There are professors who find student comments on their end-of-semester evaluations so upsetting that they cry after reading them. If my course evaluations have tended to be pretty good, I can still relate to how faculty members feel, thanks in part to RateMyProfessors.com. Side by side on the site stand evaluations from students who gave me high marks and others who gave me low marks -- in the same exact areas. I can see a host of negative and mediocre rankings for classes I taught very differently some seven years ago -- and one that I never taught at all. I’ve peeked there from time to time and have tried to learn what I could from things students said there, but have not spent a terrible lot of time on the site.
I’ve tended to view what one finds there as akin to YouTube comments -- most are gushing praise or insulting jibes, with very little middle ground. And most people will never comment, leaving the soapbox to those who feel strongly, having had a positive experience or, more likely, a negative one.
And so you can imagine my dismay when my son, who is in high school, told me that he had looked me up on RateMyProfessors.com. I'm sure a worried look crossed my face, but I tried my best to retain my composure. Apparently RateMyProfessors.com had been mentioned on Reddit recently, and anything that is featured prominently on Reddit, my son spots -- almost but not quite always before I do.
As it turned out, my apprehension was unnecessary. As the conversation progressed, I found myself really impressed by my son’s thoughts regarding the comments about my classes that he saw there. One student on the site had written, "I would advise not taking his class because he can't keep the class discussion going." Another complained, "He wasn't good at stimulating conversation." My son, despite still being several years away from university, was astonished by such comments. How, he asked, can students have the audacity to blame the professor for something that is the responsibility of the students themselves?
A conversation that began with fear and trepidation on my part ended with a sense of satisfaction. I had always taken comments on RateMyProfessors.com with a grain of salt. But it was reassuring to realize that a young person, still a student, without my prompting, could draw the same conclusion, based simply on what he knew about online reviews and things that he learned on Reddit. We often despair for humanity reading online comments, whether they are on YouTube, Reddit or RateMyProfessors.
Usually, when it comes to course evaluations, the fact that students are required/compelled/pressured to complete them means that one has a wider range of useful data to work with. If most students have filled in evaluations, and all the comments and ratings are similar, then you know that you really are doing a good/terrible job -- the results are statistically significant. If one only had course evaluations from students who hated or loved the class enough to fill them in, one would probably have a distorted perception of what one has accomplished, whether that perception errs on the side of being too negative or too positive. As with the complaints, the flowing praise of the course and its instructor some students offer may have as much to do with their own work habits and motivation as anything the professor did.
Comments (whether on official evaluations or RateMyProfessors) become less discouraging as one’s career progresses, because one becomes aware of what one is and isn’t able to control. I’ve taught two sections of the exact same class, with the exact same syllabus, back to back on the same days of the week in the same semester. The students from one of those classes gave me some of the highest ratings on the course evaluations that I’ve ever gotten; the students from the other gave me some of the lowest.
I learned some really important lessons from that experience. One was to avoid teaching two sections of the same course in the same semester if I can. But another was that you can do essentially the same things in a classroom, and it is not guaranteed to either succeed or to flop.
Unless you are still approaching classes in the traditional lecture mode, with students expected to write down and reproduce what you say, then your role is probably more like that of a coach. The same coach can work with two different groups of students on the same team at the same university, but they will not necessarily have comparable successes and failures. Because we know that, however much we hold coaches responsible, ultimately it is up to the players on the team to put the training that they are given into practice, to translate it into effective playing in games. In the same way, the same course materials may work really well with one group of students and less well with another. That doesn’t mean the students were necessarily less hardworking. Sometimes it is about their prior knowledge or personality types rather than their motivation or diligence.
I’ve heard lots of faculty complain about “kids these days.” I think such complaints are misguided -- and not just because my son’s reaction to RateMyProfessors.com gives me great hope for “kids these days.” I think we as faculty members are prone to forget that, in many cases, we were not typical students as undergraduates. Those who go on to pursue Ph.D.s and become professors are often those who enjoy learning for its own sake. Don’t you remember there being others in your classes who didn’t participate in discussions, didn’t read beyond the bare minimum, if that, and were content just to drift through classes?
None of the things discussed here are due to new technology, either. Even before there was RateMyProfessors.com, students were spreading the word about professors. And students didn’t require electronic devices to be distracted or tune you out and then rate you negatively for it. I remember early in my teaching career having my department chair tell me that he had heard from another faculty member, who had heard from a student, that I tend to drone on and on in an uninteresting manner in class. The chair sat in on my class soon after that. The discussion was lively, and he was thoroughly happy with it. But there was one student who sat flipping through a magazine or catalog the entire time -- with my department chair sitting right next to them! I can’t help but suspect that that student was the one who felt the class was boring.
It reminds me of this exchange in the Friends episode “The One With Joey’s Fridge”:
Monica: What’s the charity?
Rachel: I don’t know, something either trees or disease -- Ralph mumbles a lot.
Monica: Does Ralph mumble when you’re not paying attention?
Rachel: Yeah! It’s weird…
While there are exceptions, most students who are motivated and diligent do not find even a truly boring professor who mumbles a lot to be a hindrance to learning.
This is not to say that I haven’t undertaken efforts to improve. I have done so, even on the basis of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. One thing I never learned to do earlier in my career was how to use my voice properly. And so I took singing lessons -- in part because of musical interests I happen to have, but also because I suspected that this would improve the clarity of my communication.
I recorded my lectures using Panopto, partly because I wanted to try out the “flipped classroom” approach, but also in part because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity this technology afforded to listen to what I sound like in class. I made conscious efforts to deal with “ums” and other verbal habits. And I think that these efforts have done more to give students a better experience in my classes than any changes I’ve made with respect to a syllabus or a textbook.
And so what’s the takeaway message of this experience? A number of things come to mind. One is the fact that some things will always depend on the student. Some students will take comments on RateMyProfessors.com seriously, and as a result may never take your class, or may take it and then be disappointed that you did not seem as stellar as that review on the website led them to believe you would be. You can do the same things and they may work well for some students and not for others. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to improve. And in the process of developing your teaching ability even into the middle of your career and beyond, you can model lifelong learning to your students in ways that may help them to take responsibility for their own learning.
But ultimately, I think the biggest takeaway message is that there are students out there who have the understanding to perceive what a site like RateMyProfessors.com does and doesn’t tell you. And those students will, I suspect, be the very ones who will have the understanding to perceive what your course is about and engage with it in ways that are conducive to their own learning.
My son had a favorite comment about me from RateMyProfessors.com, and it was this one:
Having been reminded about this comment, I am seriously tempted to make it my Facebook banner. I can live with being described as a jolly leprechaun -- especially by someone who appreciates meaningful discussions about the spirituality and philosophy of science fiction, and who is capable of spelling "leprechaun" correctly, to boot!
I hope this article will provide some encouragement to faculty who feel beaten down and discouraged as a result of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. But if it doesn’t make you feel better, then you can always try using RateYourStudent.com. I don’t think it will convey any more useful information about what students are like than RateMyProfessors.com ratings do about professors. But ultimately, venting is about catharsis, and when we recognize that students and professors do that at times, we will be better poised to learn what we can from the feedback we receive, and having done so, to then move on.
There are important issues around diversity -- notably in terms of ethnicity/race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation and gender -- that have been of concern to institutions of higher education for a while now. The progress made in these areas may be less than impressive, but they have a conspicuous place on our radar screens.
There is another dimension of diversity that has yet to attract the attention it deserves: the diversity of contributions that can be made by different members of an institution’s tenured and tenure-track faculty. Faculty members in these positions are pivotal to fostering the kind of change needed in our colleges and universities if we are to better serve our students. Such change would involve how faculty members judge one another, how departments view their responsibilities, how those responsibilities can best be fulfilled and how the work of faculty members is viewed by academic administrators.
Different institutions have different missions, which should be reflected in what is reasonably expected of their respective faculties. These differences have unfortunately been eroded by status-seeking mission creep. So, for openers, there is the famous advice of Polonius (who has received insufficient respect for his wisdom, probably because he conveyed it in a way that was boring to a younger person): “To thine own self be true.”
While it may seem obvious that a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate and undesirable for institutions with different missions and constituencies, it may also be undesirable within an institution as well, even if that institution is a research university. While the holy trinity of research, teaching and service on the face of it provides room for flexibility, differences in how each is valued and assessed yield a generally hierarchical structure with publication and attracting grant funds being the coin of the realm and relatively easy to quantify.
But even in research universities, not all members of a department need to balance their research and teaching contributions in exactly the same proportions. Moreover, one faculty member in his/her time plays many roles -- there may be times in between research projects in which a faculty member might wish to focus more on teaching. (As an aside: the pressure to publish as much and as quickly as possible seems clearly linked to the level of retractions we have been seeing on the part of major scientific and scholarly journals when major research flaws are revealed postpublication.)
A better solution would be an understanding -- reflected in the reward structure -- that not every member of a department needs to make precisely the same contribution to the department in meeting its goals and responsibilities. Crafting such a reward structure is something that the New American Colleges and Universities consortium, for example, has been working on with funding from the Teagle Foundation.
To be sure, one expects that departments in research universities would have a sufficiently strong complement of truly distinguished scholars and scientists who are making significant contributions to the knowledge base in their fields, including some who may not be God’s gift to teaching. Fortunately, many highly distinguished scientists and scholars are also superb teachers. But there should also be room for faculty members whose teaching outdistances their research. If research universities presume to educate undergraduates, they need to consider how well they are fulfilling that responsibility. They should also feel an obligation to prepare their graduate students for occupying positions at a wide range of institutions of higher education; that is, they should be preparing graduate students seeking an academic career for their work not only as researchers, but as teachers.
There have been proposals for a separate track for faculty members who would focus on teaching, as opposed to research. This, however, is a solution that is part of the problem, since it will almost certainly perpetuate a culture of relative disdain for teaching, along with a tendency for teaching-focused appointments to be non-tenure-track. While there is a place for continuing appointments off the tenure track, viewing teaching in general as something unworthy of tenure would be unfortunate both in terms of institutional culture and how universities are viewed by the public.
It would also be desirable to recognize and reward those faculty members who have a special flair for sharing significant results of science and scholarship with a wide audience of readers -- beyond even The New York Review of Books. We already have an admirable complement of public intellectuals who earn their high position in the academic food chain by the traditional measure of research excellence -- though we could always use more of them. In addition, there are those whose contributions to public enlightenment might in and of themselves merit reward beyond what the current system offers.
Barriers to achieving a more informed citizenry may seem daunting, even at times insurmountable, especially when one figures in efforts at deliberate deception by powerful figures and opinion leaders. Indeed, we may feel the need to modify Abraham Lincoln’s famous observation that you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time by observing that those have turned out to be pretty good odds. But we should reward those who give the advancement of public knowledge their best effort -- and sometimes manage to make a difference.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.
Generally speaking, it is safe to say that most college commencements are the same. The students file past their camera-wielding relatives offering smiles and small, inconspicuous waves. A speaker invokes Robert Frost or Dr. Seuss or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to encourage the graduates to live lives of purpose and distinction. Degrees are conferred. A representative from the alumni organization urges these new alums to donate money to their school. The alma mater is sung. The young adults file back out.
And after, on the quad or the lawn or whatever the campus’s green space is called, the professors unzip their robes, remove sweat-soaked tams and complain about the heat. They shake hands with parents, pose for photos with their now former students. They pronounce positive judgment on the graduates’ plans for the immediate future. “Excellent.” “Oh, that sounds great.” “Hey, it’s a foot in the door.”
I graduated 16 years ago, from the very university where I have been teaching for the past three years. This is my final commencement, as my visiting assistant professorship is at an end. My second graduation, in a sense. I’m a middle-aged man now, but it doesn’t seem that long ago that my classmates and I stood on this lawn, sipping lemonade and talking with our relatives and mentors about what was to come. It was an exciting time -- the future was pure potential. We don’t realize, as students at commencement, that some doors are closing, or are already closed, that childhood is now finally at an end. The graduate will never take meals with a group of her best friends again. A mistake made at 20 may unexpectedly stay with a person for the rest of his life.
One may find oneself, at 39, grinning next to a 22-year-old as her mother snaps a picture, thinking, She doesn’t know, yet, that life is going to be just a little bit harder from here on.
Of course, I wouldn’t say such a thing out loud. There is no need to spoil this recognition of the graduates’ accomplishments. I remind myself to be happy for these lives that are really just beginning. I remember to be grateful for my own blessings and opportunities. Besides, I wouldn’t really want to experience my adolescence or young adulthood -- dating, career anxiety, acne -- again. The grown-up world may be hard and scary, but honestly, in many ways it’s still better. Or at least, it is for me.
What’s more, I think I know how to handle this world in a way that I didn’t quite know how to handle the world I lived in as a youth. So I sip my lemonade as the alma mater plays in my mind and the wacky kid coasts by on his skateboard, cap still perched on his head but gown unzipped to reveal his cargo shorts and fraternity T-shirt. And for God’s sake, I tell myself, it’s a celebration. Smile.
William Bradley is the author of a collection of personal essays titled Fractals,forthcoming from Lavender Ink. He's also looking for work, so if you need an essayist…