Grading the profs
[Web site ratings turn the tables on teachers—but are they accurate?]
W hether they’re looking to give thanks or exact revenge, in the electronic age college students have a shot at grading their professors.
Going by one of the several Web sites on which Chico State teachers are rated, a student might walk into Glen Bleske’s journalism class expecting to find a tough-but-caring guy with mismatched hair and beard who just might bust out yelling in the middle of a lecture.
That’s mostly true, concedes Bleske, who doesn’t place a lot of stock in online professor ratings but finds them interesting all the same. Bleske, who was rated 3.3 out of 5 on such qualities as “easiness,” “helpfulness” and “clarity,” is a little disappointed he lost his previous “hot pepper” rating on www.ratemyprofessors.com.
“I think these things are meant to be fun. I don’t think anybody takes them seriously,” he said. “I think students use word-of-mouth more than evaluations.”
The traditional way colleges such as Chico State gauge teachers’ effectiveness is by having students fill out evaluation forms at the end of the semester. The results are used as part of the process when deciding whether a particular professor will gain tenure. Comments like, “He doesn’t keep office hours,” or, “She didn’t hand back assignments,” are big red flags.
“I’ve probably had more than 1,000 reviews,” said Bleske, an associate professor. “There’s always a hint of truth to them, and I think every teacher uses them to some extent. What people look for is patterns and what the trends are.”
But John Swapceinski, who founded the site www.ratemyprofessors.com from San Jose State University in 1999, said the traditional system has a huge gap: The students never see the results. “Unfortunately, most schools do not share these evaluations with students, or present them in such a way as to make them virtually meaningless,” he said. “Our site gives students open access to the opinions of their fellow students, opinions that might not be available to them.”
That site is the most popular, with 344 Chico State teachers and 107 from Butte College being rated there. Other sites with local references include www.teacherreviews.com, www.whototake.com, www.professorperformance.com and www.myprofessorsucks.com.
While some teachers like Bleske don’t stress over evaluations, for lecturer Steve Metzger, any type of feedback—however skewed—is a chance to learn and improve.
“I’d completely forgotten about [the sites],” he said. “I get sort of a queasy feeling in my stomach just thinking about it.”
He wants students to like him as a teacher, but he doesn’t want to be labeled “too easy” either. “I think I’m in the middle. I think I have pretty high standards.”
Roger Ekins, who teaches English at Butte College, got a 5 out of 5 on www.ratemyprofessors.com from one student who called him “a very brainy guy” with a penchant for bongos and three-piece suits.
“Now that I’ve been rated and gotten a high rating, of course I believe in these Web sites,” quipped Ekins. “But ask me again should someone dump on me in the future.”
When he was a student at the University of Utah in the late 1960s, he helped organize a student-run faculty evaluation. “We published our results, and students used the feedback generated to help them pick their professors for the following quarter,” Ekins said. “Sure, there were always some disgruntled students who opted to trash a professor because of a bad grade, but on the whole students are honest and they know better than anyone who the truly gifted and dedicated instructors are. (They most certainly have a better understanding than the dean of who the good and bad instructors are, and I say that as a former dean.)”
Although he’s troubled by the fact that www.ratemyprofessors.com links to a term-paper-selling site, Ekins supports the idea of seeking out online opinions if schools won’t make public the evaluations of faculty members—who after all are paid by tax dollars.
“However, we should all keep in mind the fact that only a very few students—typically those who feel strongly one way or the other—will be sufficiently motivated to provide a rating under such a system, and sound decisions are never made on the basis of scant and selective data,” he said. “Student activists would better spend their time trying to convince their colleges and universities to make the results of the institutional evaluations public.”
Swapceinski said www.ratemyprofessor.com has had its share of detractors. “We routinely get complaints from professors, many of whom demand their names be removed from the Web site. And we get threatened with legal action on a weekly basis. Fortunately, the First Amendment is on our side.”
He said the site does have ways it guards against one vindictive student posting repeated negative comments, but he keeps those secret “to make it harder to circumvent the safeguards.”
While the site warns that libelous comments will be deleted, some professors at Chico State and Butte College were described as “evil, evil, evil.” One student said about a teacher: “By the end of the semester I wanted to kill her or myself.”
While some students leave class with an ax to grind, Swapceinski revealed that it’s not always an online bash-fest. “Actually, the ratings are about 65 percent positive and only 35 percent negative.”
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