Sizing up, tearing down professors

For many students, preparing for class registration involves scanning course options, reviewing requirements and looking up dirt on their potential professors at ratemyprofessors.com.

The Web site is an open forum that allows students to evaluate professors. Since it was established in 1999, the site claims to have amassed ratings for approximately 700,000 professors, 1,000 of whom teach at GW.

The site states it received more than 200 million hits just last month. Despite its popularity, the teacher assessment forum, which can seem like a trash-talk free-for-all for some unfortunate professors, draws criticism from those who question its merit.

“People who are upset with a professor are more inclined to score points and get even with those who have been less than charitable or not very stimulating,” said Steve Livingston, the interim director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, “It is a skewed sampling procedure.”

Apart from the written reviews, four variables are used to evaluate teacher performance; easiness, helpfulness, clarity and “hotness.” Based on the total of these variables, a smiley face, unhappy face or indifferent face appears next to that professor’s name. Red chili peppers are displayed for teachers who scored high in the “hotness” category.

A main administrator and student moderator at each university monitors the comments on the site. Moderators are directed to censor posts with sexual content, racism or claims that the professor will get fired.

Qualms with the ratemyprofessors.com led one college professor to create a site called Rate Your Students. The creator, who runs the site anonymously under the name “The Professor,” writes on the site that it is a forum for those interested in “making the college classroom a better place.”

“I’m not under any illusion that the site (ratemyprofessors.com) is for anything other than entertainment,” said “The Professor,” adding that he receives more than 250 e-mails a day from people wishing to post comments on the blog.

“Hotness and easiness have nothing whatsoever to do with the real value of a college class,” “the Professor” said. “So in some way those categories actually reveal RMP’s real value, which is about zero.”

Though it never specifically identifies students, the Rate Your Students blog is primarily composed of professors airing their issues with the modern classroom. The site has recently been hacked, however, and “The Professor” said he and fellow professors plan to create “a new blog where the mission of Rate Your Students can continue in a positive way.”

Katherine Coyner, a spokeswoman for ratemyprofessors.com, wrote in an e-mail that she and her colleagues “consider the Rate Your Students blog to be a destructive and silly outlet for the disgruntled.”

Part of what makes ratemyprofessors.com – and other sites like it that have popped up – so popular is that teacher evaluation resources can be limited.

“Students should have access to teacher ratings before signing up for a class,” said Steven Hansen, an accounting professor in the School of Business. “If there is no other resource available, the students will use (ratemyprofessors.com). The question is whether the University wants students to go to this noisy Web site as their only resource.”

Long before the creation of the Internet, the Student Association annually published a book of instructor evaluations called the Academic Update. It was a collection of teacher ratings given to students. Based on in-class surveys, the book had been published for more than 50 years and was discontinued about four years ago.

Donald Lehman, the executive vice president of Academic Affairs, said the book was discontinued because it was “a costly workload for SA students.”

“I think that it’s a great idea,” said SA Chief of Senate Staff L. Asher Corson, a senior. “And I think it would really allow the University to know what impression professors have made on their students.”

The University is trying to reestablish a teacher evaluation system similar to the Academic Update.

“One of the things that reduce the credibility of ratemyprofessors.com is that the response rate is not representative,” said Cheryl Beil, executive director of Academic Planning and Assessment. Beil, who is a leader in the project to create a collection of professor evaluations for GW, added that one of the reasons evaluations are not yet available is not enough students respond to online evaluation forms the University distributes.

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