Tuesday, April 15, 2014

RateMyProfessor, RateMyStudents

It's pretty common knowledge that I teach freshmen composition at a local university. As much as I love my job, it's the kind of work you carry around with you. It's the kind of job you can't really go home from--particularly since I encourage my students to reach out by email any time. Last night, not for the first time, I dreamt of work. This time, however, it had nothing to do with lectures or grading and everything to do with how instructors and students perceive one another--and how they act on those perceptions sometimes to the detriment of both.

More specifically, I dreamt of RateMyProfessor.com and how things would be if there were, say, a RateMyStudents.com, too. Everyone knows that RateMyProfessor.com is a website where students are able to anonymously rate their instructors on factors like helpfulness, clarity, and easiness--and, sadly, hotness--to derive an overall score.  In general it's highly problematic and, in most cases, laughably bad. In my opinion, it also undermines the academic environment when instructors are being rated based upon such factors as easiness and hotness.

In my dream, though, there existed a world where the opposite were possible. Could you imagine what would happen if there were a website where instructors could rate students anonymously? Where we could type in a students name by university and rate them on factors like attendance, professionalism, responsibility, attitude, and engagement? Where instructors could leave comments about student behavior, the outrageous things they said, their utter lack of respect for the class, the outpouring of excuses, how they spent the class period texting, taking pictures of the slides rather than taking notes, talking and/or going to sleep? Or the opposite, of course, when students are engaged in the process and deserve positive feedback. Imagine, then, that professionals hiring in the real world used this website to gauge job prospects based upon student performance in college? It would be the worlds most honest letter of recommendation when instructors were honest about the student's capabilities and willingness to learn.

It certainly doesn't seem fair, does it? Yet this is exactly what's happening with ratings websites where instructors are being selected for classes based on student ratings. In this case, the student is the hiring professional from the scenario above. Instructors are being (often unfairly) judged by the opinions of disgruntled students. That isn't to say that all of the negative opinions are wrong, but only that they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Most disappointing of all, recourse does exist. Instructors are able to rebut a students claimsbut can you see any way to do that without it coming across poorly? I can't. In my dream, though, it was the students who came across like sour grapes trying to refute the claims of anonymous professors. It was the students trying to figure out which of their instructors left them the negative feedback and prove why they're wrong to make negative claims about their performance. It was the students trying to battle against instructor credibility and losing. It was complete unethical chaos, much like the the total unethical chaos that currently exists with the arbitrary RateMyProfessor.com system.

The differences between my dream and the real world? In the real world a system that allowed students to be rated would never happen. It would violate the plethora of laws protecting students. Laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that makes sharing student information rightly illegal. In the real world no such laws protect instructors and professors from sometimes libelous accusations that instructors who "gave" students a bad grade are, therefore, bad at their jobs. Pity that there isn't more recourse for instructors than the ability to stand out there on the virtual sidewalk beside mountains of potentially negative student feedback with a sign that says "nu uh."