By Joe Rosso
Special to The Echo
Independent Student Newspaper
At Western Connecticut State University
Oct. 14, 2008
Thanks to the internet, students around the country are able to give out report cards — to their professors. But do the faculty at WestConn care to read them?
RateMyProfessors.com (which is owned by mtvU—a college television channel owned by MTV) is a free website that allows students to anonymously evaluate their professors’ in-class performance online and can be used by students to preview a professor before actually taking their class.
Andy Thibault, a professor in the writing department at WestConn, is familiar with the website.
“I think to have this device, that’s independent and not controlled by administration, is a good thing,” he said. “When I was an undergrad at Boston University, we had a printed version of something like [this], and I found it very useful, where students published a book and they evaluated classes and professors.”
“That was like when the Flintstones were around,” he said.
Professor Thibault has one comment about him on RateMyProfessors.com and it’s a positive one. If he saw a negative comment about himself on the site, he said, “I’d probably feel lousy, personally or emotionally. However, I would fight to the death for the right for anybody to say whatever the hell they want.”
Thibault encourages feedback from his students, and promotes communication with him in any way possible. However, he points out that it’s always better to get feedback from students face-to-face.
Thibault may be in the minority in his positive opinion of the site, however. Out of 28 professors contacted via email for comment regarding the website, 16 did not reply and two stated they were not interested. Out of six professors approached, only four were willing to offer comment.
Professor Alex Standish teaches in WestConn’s social sciences department and checked out the site a couple years ago out of his own curiosity.
“There’s no harm in it. It’s a free world; people are going to write what they want to write,” Standish said.
On Ratemyprofessors.com, professors are numerically rated based on categories such as overall quality, easiness, helpfulness, clarity, and even “hotness.” The “overall quality” rating is established by averaging the clarity and helpfulness ratings provided by all the users.
Besides numerical ratings, the website also allows users to leave comments along with their ratings. As one can imagine, there is a smorgasbord of comments on this website, ranging from ones of exuberance scathing rebuke. It is safe to say that most everyone likes hearing positive things about themselves, but how do the professors feel about the negative comments on the site?
There are 29 ratings of Dr. Kevin Gutzman, faculty member of the Department of History and Non- Western Cultures, on the site: 15 good, four average, and 10 poor. His overall quality rating is 3.1 out of five (five being the best rating possible).
One of the more positive anonymous user comments about him on the site reads, “outstanding [sic]. Extremely knowledgeable and knows how to break down history so students see both individual episodes/actors and larger themes.”
A more negative comment about him reads, “This professor SUCKS [sic]! It’s so boring... the papers are so hard cause he doesn’t tell you what he wants in them... and particpation is 50%.. [sic] thats ridiculious!!!”
Gutzman says that the positive comments on the site are generally in line with the student comments he has read in the WestConn course evaluations. The negative comments on the site do not offend him because he feels they express the students’ “authentic opinions,” and he said that there is nothing wrong with students “venting their frustrations on a website.”
“Of course, this does not mean that a particular complaint is valid,” Gutzman said. “If a poor student doesn’t like he course assignments, or if somebody uninterested in history finds the material in an introductory survey boring, that’s just too bad.”
Norine Jalbert, a professor in the Psychology Department at WestConn, says she has never been on RateMyProfessors.com. On the site she has 37 ratings altogether: 14 good, seven average, and 16 poor. Her overall quality rating is 2.8 out of 5.
A positive student comment about her on the site read, “She is very knowledgeable about her areas of psych [sic], and keeps up w/ [sic] the current literature. A fantastic professor. You can learn a lot from her.”
One of the more negative comments posted about her on the site reads, “DO NOT TAKE HER!!!!!!!! [sic] BORING lectures, very HARD tests, IMPOSSIBLE grading. TERRIBLE professor. [sic]”
“It’s never nice to hear negative things about you,” Jalbert said. “But the fact of the matter is that here are probably lots of people in the world, who don’t necessarily like every person.”
Jalbert says that she does not see herself as the person that is going to be liked by everyone.
“It’s nice to be liked, but it’s a part of the job, I guess,” she said. I was hired to be a professor; I wasn’t hired to be a student’s friend. Now if we [the students and I] can have friendly relationships, I’m perfectly happy with that, and it makes everything much more pleasant.”
On a website that claims to have “The Internet’s largest listing of collegiate professor ratings, with more than 6.8 million student-generated ratings of over 1 million professors,” there is no shortage of people having their say.
Even though RateMyProfessors.com could be used by professors as a sort of informal means of gathering student evaluation information on them, Gutzman and Standish believe that the WestConn course evaluations present a more accurate portrayal of what students think of professors and of the classes they teach.
Gutzman said that one of the problems with the site is that it seems to draw, “the participation of a disproportionate share of disgruntled students.”
Jalbert has had a similar issue with the site, and suspects that the site tends mostly to attract comments and ratings from people on the extremes—people who really like or don’t like a particular professor or class.
Taking into account the numerous discontented comments and ratings on RateMyProfessors.com, there is no denying that there is a considerable collection of students who have had — or are presently having — problems with professors. Posting comments on a website is only one of many ways students can deal with their professor-related dilemmas.
Gutzman believes that if a student is having a problem with a professor, they should talk to them about it face-toface. He adds that if that does not solve the problem, they should then talk to the professor’s department chairman.
“In most cases, students should realize that professors rarely hear from their students outside class,” Gutzman said, “So they are happy to encounter them and discuss matters of concern.”
Gutzman has attended two schools as a student himself, the University of Texas and the University of Virginia, and has been a professor at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY and WestConn. According to him, professors at all of the schools had the same experience with students not going to office hours. Gutzman said he has discussed this matter with his colleagues, and they all wish students would take more advantage of office hours.
Gutzman said that WestConn students commonly apologize to their professors for taking their time.
“I often tell them that they are paying me, so they shouldn’t apologize,” he said.
Jalbert says that if a student was having a problem in her class, she would want them to come and talk to her about it. She said that some of her students this semester didn’t feel they did well enough on their first exams. In light of this, she invited them to come and see her during her office hours to discuss their exams and expressed that she was willing to spend time with them going over the exams item-by-item to determine what kind of mistakes they were making and why they were making them. She stated that so far, not one student has appeared.
“Students will come and talk to me after class, but after class there’s not that much time and it’s not a private situation and you can’t go over an exam point-by-point,” she said, “The students have to be motivated enough to want to spend 15 minutes, or a half-hour, talking about their exam.”
Jalbert thinks that one of the potential reasons why students have not come to talk with her about their exams during office hours is the possibility that they may see her as being unapproachable, in spite of her invitations to talk with them outside class.
“I don’t see myself as an unapproachable, but I’m the professor at the front of the room, and I can’t see myself from my student’s eyes,” she said. “Students may find if they come to my office, that it’s not such a bad thing. I’m not going to bite their heads off, and I’m not going to shove them out the door.”