Rate My Professors Has Some Academics Up in Arms

But how meaningful are its numbers?

All the students huddled outside of Brooklyn's St. Francis College during a recent lunch hour knew about Rate My Professors, the website where students grade faculty members. But none of them had ever posted a comment on it.

"I just go on to read the reviews," said John Diamante-Honan, a junior studying business management, as he stamped out a cigarette on the sidewalk. "Before you sign up for the class, you know how the teachers test, if they make you read a lot, how they grade."

Chimed in classmate Chris Acciarello: "That makes things easier for us. It could make a grade go from a C to an A."

Rate My Professors isn't the only teacher-rating website, but it's by far the most popular, attracting an average of 3 million students a month and as many as 80 million page views at the height of registration periods. But it's less popular with professors, who routinely slam the site and complain that its anonymous posters reward easy graders and good-looking instructors. Young teachers, especially, worry that nasty comments can undermine careers.

Since its start a decade ago, Rate My Professors has been the focus of hand-wringing essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education and even the subject of scandal, as when a University of Saskatchewan math professor was fired in 2006 for posting lousy ratings of his department colleagues. After it was purchased in 2007 by mtvU, the MTV channel broadcast to 750 college campuses, Rate My Professors began to offer teachers a chance to respond to their detractors, even by video, if they so choose. An uneasy truce has resulted, with the academy reluctantly acknowledging the outsider site, even if it still largely regards the student commentators as spitball-shooting trolls.

The desire to set the record straight might seem excessive when you examine the site's sampling for, say, St. Francis College, a school with about 2,600 students. The college's staff directory lists 369 professors and adjuncts, but Rate My Professor has ratings for only 299 instructors (and one of those is deceased). A quarter of the ratings are three or more years old, and the average number of ratings per professor is 8, not even enough to be considered for the website's annual Top Lists. (In order to be ranked among the best, professors need at least 30 ratings "to provide statistical significance," the site says.) Still, the students who did weigh in were a cheery bunch: St. Francis's faculty is rated higher on average (3.43 out of 5) than teachers at Harvard (2.95) or Yale (2.59).

The situation is worse for Columbia University, where nearly a third of the 585 listed professors don't even have a single rating, 35 percent of the remaining instructors haven't been reviewed in three or more years, and the average number of ratings for those professors is 3.9. The paucity of ratings could be due to students launching their own website, the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability (culpa.info), which claims 20,900 reviews of more than 10,100 professors. Yet even that site has holes. Not one teacher, for example, is listed from the journalism school. (Voice e-mails sent to CULPA's webmaster received no response.) On Rate My Professors, the average Columbia prof is rated 2.37 out of 5. (The site's average rating is a 3.7.) It's amusing to read student remarks about such famous instructors as Al Gore ("the guy just can't let go of the fact that he lost") and Edward Said (who was last reviewed with a chili pepper in 2008, though he died in 2003).

In a survey last year of students and recent graduates taking the exams for law or medical school, Kaplan, the test-preparation company, discovered just 8 percent ever wrote a review. Says Kaplan vice president of research Jeff Olson, "You've got a vocal minority having a great deal of influence."

With 240 ratings, Andrew Tomasello would appear to be accurately portrayed on Rate My Professors. Overall, the Baruch College deputy chair for music gets a 3.3 rating out of 5, but the individual ratings and comments vary widely. He's called "awesome," "super smart," "rude," "horrible," and "highly overrated," and a portrait emerges that resembles his own tongue-in-cheek warning on the department of fine and performing arts' website: "Do not expect Tomasello, a former rock guitarist and currently a non-observant musicologist, to be bright and bon vivant."

Even with 240 ratings, however, Tomasello has been reviewed by a small fraction of his students. "Maybe about 2 percent are rating me," says Tomasello, who has taught as many as 300 students a semester in his Intro to Music class. "I've checked some of my friends at other schools, and they've got three ratings. You've been teaching for 25 years. How can you have three ratings?"

Tomasello believes Baruch students might be more prone to post, noting the Princeton Review ranked Baruch 10th in the nation for having the Least Happy Students. "It's the business branch of CUNY, so the kids come with this bottom-line mentality: 'Am I getting bang for my buck?' When you see 20 or 40 ratings for a professor, that's a good sample. But when you see three ratings, it's hard to know what to think."

The 44 ratings for Susan Croll are so positive that the website ranks the Queens College psychology professor number six among the nation's highest-rated professors in 2011. Although Croll calls the honor "flattering," she says, "I try not to take it as seriously as I take conversations or questionnaires with my students that I do internally, where I try to get all their feedback." On Rate My Professors, she says, "you're only going to get a really small subset of students who post, and it's usually the ones who are very happy or very unhappy that take the time to do it. Most colleges will either force or strongly encourage a large majority of the students to respond anonymously on their own evaluations, so you get a much better representation of what students are thinking."

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