As seen in The New York Times: Rate My Professors
Last weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a humorous piece on Rate My Professors that probably would’ve been more timely in, like, 2002 or earlier, coming to the conclusion that the dishy site represents an alternate reality. Writes Virginia Heffernan, “like many online experiments, Rate My Professors has turned out to be a companion to nothing. It is its own world.” Yet at the same time the article (rightly) suggests that no students should determine anything important according to RMP, it acknowledges that the site does hold sway over the decisions students make on what classes to take and what to avoid. In effect, the NYT figures the best way to treat RMP is to read it like fan fiction, as Heffernan suggests: “I know only the figures they cut on Rate My Professors, where they might as well be characters in novels.”
While the Times‘ piece is annoying in that it publicizes Rate My Professors at all and makes it sound kinda fun to boot, it probably conveys the same disdainful, above-it-all attitude towards RMP that most of us would–especially if we have no chili peppers. And certainly, it’s easy to try and poke holes into the methodology of RMP’s madness: one important point that The Paper of Record doesn’t mention is that RMP encourages extremes, since who would really want to comment unless you had an axe to grind or the hots for teacher? There are definitely some attempts at objectivity at RMP, but I’m doubting most busy college kids are logging on to give lukewarm fair-to-good assessments. RMP basically gives the megaphone to the students who need it the least, the good know-it-alls and the bad know-it-alls who already have your attention as a teacher anyway.
So we all may think that the best approach to RMP is not to take it too seriously, but, then again, academics aren’t always ones to laugh at themselves without reservations. And even if we like to brush off RMP in some of the same ways the NYT piece does, it probably doesn’t only represent some kind of virtual reality, but does have some impact on the way we teach and the way students approach learning, at a personal level and in the larger scheme of things. As the Times aptly points out, it nurtures “the ‘attitude of calm-consumer expertise’ in contemporary students, who regularly rate everything from purchases to people” in both students and faculty. (Maybe even worse than RMP is that universities are rated on Yelp, like Pinkberry or something!) And now that schools (or at least UC Irvine) are switching to official class evals that conducted online, the RMP culture of complaint and hotness is being replicated to some degree in evaluations that could have a real impact on faculty and their careers. That’s not to say I’m an education purist and I’m not against the idea of students being consumers and acting on it, since college is likely any student’s biggest expense. But the issue should be whether they are good consumers who want to find out if their prof or TA shows up on time and is professional or bad consumers who want to rationalize their bad grades/inattention and try to Toyota recall as many others as they can along the way.
Still, even if we were to wish that Rate My Professors could really be banished to “its own world,” as the NYT deems it to be, it probably has a much greater influence than any of us old-school types would want to admit. How do you take Rate My Professors, with a grain of salt or just a little too personally? Has it changed the way your students think about you, you think about your students, and the way you teach, as you scan the lecture hall for students who gave you the stunned “blue face” ratings? Or is it really just a newfangled way of expressing age-old sentiments we might’ve had when we were in the same position that our students are now?