Students are thinking about grades, of course. The Kaplan survey found nearly half of users (46 percent) took courses based on the "easy grading reputation" of a professor. "It's not a majority, but it's still a fairly significant percentage. And you can see how if you're a professor, and you are a hard grader, students might have been influenced to avoid you," says Olson, who concludes that sites like Rate My Professors could put pressure on instructors to inflate grades. The number of students who consult the site, he says, is "almost as high as Facebook usage."
Olson's conclusion is supported by a 2007 Cornell University study. After that school began to post median grades for classes, more students started to enroll in courses with higher median grades. Another 2002 paper found that both easy graders and those rated as attractive or "hot" (branded by Rate My Professors' famous chili pepper) tended to get higher quality ratings. The paper's lead author, Central Michigan University finance professor James Felton, said he almost titled it "Great Class, Easy as Hell."
Universities' own surveys have also shown higher scores for easier graders. But Queens College's Croll still finds school surveys to be superior because of their richer assortment of questions. Rate My Professors measures whether students find a professor helpful, clear, easy, and sexy, but "none of the dimensions directly address how much students felt they learned," Croll says. "How much do you feel you've learned; how much has your writing improved; has this helped your critical reasoning?" Although an internal Queens College study "found some association" between easiness and quality ratings, says Croll, "how much [students] felt they learned was more important than the grade."
A growing number of schools, including Queens College, are posting their own student ratings of teachers (just the numbers, not the comments). Unlike the independent websites, college evaluations allow only students who've taken the class to rate the experience. "You don't have random people going in and pretending they took the course," Croll says.
A 2008 study of Rate My Professors by an IT instructor at Delaware's Towson University ended, appropriately and inconclusively, with gossip about the site at an academic conference. One anecdote involved a professor with 20 low ratings and just one positive review—and that one suspiciously veered into the first person. Told this story, another professor, who asked not to be identified, admitted to the Voice that he once logged on to the site in order to enter a positive review about his TA.
Croll thinks most of her colleagues never go on Rate My Professors. "They just try to ignore it because it makes them feel bad or awkward and vulnerable," she says. "I have a colleague, for instance, a very private and sensitive person, who had actually thought about leaving teaching just because it bothered her so much that absolutely anyone could go on and say absolutely anything about her." The Internet also has a long memory: Nasty comments live on in cyberspace. "That just makes her very uncomfortable, and she's quite a good teacher," Croll says. "It would be a shame to lose her."
A chili pepper came with Croll's overall rating of 4.9 out of 5. "I don't find that the least bit relevant," she cheerfully responds. "Many of us find that offensive." Carlo DiMarco, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and development at mtvU, defends the chili pepper as part of Rate My Professors' original design and personality. "It's always been our approach not to mess with the way the site was created, because it was created by students," he says. Besides, "when we tell [teachers] they were named, they're never like, 'No, no, no, I don't want to be known as a hot professor.'"
Teacher concerns about their reputations are overblown, DiMarco says. "We don't have a big instance of students using this site as a sounding board when they get pissed off at a professor because they don't like a grade," he explains. Comments are moderated, and derogatory or threatening remarks are removed. Sixty percent of the reviews on Rate My Professors are positive, he notes, but admits,"obviously, if someone wants to try to game the system, they can."
A few years ago, Baruch's Tomasello got a phone call from a producer at mtvU, who invited him to Washington Square Park to respond to his ratings. He imagined she wanted to speak about his positive reviews, but once he was before the camera, she dwelled on the worst. The first comment: "Mean, Not Cool."
"I basically stuttered through three minutes of 'I'm not mean,'" he recalls. "Then I said, 'Wait a second, if I curse, will you bleep it?'" He decided to play a character and "channel my inner Joe Pesci."
"Fuck you," he said. "Fuck you, I'm mean."
"I felt good for at least three days after that, but there was a chairman of a department here who brought me up on charges to the faculty senate," he says. "He wanted me publicly censured. I said, 'You don't understand. I'm in the department of fine and performing arts.'" His defense was good teaching is good performance. "Luckily I've got tenure," he says.