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."
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.
That performance is still featured on the website under the title, "Preaches self-control; drops F-bombs like they're party favors." Tomasello accepts the negative comments: "I like the site, and I liked that a lot of students would rebuff the others: 'He gives you the questions in advance. How could you be so lazy?' If you're getting a number of students saying the same things about you, it's probably true. I don't take no for an answer, but over the years, I've softened. If they had Rate My Professors back in the '80s when I began, I'm sure I would have a lot lower ratings."
NYU chemistry professor John Halpin also appears on a "Strikes Back" segment. His biography lists 10 teaching awards over the past 20 years, and his Rate My Professors rating is 4.5 out of 5, though he gets a 2.8 for easiness. "I teach chemistry," he explains. "Chemistry is never easy." His daughter encouraged him to appear on camera after she learned it was for mtvU, but Halpin viewed the segment as an extension of the classroom.
"You've got to know what students are thinking, even if it seems biased," he says. "You can't just go out there every day and talk and not listen. I look for all the feedback I can get."