Students are used to being judged on performance. They are constantly reaching for their professors’ admiration. RateMyProfessors.com turns the tables. Instead of professors rating students, students are rating professors.
Students find RateMyProfessors as a vital tool, especially during registration season. Sophomore Megan Geher finds the site very useful.
“It’s always important to at least check,” Geher said. “If there’s a really, really, really horrible or amazing professor it would be shown on that."
Both of Geher's parents are college professors themselves and encourage Geher to explore the site while choosing classes.
“Both of my parents do say that RateMyProfessors is obviously not entirely accurate and it is basically people who either feel very strongly positively or negatively. But they do say it’s very telling,” Geher said.
She said that if she were to see a large number of negative reviews, that would be very telling of that professor’s teaching style.
Professors, unsurprisingly, have different views on the site. Elisabeth Gruner, an English professor at UR for over 25 years, is no stranger to RateMyProfessors.
As an avid reader of both Amazon and Yelp reviews, Gruner understands the appeal. However, she advises an immense amount of caution when using the site.
“If you review a product, it’s probably the same product or relatively the same," Gruner said. "Your Expo marker doesn’t really change. But a person changes. And they can change in a number of ways. There can be reviews of me from 15 years ago. I’m a pretty different teacher than I was 15 years ago."
Gruner also noticed many issues with her reviews in particular. Some of these reviews referenced classes that have not been offered for years. These opinions, once imperative to the reviewer’s peers, are now obsolete. Gruner also has received reviews obviously not meant for her.
“[I’ve had reviews] like ‘stupidest physics class I ever took.' That would be a really stupid physics class if I taught it,” Gruner said.
Tom Arnold, a finance professor since 1997, has one major anxiety surrounding RateMyProfessors. Just as professors change teaching styles, students can change opinions. But this shift in opinion is not always communicated on the website.
“I doubt you’re ever going to revise an opinion saying, ‘I really didn’t like this professor and I blasted him or her in this rating and I found out five years ago that they were exactly right. These were the things that I was going to face and I really owe that person a debt of gratitude,’” Arnold said.
Another issue Arnold addressed was the danger of anonymity. Behind the cloak of a username and computer screen, students can post whatever they want without consequence. This, according to Arnold, could lead to fallacies.
“Probably the best advice I could give somebody, even if somebody is anonymous, if you’re not willing to put your name to it then what kind of truth is it?” Arnold said.
Geher disagrees. She believes that the anonymity of RateMyProfessors is more than a cloak. It’s a shield. Anonymity, according to Geher, allows the student to communicate their true feelings without any possible repercussions.
Geher also recognizes the consequences of communicating a student’s true opinions on their professors. A truly neutral student will not be posting a review on RateMyProfessors. Only those who fiercely love or dislike their professor will post on the site. This leads to a lot of professors either having very high or very low ratings, with nothing in between, Geher said.
Another issue is the lack of reviews. Some professors, for reasons unknown, have very few reviews on their site. Gruner has very few ratings, only about 11.
“Maybe that would be a reason not to take my class?” Gruner speculated. “I actually don’t buy a product that has very few ratings,” she said.
Another major issue Gruner brought up was the bias some students could bring into their reviews. Students could bring in personal biases, simply based on physical appearances, that could drastically affect a professor’s ratings.
“There’s just a whole lot of research that indicates that any kind of online anonymous reviewing and open-ended reviewing will tend to reinforce bias," Gruner said. "So people tend to rate people more negatively when they are of a different race than them or a different gender--well that’s not entirely true. People tend to rate white male professors higher no matter what the raters’ [gender or race are].”
Geher also recognized this. In one of her classes, a discussion came up on how students envision a professor. In their mind’s eye, all they saw was a white older man.
“I’m sure it comes into play for some people if that’s their vision of a classic professor and they just happen to rate them higher,” Geher said.
Arnold agrees. However, he believes it to be an issue far outside UR’s campus gates. RateMyProfessors is simply “reading a temperature” of the larger issue, he said.
Geher sees the danger of RateMyProfessors. The anonymity and implicit bias that overrun the site make it difficult to find a trustworthy opinion. Geher’s advice? Be careful.
“There are definitely some accuracy problems," Geher said. "But...you [should] check the most recent ones as the primary ones. And obviously, some people will have bias, but you can tell if there are ten negative ones versus one that just seems like that student had a really bad experience. So you can kind of just, take it with a grain of salt, but you can kind of gauge how accurate they are.”
Opinions of RateMyProfessors vary across campus. However, one general opinion is universal. Tread carefully.
"If people are using [RateMyProfessors] as their sole source of information, they are being harmed and they don’t know it," Gruner said. "And that’s too bad. You need to apply your critical thinking lens to RateMyProfessors just like you do to any other information source.”
Contact lifestyle writer Susanna Getis at firstname.lastname@example.org.