RateMyProfessors: Hidden Camera Edition

November 2, 2006

There's a new reason to worry about students with cell phones in your classes. RateMyProfessors.com, the Web site whose popularity with students is matched by the grief it gives professors, has launched a new feature, encouraging students to shoot photographs of their faculty members and to post them along with the anonymous ratings of professors.

Think RateMyProfessors is going to ask your permission to post a photograph that you may not even know was taken (camera phones are being recommended to students)? Of course not, although RateMyProfessor asserts that it has other quality control mechanisms in place.

In the 48 hours since RateMyProfessors posted information about this new service on its site, it has received more than 1,200 photographs of professors and it is in the process of reviewing and uploading them.

"Camera phones in the classroom have a new meaning," exulted Patrick Nagle, president of the company, in a press release.

In an interview, he said that site administrators would "look into" whether photographs submitted are in fact of the professors named. He said, for example, that the site would check the submitted pictures against photographs professors post of themselves online. He also said photographs that are clearly pornographic or that have been altered will not be posted. He did not indicate how the site would determine the veracity of photographs when a professor doesn't have public online photographs, but Nagle said professors could inform the site of errors.

One of the criticisms of RateMyProfessors has been that there is no way to tell if a comment is from a student angry at failing a class, a student happy about an A in a gut course -- or a professor's mother.

Nagle said that the new photo feature was actually part of a plan to "give the professors a voice on our site." Professors will now be offered the chance to sign up for an RSS feed so that they can be notified whenever one of their students (or someone claiming to be) posts something about them (photographs or comments). Professors who sign up for the service can then notify RateMyProfessors if they object to a photograph or want to replace it with a new photograph.

Such requests will "very likely" be honored, Nagle said. He declined to answer why they might not be honored.

Requests to correct inaccurate statements in student comments will probably not be honored, he said, "because students are protected by the First Amendment."

As to how this all gives professors more voice, Nagle said that the site would soon be adding a blog feature for professors so they could regularly comment on comments posted about them or communicate with one another.

The new photo feature of RateMyProfessors comes at a time that many professors have already been expressing concern about having their lectures taped without their permission for posting (and mocking) on YouTube. At least one professor is already in danger of losing his job because of video posted of one of his lectures.

Will professors be happy to have their photos posted on the site? If general reaction to RateMyProfessors is any indication, that seems unlikely -- and opposition won't only come from those who are camera-shy or worried about how the site will rate their "hotness" (RateMyProfessors lets students award chili peppers to hot professors and maintains a list of the 50 hottest -- a disproportionate number of whom teach at Canadian colleges and universities).

Hugo Schwyzer might seem like just the kind of professor who would like RateMyProfessors. A historian at Pasadena City College, he's on the hottest list, has great ratings on RateMyProfessors, and has no hesitation about sharing life details or photographs -- along with his philosophy and ruminations -- online, at his blog.

Indeed Schwyzer said that he had high hopes for RateMyProfessors and thought it might provide a good source of anonymous feedback for him so he could improve his teaching. But he said that by asking students to send in photographs of professors, without a system to check first on whether the photos were taken with permission, it was clear that "the primary function is to humiliate."

Schwyzer said he's seen "the speciousness of the whole system" in recent weeks. He offended some men's rights activists on his blog, and they responded by posting numerous critical comments on RateMyProfessors to bring down his scores. While some of those comments have been removed, Schwyzer said he witnessed "a remarkably detailed discussion of my appearance."

To the extent RateMyProfessors could have served a valuable purpose, he said, it would have been about teaching and classroom performance. The non-scientific approach to those subjects and the increasing emphasis on physical appearance take away that potential, he added. By going with the photo feature, Schwyzer said, RateMyProfessors "loses whatever shreds of legitimacy it had."

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