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by Archives October 26, 2005

In roughly three years of university, a student faces at least 30 courses taught by 30 professors whose grade might determine how successful that student’s professional career will be. Students spending about 27 hours a semester per class at $240 a pop demand an “education for the real world,” and a professor can make it or break it for them.

Not to say that teaching university is a popularity contest, but come registration time, the concern that is voiced by many so resonantly is “how would you rate your professor?”

Aside from word of mouth of one’s peers, students can check if there’s any reference to the professor online via search engines and message boards like RateMyProfessor.com. Although both mediums provide a second opinion, the latter is an anonymous forum where one can view postings for teachers across the continent.

“I’ve been using it since CEGEP,” said Shireen Peyrow, who’s majoring in management at Concordia. “You have to play your odds; what you would perceive as a good teacher is not what someone else would.”

Like Peyrow, Aisling O’Gorman considers the site accurate and useful. “Good professors make the lectures more appealing and easier to understand,” said the McGill University Medical student. “I believe a great professor, even if they are hard, make the class worthwhile.” Both students used the site to help them determine which courses to register for.

RateMyProfessor.com is a six-year-old website that archives student critiques of the most popular and least liked professors. With a database of more than four million ratings at more than 5,000 institutions of higher learning, the website has become a staple for many college students who use it to choose classes based on professors’ evaluations.

Ratings are based on a professor’s easiness, helpfulness and clarity. Scores go from a low of one to a high of five, and also include written comments. Contributors can also post a chili pepper icon to signify if a professor is “hot.”

“I don’t rate students on how hot they are. I’m glad these categories are not included on the university evaluations or the grade sheets!” said english professor Mary Di Michele, who was not rated as “hot”.

While the site is outrageously popular with students, university administrators and professors are finding it neither funny nor instructive. As such, it has created much controversy in the academic world.

“I am in complete opposition to this vehicle as a rating system – at least in my case,” said Boris Baran, professor of decision sciences and Management Information Systems. “The posted ratings (representing about 5% of the total students that I have taught over this time) are significantly inconsistent with the official university evaluation results and their related student comments. I also find that many of the comments do not even remotely resemble reality.”

Farzin Farzaneh, assistant professor of cinema at Concordia, was also critical of the rating system. “Not only is the chili pepper offensive, but so is the “easiness” category. This is not a helpful website to anybody; and yes, it can damage a professor’s reputation.”

Nancy Acemian, a computer science professor at Concordia had one of the better ratings among her colleagues. “Students have always rated their profs … in the halls of the University. We have no control over this and it’s their right,” she says. “Students need to take the information with a grain of salt.”

In accordance, professor Josie Caruso notes that there is a definite bias. “Statements made by students can be either exhilarating or injurious. It all depends on who makes them and on the motives,” said the part-time classics, modern languages and linguistics instructor. “A professor who has the misfortune of teaching students who expect an easy reward for little or no work done, will undoubtedly face negative comments. The main problem is that the website, being propagandic in nature, could affect classroom evaluations.”

Other sites, like ProfessorPerformance.com and RateAProf.com, serve a similar function, but none have come close to attracting the posting volume or the negative feedback of RateMyProfessor.com. Kenneth Westhues, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, noted in an interview with Wired News that the site is forcing administrations to take a professor’s teaching capabilities more seriously.

Westhues, who was quoted in the Montreal Gazette earlier this month, completed a study of the rating site last year and found that professors and administrations are “deeply threatened” by the site in part because work with students has generally been a very minor part of a faculty member’s evaluation. “Here’s this tenured professor with high rank and high salary and students say he’s a disaster in the classroom,” he said. “RateMyProfessors gets that information out into the open.”

So how seriously are the learned and learning taking RateMyProfessor.com? Dr. Theresa Bianco, assistant professor in psychology, says the comments are skewed and does not place much importance on them. “I am confident in my teaching abilities and teach according to my philosophy, and not to what will make me most popular among students,” said Bianco, who received mixed ratings. “As for my reputation, I believe it’s established in the classroom. I’m not concerned about the impact of the website.”

From the other perspective, students are generally aware that this ‘report card for teachers’ is an alternative information outlet. Put simply by O’Gorman, “The website is just magnified word of mouth; you don’t believe everything you hear.”

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