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Longing for the Chili Pepper

Longing for the Chili Pepper
December 16, 2005

When does one really enter the community of scholars and become a "real" professor? When you finish your Ph.D.? Perhaps -- but having a degree is very different from being a professor. What about teaching for the first time? But many people do that before they complete their Ph.D. Getting hired a professor? Getting a tenure track position? Getting tenure? As a new Ph.D. I thought these questions would end with a successful dissertation defense. And yet now as a young professor I find that the goal posts of disciplinary self-confidence seem to shift ever backwards over the horizon. Or at least they did. Today, however, my doubts have been erased with a single stroke. I now know, with a certainty and firmness beyond doubt, that I am a real professor: I have just found out I have been rated at ratemyprofessors.com.

Most obviously, I'm happy with "my reviews" because they've  good (all three of them): I get a 4.8 out of 5 for overall quality.I am a "good professor," a "very great instructor," and I teach "a very interesting class." Although I was surprised to hear that in my classes there is, apparently, "no right answer." Some comments are even more enigmatic, like the one noting that "one of the books he has chosen for the class is very different from other books." But make no mistake about it, I’m gratified that someone cared enough about my course to register an opinion one way or the other, and delighted that the opinion was a good one.

In fact, comparatively my reviews are quite good -- of the four other rated profs in my department, I tie for second in terms of overall quality, although I am second to last for overall easiness (i.e. most professors are easier than I am). There is one thing that I am missing though: the coveted chili pepper icon, which indicates that at least one of my students thinks that I am "hot". This lack of hotness is something I share with only one other professor in my department. Transference: it's complicated. When I told my chili-peppered department chair that I lacked this most desired icon, he just put his hand on my shoulder and said "don't worry, Alex, it'll come. Just give it time."

What does the existence of sites like ratemyprofessors.com have to teach us? Quite a lot, actually. We professors worry constantly about how our corporeal classrooms spill out onto the Internet. Was Dan Drezner denied tenure because of blogging? Is Ivan Tribble right that blogging hurts your chance of being hired? Is it ethical for profs to blog anonymously? Ratemyprofessors.com raises a related problem: what happens when students, rather than professors, virtualize the classroom dynamic?

The first response of many professors to their virtual rating is, of course, the same one they bring to bear on their real-world evaluation: angst and denial. Frankly, I understand the usual end-of-term outpouring of complaints that professors release into the blogosphere about how unfair and unrepresentative student evaluations are. I am sympathetic to much of this, and I can understand why ratemyprofessors.com would be even more galling. Completely anecdotal, unregulated, random -- despite pretensions to quantitative rigor -- and biased, as a diagnostic of actual teacher performance it probably stinks. As someone with good ratings on the site, I can shrug off the weight of these problems. But as someone lacking the chili pepper, I know all to well how these sorts of sites can sting.

How to respond to our students' virtual evaluations? Is it wrong, in other words, to go in to my class and thank them for the rating and tell them I'd really appreciate a chili pepper? Intuitions vary wildly here, but I bet some of you reading this think that mentioning virtual discussion of a professor’s performance in class somehow violates our students’ privacy, or at least the in-class/out-of-class divide that structures so much of our relationships with our students. Here we see the strange dual nature of the Internet at work again -- writing on the Internet is both public and private, and the mediated nature of interaction on the Internet makes every blog post and Amazon review written both a personal confession made in the solitude of a glowing screen and a world-readable, deeply public statement.

There is an even more interesting question here: what about my world-readable confession? Which bounds of propriety am I crossing if I discuss my ratemyprofessors.com entry not in class but on screen? If we started with a recognition that not only professors talk out of class, then we can now ask: What happens when professors blog back?

I imagine the situation could ultimately come to resemble that in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman goes undercover and weds the Nazi Claude Rains in order to track down a post-war cabal hoping to revive the Reich. He discovers her secret, and begins poisoning her food. She knows what is happening, he knows that she knows, and she knows that he knows that she knows, but they go about as if nothing has happened in an eerie, very Hitchcock set piece in which no one is willing to admit that the game is up. It could be that my students and I could each end up blogging behind our backs, unwilling to admit in class what we have both been saying behind each other's backs.

So in some sense ratemyprofessors.com has the potential to provide me both existential solace and to affect my in-class dynamic in a way which, if not as poisonous as Claude Rains's meals, at least has the possibility of being unhealthy. Ultimately, however, I think that the way to navigate this dilemma is simply to accept it. Increasingly today young Ph.D.’s (or at least young Ph.D.’s like me) recognize that the question is not whether you will leave a data trail on the Internet, but simply what sort of trail it will be. Reconciling with the fact that information about you is going to circulate willy-nilly, means accepting that part of being a professor these days means actively construing yourself online -- shaping your data trail to make it behave the way you want it to. The solution, as I see it, is not to futilely rail against sites like ratemyprofessors.com, but to learn to live them. Which is just to say that for a professor like me, the surest sign that we have well and truly arrived is not an august sheepskin with my name on it, but a small smiley face icon next to my name at ratemyprofessors.com. Preferably with a chili pepper underneath it.

Bio

Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.

 

 

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