaluations aren’t available to students either, of course. It really is an incredibly flawed, weak system. At any rate (pun intended), our school definitely needs to consider implementing a more effective, student-accessible system (and I’m curious to know how yours works, Bryan).

    As a result, I don’t blame our students for clinging to their RMP. And while it’s rather flawed, too, and incredibly consumer-oriented, it’s unfortunately not out of step with our school’s approach, as evidenced by the upcoming visit by Disney representatives, who are (I kid not) going to offer seminars and workshops on the “Disney way” of attracting customers and making them feel like “guests.” Applying this model to the college is disturbing on so many levels. I don’t even know where to begin.

    By the way, I had heard of that “rate your students” site, but it doesn’t really fulfill a need for me, since I can always grouse with my colleagues… or write something here.

  3. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Oops. I meant to say “faculty-evaluation processes,” not “faulty-evaluation processes.” They both work just fine, though. (Freudian slip or typo?)

  4. D.M. says:

    Did you know myspace has a RMP feature now as well? Yet another site from which to seek validation (the scores tend to be higher there, for what it’s worth).

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Jeremy,

    I really enjoyed this one! I am both relieved and sadly disappointed that RMP was not around when I was teaching. I would obsess about it, as do many of the people I know who teach college.

    I remember obsessing about student evaluations at all the institutions where I taught, even (and especially) when I was a grad student. I was always secretly (okay, maybe not entirely secretly) pleased by comments about how ‘hot’ I was or how well I dressed, even as I thought, “C’mon, say something of substance!”

    The inescapable thing, though, is that teaching *is* a performance. Looks and presentation count for something, even though we would all like to think that education is all about knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, rigorous thinking, etc. It’s still frustrating and disturbing when students don’t look beyond the surface.

    In our increasingly consumer-oriented world, sites like RMP are of course very popular. Fight it as we may and should, education is most likely only going to become more and more consumer-oriented, as the infiltration of Disney consultants at OCC attests. This I find very frightening, but in this context it seems that sites like RMP do perform a valuable service. At the very least they allow students some sort of outlet to express their views and opinions, much like the user comments on Amazon and IMDB.

    T

  6. Stephanie Wells says:

    Okay, J, let me get this straight . . . In your “nut shelves” post, you refer to me about four different ways, like “Stephanie,” “someone I work with,” “a good friend,” “my office mate,” and who knows what else, to camouflage my identity and make it seem like you’re talking about a bunch of different people . . . In your comment above about my tenure review, I’m tactfully and generically veiled as “one colleague . . . ” But the one time I WANT to go incognito and hide my sick, shameful obsession with my student ratings, you gotta out me full on? Ah well . . . Now everyone can know about my rating I will never forget, which was “EW . . . excuse me while I go barf.” It’s like the anti-chili! Now you all know. And yet I keep looking at it!

    Signed, the colleague/friend/office mate/teacher formerly known as Stephanie

  7. our student government oversees the evaluation process, as i mentioned before. it’s a fairly standard survey — difficulty level, clarity, organization, amount of time you study each week, whether or not you would recommend the professor or the class to friends, etc. it’s strictly voluntary but most people i know go ahead and give them out. the student government maintains a site where the results are reported and representative comments are excerpted, RMP style. students do seem to consult the reviews before registering. of course the whole thing is more controlled than RMP or myspace are, for better or worse. we receive all the evaluations back in the mail once they’ve been processed. some of them i find useful, but i also on occasion offer my own supplementary evaluation form if i have specific things i need to know from them about how the course went.

    i really hate the very few times someone says he or she wouldn’t recommend me or my course. it almost never happens, but it can ruin my week if it does. once, though, someone said she wouldn’t recommend the class to a friend, but then penned in the margin: “None of my friends like to read!”

  8. Scott Godfrey says:

    On behalf of all relatively intelligent students in the universe, I grant unlimited chili pepper status to all of my overly neurotic, professorial chums. Including, of course, the one known as colleague / friend / office mate / teacher formerly known as Stephanie. “Ew?” My eye! It kills me that you, my incredibly brilliant comrades, care what someone with fake breasts, a “Von Bitch” cap and high-heel flip flops “thinks.” C’mon now!

  9. Robyn says:

    I never thought about teachers actually reading ratings and evaluations…UNTIL NOW. [feels paranoid]

    I just checked RMP and most of my profs aren’t even on it (I suppose because my department is small). I guess they’re not looking themselves up. Woo. In high school I remember checking out ratemyteachers.com after overhearing some teachers talking about it. Hm…

    CNN likes your job.