PROF VS. STUDENT SMACKDOWN

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By Carli Stephens

John Swapceinski was having trouble with his professor. The California whiz kid software designer was feeling miserable, stuck in a class at San Jose State University. “She was a real ogre. It made me realize that my life for those three to four months would have been a lot different if it hadn’t been for her,” he recalled in a 2003 interview with CNN. The experience gave him an idea: if students could go online and read reviews of their potential profs before signing up for class, they could avoid instructors like the one who was making him angry.

In 1999, Swapceinski launched RateMyProfessors.com (RMP), a website that allows students to publicly evaluate, celebrate or humiliate their teachers with the click of a mouse. They can also grade them, on a scale of one to five.

The site currently has upwards of 6.8 million reviews, concerning professors from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, with 1,412 professors under review at Ryerson alone. The “RateMy…” online phenomenon has been growing over the last decade, using yellow smiley faces and bold green checkmarks to assess everything from cars, to tattoos, to photographs of bowel movements.

The big difference between RateMyPoo.com and RateMyProfessors.com is that slandering the latter could ruin someone’s career. RateMyProfessors is a useful resource for students who are planning their schedules, but it’s also a controversial instrument that can be used to disparage honest, hardworking professors.

Students leave angry write-ups of their instructors, comment on their professors’ looks and even speculate on their personal lives.

Still, students are paying for their education and some believe they have a right to know the quality of their professor before dropping $500 on their course. Despite its problems, RMP provides an important service to students that they can’t get from the school.

In less than a decade, RateMyProfessors has grown exponentially and maintained a solid usership, outlasting and outshining a handful of other websites that offer the same service.

Swapceinski sold the site a few years ago and took on another project called ratingz.com, a website that oversees RateMDs.com, RateMyTeachers.com, as well as a number of other rating websites.

RMP is now owned by MTVu, a channel that broadcasts music and other youth-oriented fare straight into college dorms in the U.S.

Part of the site’s endurance is due to its straightforward design, which allows students to quickly and anonymously evaluate their instructors and leave comments.

Instructors are graded on a scale of one to five in three categories: their clarity, helpfulness and easiness. The first two categories are averaged out to give the profs an overall rating.

First-year student Becca Rykiss, 18, opted to check up on her professors before enrolling in their courses. For her, the Internet was the only way to shop around. “People only rate [their professors] when they either absolutely love them, or they hate them,” says Rykiss, who admits to using the reviews as a guide in course selection, and took certain dire ratings to heart. “A bad rating really freaks me out,” states Rykiss, “I definitely would base my schedule around [it].”

Second-year film student Miles Robison says, at the end of the day, students are paying customers, and the teachers are offering a service. The students, he says, are entitled to having their standards met.

“I’m sitting in my class and the professor spends 30 minutes trying to figure out how to use the overhead,” says Robinson, “I think to myself, how is Ryerson fulfilling their service?”

The comments on Ryerson’s instructors posted on RMP range from constructive to harsh. “You can’t find a worse professor than him,” says one anonymous student of an engineering professor, whose overall score is a mere 1.7 and whose other remarks include, “perhaps he should retire,” and “HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO ****ING TEACH ANYTHING!”

One fashion prof, rated a steep 1.8, is called “absolutely the worst professor in university history.” Her page is littered with statements like, “she needs to be fired”, and “look in the book is her mantra. F*ck, we don’t pay $5000 to look in some book!” are made. While these comments are harsh, at least they focus on the professors’ teaching methods. The free-for-all of RMP leaves students free to comment on their professors’ attractiveness.

The site allows students to rate their professors’ looks, with a red tamale pepper appearing next to the names of “hot” profs.

One Ryerson instructor, who has generally held steady, moderate ratings (3.1 for clarity, 3.3 for easiness) since his profile was activated in November of 2006, has even had students comment on his personal life.

“Hot, yes, but a terrible teacher. Plays the favourite game as much as he drinks Starbucks lattes. From his rants and monologues, he’s just a bitter hypocritical hipster that likes hot girls that sit in the front row,” wrote one poster on September 10, 2008.

The instructor himself dismisses RMP as a website “littered with nonsense and [is] simply a popularity contest,” but declines to comment further. Similarly, nearly every instructor and professor surveyed for this article respectfully declined to reply.

Some profs, however, are determined to hit back at their students. They complained when the site added a photo option in 2006, and a handful even created RateYourStudents.blogspot.com, which labels itself “THE water cooler for Academics”. The blog features over 1,000 posts written by teachers who grew tired of feeling defenceless against their students’ remarks made on RMP. Titles of posts, like “Cruellest. College. Students. Ever” and “Take Your Perfect School and Your Perfect Self and Shove It”, line the margins of the page, as professors from around the world vent about their days. Professors are equally as fed up with their students as the students are with them. The blog offers the educators a space to have their say purely for the sake of expression, without any consequence on the students that they are protesting.

Not all students, however, are insensitive to RMP’s shortcomings. Second-year fashion communications student Merrill Moskal, for example, doesn’t feel right about rating her professors’ on their butts rather than their brains.

“To me that seems unfair [to consider their looks],” says Moskal, 19. “If the teacher was allowed to grade my papers based on how good looking I am, I’d be pretty annoyed.”

In addition to finding the ratings scale unfair, she also finds them ineffective. “I used to use the site, but it basically held no ground for me,” Moskal says.

She points out that students have different tastes, respond differently to varied teaching methods, and prefer certain lecture styles. Not everyone will share the same opinion. “I’ve learned that you really just have to see for yourself,” she says.

However, not all students agree. In particular, students who are new to the school and have not yet had the luxury of the student grapevine in order to hear about their professors.

Film student Robinson argues that Ryerson could learn from RMP when putting together their course evaluations. He says the course evaluations supplied to students by the school are useless to students because they can’t read the comments their peers make about the profs.

“Where is Ryerson’s ‘select my professor’ service? Universities are, in a sense, a business,” he says. “So don’t we have the right receive the best education for our money?”

Whether the reviews are written with good intentions in mind, or revenge at heart, their influence on students is apparent. With over six million student-generated professor reviews and almost as many hits daily, some professors are being reminded that, finally, they’re not the only ones giving out the grades.

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