Evan Schwartz: Ask not what RateMyProfessors can do for you

Several weeks have passed in the semester, and students are beginning to find out exactly why their professors garnered all those frowning faces next to their names on RateMyProfessors.com.

The site, while undoubtedly useful, can be very hit or miss. RateMyProfessors has inspired thousands of students to avoid taking that one particular biology class, but it has surely duped thousands of other students into missing out on otherwise excellent professors who made the mistake of failing one particularly computer-savvy student. But why isn’t the site as accurate as it could be?

RateMyProfessors could be a fountain of wisdom for students, but its main problem is that it invites only two types of experiences: extremely positive and extremely negative. Students will only be inspired to post if they fall to one side of the spectrum. Often, the writer is merely exorcising his demons online, and whichever students take a chance on trusting a complete stranger may be surprised come the first day of class. As such, it is rare to find an entry that reads, “He was fine. I got a B.”

Should students avoid RateMyProfessors, for fear it will influence their decisions on registration? Are the ratings wholly worthless?

The answer is no.

RateMyProfessors does certain things very well. In identifying “underrated” professors, it highlights the hidden gems at every university, which can certainly enrich any student’s experience in school. Additionally, many contributors identify particular teaching assistants who were helpful and adept.

That said, the site is most effective as a guideline rather than a bible. Though it may sometimes delve into petty insults and name-calling, it can act as an important tool for any student registering before a new semester. The key is volume – instead of turning off at the first negative rating, users should read as many as they possibly can and see if they can develop a feel for the professor based on multiple testimonies. Still, finding 50 negative entries and 50 matching frowning faces on each entry is a clear sign to look for a different class.

But regardless of how many comments you read, RateMyProfessors is only as useful as the quality of contributions regular students submit. Therefore, it is in all of our best interest to contribute in a manner that will benefit our fellow students. Instead of existing as a bashing ground for professors, we should all strive to create a collaboration that offers true insight.

For a site like RateMyProfessors to truly work, more contributions and more opinions will create a better collective product. Comment on all of your professors, regardless of your grade in the class. And if you didn’t do too well, reflect on whose fault that is: yours or the professor’s? Resist the urge to comment on your professor’s stupid haircut or lame jokes. Focus instead on constructive criticism. His haircut may be stupid, but at least he can teach statistics.

Web sites exist to rate things like hotels and restaurants, and the exchange of information has become a vital function of the Internet. However, RateMyProfessors differs from other sites in a significant way. Making a reservation blindly at a hotel or restaurant at worst leaves you with a bad night’s sleep or indigestion. But taking a class is a big investment – time, money, work and sweat and, most importantly, your future.

The writer is a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication.

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