Popularity Contests and Declining Universities

Janice Fiamengo takes on Rate My Professors as a sign of what is wrong with American universities.

Such accusations reveal little about the professor in question; no one ever satisfactorily distinguishes a boring professor from a boredom-inclined student — which is not to suggest that boring professors do not exist, simply that Rate My Professors cannot recognize them. What the comments reveal are students’ assumptions about what they are owed by their teachers and what constitutes a good classroom experience. Most pointedly, they show the extent to which higher education in North America has become a consumer product like any other, catering to client satisfaction and majority appeal. Reading through the comments, one is disheartened not only because so many are crude and illiterate but also because they indicate how deeply most students have imbibed the canard that university is about being entertained and helped to feel good about oneself.

Read the rest: There is even a witchcraft reference.

Rate My Professors probably never would have been created if schools in the 1970s had not started collecting student evaluations, instead of relying on peer evaluations and other methods. That got us to thinking that student opinions mattered right then and there instead in retrospect after a few years of growth.

The funny thing is that in my years of university teaching only once did I see my department chair use someone’s evaluation against them, and that only because he needed some “objective” evidence to support his decision not to rehire a particular adjunct professor.

Otherwise, as long as your numbers came in sort of average, you were OK, and if they were below average, well, that was because you were teaching difficult material and actually making the little darlings work.

I dodged the RMP bullet, but when M. was teaching psychology, one student rated her as “a great teacher, just a little off the wall. but its [sic] all good.” Isn’t “off the wall” appropriate for a psych class? 😉

6 thoughts on “Popularity Contests and Declining Universities

  1. It’s interesting. I’m in my 40’s and just getting back into education as an undergrad. I’ve worked in Universities for years as a Staff member and work with Faculty and Adjuncts, and have seen different sides of the argument. To say that if a instructor get’s a bad rating because they are making the class work hard, is simply not true,although I can see how a Instructor might think this. Sometimes from various sides of the argument I’ve seen some entitlement not only in the students but in the instructors as well. I fill out the surveys every quarter and always try and give constructive feedback, something they can actually use that the instructor might learn from…but do I have any illusions that the instructor will actually read the feedback and or care? No. But before you catagorize students as lazy or too ready to slam a teacher for making them work (And this is not really always the case) I’ve seen my fair share of Adjuncts who really shouldn’t be teaching anything. So, Maybe the instructors might want to pay a little more attention to the feedback and listen a bit, they might also learn something.

    • Congratulations on continuing your education, Mr. Jones. You will find that one key to success in college is “do the reading.” But based on what I see in today’s online environment, you did not do that. So go back and read the part about classes being rated on entertainment value instead of content and mental growth.

      Student evaluations give a false sense of objectivity. If Professor Smith gets a 3.9 rating, does that really tell us about her teaching? Or is it just a measure of students’ feeling and how they feel about her wardrobe choices? If her department chair sits through a couple of her classes, she or he will learn more than could be determined by just looking at a number.

  2. Thanks for responding, I went back and re-read it. My apologies for jumping the gun. I’m a little too close to this emotionally and lept before I looked.
    I want to ask though, from your personal point of view and in your experience, do you think that if the above is true there is any reason then to do the surveys? Or has it just become a pointless exercise?
    Thank you.

  3. As a high-performing college student, I will readily admit to consulting Rate My Professors before scheduling each semester’s classes. I take the ratings with a grain of salt, however, and am not looking to them for complete and unadulterated objectivity. Having experienced professors who are great at presenting complex material in a thorough way that is understandable to someone who is just encountering it for the first time, and having experienced those who are the complete opposite, I know what a difference having the first type of professor can make. I feel that Rate My Professors has helped me to choose this first type over the second when both are available, and I’m thankful such a resource is out there. (If it were possible to know the actual grade of each student for the class they are rating a professor for, I think the resource would be even more usable. Alas, this is not the case.)

    • I am glad that you are “high-performing.” I have noticed, however, that some of the best scholars I know have no ratings on Rate My Professor.

      Can it be that their students are interested in more substantive issues than whether their professor is “hot”?

      Perhaps you might look at the professor’s publication record, etc. — no doubt displayed on his or her website — than merely at RMP.

  4. I think student reviews of professors can be useful for both students and administrators (especially in identifying patterns…for example, do female reviewers consistently mention off-color ‘jokes’?, etc.); peer reviews can miss a lot of bad behavior in the lecture hall. On the other hand, individual reviews should probably be taken with a large shaker of salt.

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