Prof is a Dunce
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The New York Times

 

New York Times

April 23, 2006
Revisiting ... Rate My Professors

Everybody's a Critic

IN the never-ending power struggle between teachers and students, there have been a few seminal events: the first pop quiz, the first tack on the chair, the first student-written faculty evaluation and the first snarky comment on ratemyprofessors.com.

At the time 1999 John Swapceinski, then a 30-year-old software developer, was not the only one with the idea for a Web site where students could anonymously evaluate their professors. But with its "hotness" category and withering, raucous comments, ratemyprofessors has clearly become the leader in the booming field of ratings sites.

"All we're doing is taking chatter that may be in the lunchroom or the dorm room and organizing it so it can be used by students," says Michael Hussey, 27, who helped design the site and later created ratemyteachers, the K-12 version.

R.M.P., as the owners call it, did not become famous for being rigorously methodical. A student with a bad grade can wreak vengeance without fear of reprisal. The way a professor laughs is fair game, as is dress and even posture. As for consistency, one of the kinder reviews for Alan M. Dershowitz at Harvard Law School says, "He does not give most students the time of day unless they are, like, Natalie Portman." The review below says, "Best prof I ever had."

Whatever the limitations, the uninvited performance review has become a routine part of student life, with dozens of sites and tens of millions of reviews.

In 2002, Williams students started their own, Factrak, which only they have access to, a restriction intended to increase the chances that reviewers actually went to the classes they're reviewing. Williams professors, however, are no less divided about it. "In a certain sense I'm more uneasy," says Alan White, a philosophy professor whose reviews are mixed. "Ratemyprofessor," he says, "looks less like good information because students know the various ways it can be abused, whereas Factrak can look like better information precisely because of that limitation." No matter how small the pool, he adds, an evaluation without knowledge of the evaluator's tastes and experiences is useless.

ON the assumption that it makes reviewers somewhat more accountable, many sites require users to register and log in to post a comment, and in some cases to view the evaluations. That is the model R.M.P. is moving toward.

In September, Mr. Swapceinski, who had never quit his day job, sold the site to two 23-year-old entrepreneurs, Patrick Nagle and Will DeSantis, for what he says was in the low seven figures. The new owners have ambitions of turning R.M.P. into a full-service student destination and an Internet contender like facebook.com. In addition to stricter controls on posting reviews, new features being phased in are a textbook exchange and a place for professors to respond features already available at one main competitor, pickaprof.com.

Indeed, in many ways, the whole concept has matured. Threats of lawsuits from outraged professors have dwindled. Teachers' unions now tolerate ratemyteachers. And there have been at least two scholarly studies. Two Marist College professors concluded, in a study in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, that "while issues such as personality and appearance did enter into the postings, these were secondary motivators compared to more salient issues such as competence, knowledge, clarity and helpfulness."

It's a finding that may complicate the view that R.P.M. confirms a hopelessly superficial student populace. After all, how uncreative is a student who writes: "Your pillow will need a pillow"?