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Thursday, August 03, 2006

For a good time, call

Curiously, both the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber only) and Inside Higher Ed ran pieces about RateMyProfessors.com last week.  You know, like Pixar releasing A Bug’s Life and DreamWorks releasing Antz in the same month.  These things happen.  It’s all a lattice of coincidence, you know.

In a lively essay titled “Let’s Sue,” graduate student Eric Strand tells of his reaction to being labelled “strange and awkward” on RateMyProfessors by one of his former students.  Having moved through the stages of anger, anger, anger, and being royally pissed off, he is now ready for resolution, by means of a class action lawsuit, “Professors, adjuncts, and graduate students of America vs. RateMyProfessors.com.”

Along the way, he writes,

RateMyProfessors is viewed seriously or semi-seriously by important people and institutions. Our campus newspaper occasionally dismisses the site’s importance but says that students should consult it when selecting courses. . . .  Most stunningly, some instructors I know have been told that their ratings are read in order to track their performance.

And in IHE, the inimitable Terry Caesar writes,

From a reader’s point of view, who cares if these comments are accurate? They’re fun to read. From a colleague’s point of view, who cares if just about any comments are just? They’re irresistible to read, like gossip. RATE opens up the whole evaluative process insofar as teaching is concerned. Suddenly students get to say what they really think, not just to themselves but to a potential audience of thousands. Rather like guests on certain afternoon television talk shows, individuals feel inspired to be more recklessly candid.

This is an odd thing to say, since students “get to say what they really think” on ordinary course evaluations as well: we professors don’t get to see those evaluations until well after the semester has ended and all the grades are turned in, and those evaluations, at least at Penn State and Illinois, are not purely quantitative.  They give students far more space for commentary than RateMyProfessors does, and those written evaluations are read by our department heads (and, of course, by us).  At Illinois, the written evaluations took up one side of the page, the quantitative # 2 pencil bubble-filling the other; at Penn State, the written evaluations are on a separate sheet of their own.  I read all of mine carefully, especially the ones that make constructive suggestions about how to improve the course (something you certainly won’t find on RateMyProfessors).  But it’s an even odder thing to say when you realize, as Caesar notes with astonishment ten paragraphs later, “in fact, students at RATE don’t even have to be students!”

Do tell!  You’d think people would take the site a bit less seriously, right?

Ah, wrong.  For hardened culture warrior David French, over at the National Review’s Phi Beta Cons, even Caesar’s essay is a “screed” and a “rant”: “One of the more amusing recurring elements of Scott Jaschik’s excellent Inside Higher Ed is the occasional professors’ screed against RateMyProfessors.com. The most recent version of this rant discusses the high correlation between easy grading and high scores on ‘Rate.’” And French concludes that “in the aggregate, all of these seemingly random evaluations actually add up to something important.” It’s good to see people sticking up for intellectual standards and things. 

And French isn’t alone.  This past February, in the Chronicle, Rob Franciosi wrote an essay that, while complaining about “how invalid these RMP rankings are; how little they have to do with learning or real teaching effectiveness; how there’s no way to guarantee that the contributors are even students, let alone students who have taken your class,” nevertheless served up a confession and an admonition:

And, yes, I realize this RMP.com habit, like my compulsive e-mail checking, should be resisted; but I can’t seem to kick it. As with so much on the Internet, the RateMyProfessors site simply offers this distracted academic too many easy pleasures. . . .

It’s not surprising that students not only contribute to RateMyProfessors.com but also scrutinize the rankings before they register for classes. Several have told me they choose instructors at least partly based on what they read on the site.

People, people, people.  Have you all been smoking Ye Olde Cracke Pipe?

A couple of years ago, I used to check RateMyProfessors.com—until I realized I was being cyberstalked by a Dinesh D’Souza obsessive.  At first, my ratings on the site conformed pretty closely to the ratings I’ve received over twenty years of teaching.  The first one was posted in November 2003, and while it didn’t say anything about the intellectual content of the class, it was pleasant enough to read:

He is so funny and makes the class go by with ease, very enjoyable.

The next two (rating the same class, English 232) were posted in March and April of 2004, and they were 5s with no written elaboration.  The next one, for English 467, was the nicest yet:

He is one of the funniest, smartest teachers I’ve ever had. I wish the class could have been more forthcoming in discussions...he deserved better from us!

So I was cruising along, hmmm hmmm hmmm, no problems in the world.

And then my D’Souza fan showed up, and things started getting weird.  (You can find a little synopsis of my writings on D’Souza right here.  It includes the cheeky sentence, “no one has noted that Dinesh D’Souza is himself the most visible contradiction of the Right’s major premise in the academic culture wars—namely, that campus conservatives are persecuted by liberal faculty and intimidated into silence.") Here’s my next evaluation on RateMyProfessors.  It is decidedly harsh:

He has written that a particular “conservative” academic’s success disproves singlehandedly that conservatives aren’t discriminated against. An average 14 year old can see at least 2 things that are absurd in this statement. Moron!

D’Souza isn’t an academic, but let’s not sweat the small stuff.  Here’s the next entry:

Unbelievably juvenile sense of humor. See his website if you don’t believe me.

This one happens to be accurate, though it doesn’t say much about my teaching.  It was accompanied by the lowest numerical score possible.  Suddenly, along with my 4, 5, 5, and 5, I had myself a pair of ones.  That threw off my average some.

And this kind of thing went on with some regularity over the next few months, both on RMP and on Amazon.com.  It was the same stuff every time:  I was juvenile, I was arrogant, I was illogical, I had dismissed a certain conservative writer.  The last “evaluation” in this vein is dated May 2005:

Never has such arrogance mixed with such ignorance. He thinks he is intelligent, and few human beings I have ever met are less capable of thinking logically and rationally.

This was nearly identical to (a) an earlier posting on RMP and (b) a “review” of one of my books on Amazon, which the good people at Amazon eventually removed because it had nothing to do with the book under review.  (Actually, the Amazon story is a bit more complicated, and I tell the full version here.  Note, though, that back then I didn’t think the RMP stuff was important enough to mention.) So RMP deleted the earlier posting and kept the more recent one.  In the meantime, I received a few tepid-to-negative reviews that weren’t quite in this vein, and might very well have come from actual students (I’ll get to that in a second).  And later in 2005, I got a brief “great teacher” and a more detailed

I graduated from PSU in 03, I found Prof, Berube to be mos helpful and understanding. He makes the unfamiliar, familiar and reponds to all inquiries clearly and quickly. I wish there were more like him. I learned more in his class than in most others, I would take his class again in an instant.

So it looked as if my D’Souza guy had given up for now.  I breathed a sigh of relief, and relaxed and learned to accept the occasional outburst of “moron!”

And then late last year another hostile review appeared, almost as libidinally invested as my D’Sousa fan:

What an arrogant jerk. Every class with him was painful as he tried to be funny/show off his knowledge. No doubt he’s smart, but the kind of smart where he enjoys lording it over everyone else. His lectures ramble. This class alone made me rethink my english ambitions, because I couldn’t stand the idea of a career around people like Berube.

Well, I thought, let it not be said that I have failed to do my part to ease the job crisis for Ph.D.s in English! But at first I wasn’t sure that this was a real student, because (a) I’ve gotten poor reviews in graduate seminars before, but nothing so visceral as this, and (b) I don’t lecture in seminars anyway.  So I decided to re-check the my official evaluations I’d gotten for English 501 (fall 2004), because that wasn’t a seminar, and sure enough, in that class of 24 students there was one person who utterly despised me—not the course (this he merely considered a waste of time), but me.  I was arrogant, I paraded my knowledge, and . . . though you won’t find this on RMP . . . I spent all of class time talking about my own work.

Goodness gracious, that was brutal!  OK, some explanation is in order.

English 501 is the introduction to graduate study in English at Penn State.  It’s a required course.  It is sometimes referred to as “boot camp,” and in one especially unhappy year before my arrival, when Penn State admitted 35 students to the program instead of the usual 25, the rumor (groundless, but potent) went around that 501 was going to be the means by which the department winnowed out some of the new recruits.  Look to your right, look to your left, this time next year one of your buddies will be dead.  It wasn’t a happy time, I’m told.

The course was taught for a couple of years thereafter as a kind of Welcome to the Profession, here are some guest lecturers on medieval, early modern, eighteenth-century, Victorian, etc., here’s the library, here’s the rare book room, and so on.  And then in early 2003, my department head noticed that I’d recently written an essay in which I argued that

training in contemporary literary theory should be one of the central purposes of graduate education in English.  I want to emphasize the literary in that theory:  I mean, more or less, the history of twentieth-century theories of literature and of textuality, beginning with the work of Viktor Shklovsky and his fellow Russian Formalists (including Mikhail Bakhtin’s and V. N. Volosinov’s replies thereto) and running through Marxism, psychoanalysis, New Criticism, structuralism, poststructuralism/deconstruction, feminism, reader-response, New Historicism, postcolonialism, and queer theory—in other words, from the origins of a discipline-founding theory of the literary (this discipline-founding aspect is what would distinguish Shklovsky from Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Matthew Arnold, or, for that matter, John Crowe Ransom or Northrop Frye from Sir Philip Sidney) to the moment of the breakdown of the very idea of the specifically literary text under the pressure of structuralism and poststructuralism.  I believe more firmly with each passing year that this history of twentieth-century theories of textuality should be something like a lingua franca shared by advanced graduate students, not only because it gives them access to myriad ways of reading literary and social texts, but also because, if it’s taught in a sufficiently historically and institutionally grounded way, it gives entrants into the discipline a good general idea of the history of the discipline as we can plausibly claim to know it.

He promptly asked me to take over 501 the next fall.  I hemmed and hawed (and rambled), knowing that 501 was easily our students’ Least Favorite Course Ever, and that it had killed many a professor doughtier than I.  But I was eventually convinced that it was the right thing to do, particularly if I actually believed any of the things I’d written.  So in the fall of 2003, I taught the course for the first time.

It didn’t go very well.  The evaluations showed it, too.  The course was rated a lowly 4.95 on Penn State’s seven-point scale ("but that’s good for 501,” I was reassured, not very reassuringly), and though I squeaked out a 5.95 on the instructor rating (my second-lowest score in my five years here), some of the written comments suggested that the course needed serious rethinking.

So I rethought.  While I kept the intro-theory component—and, dear readers, eventually translated some of my class notes into the widely-deplored “Theory Tuesday” series that appeared on this blog last year around this time (in four installments, one, two, three, and four)—I re-introduced the guest lectures (medieval, early modern, etc.) and devoted a couple of classes to talking about practical matters like revising seminar papers for conference presentation and submitting essays to journals.

I promise you all that I spent exactly zero time talking about my own work.  For I am not, in fact, responsible for most of twentieth-century literary theory, almost all of which was written by people other than myself.  And I did not lord it over any of my students—or, I should say, I did not try to.  Nor did I punish anyone or give out any bad grades, because, after all, the course was only an introduction to the field. As far as I’m concerned it shouldn’t be graded at all.

Actually, I fondly thought, I had done all right the second time around: the course evaluations for 2004 were markedly better than the previous year’s.  The course got better, from 4.95 to 6, and I got better, from 5.95 to 6.59 (16 sevens, 4 sixes, 1 five, 1 four, 1 three, and I’m willing to bet that this last guy is the one who showed up on RMP).  And this confirmed something Michael Levenson told me years ago, in the course of giving me some of the best dissertation-director advice I’ve ever heard: as I prepared to move my family to central Illinois, he told me that you very rarely get a course right the first time.  It’s like the first pancake.  Only when you’ve cooked the first pancake do you know what to do with the following pancakes.  (I have, by the way, retroactively apologized to many of my fall 2003 students in 501 for burning them on one side.) Getting a nasty evaluation for the 2004 class, then, was rather ironic, in the Alanis Morissette sense of the term.

So that’s my RateMyProfessors experience over the years.  A mixed bag of reviews from actual students, combined with three or four flames from a former cyberstalker and a big fat rotten tomato from a graduate student who found me unbearable.  I now refer to the site as BathroomWalls.com, and consider it about as reliable as the information about professors you can find on those sites.

The truly weird thing about all this is that we actually have real course evaluations on file, and at Penn State and Illinois (if memory serves), these are mandatory for all professors.  You want a taste of reality?  I can give you a taste of reality.  I received just under 750 evaluations at Illinois, and on that five-point scale, the breakdown was

5:  440
4:  223
3:  66
2:  16
1:  2

for a 4.45 average overall.  At Penn State,

7:  95
6:  75
5:  22
4:  6
3:  6
2:  0
1:  0

for a 6.22, which, you’ll notice, is just a teensy bit off the 4.45/5 ratio (.888857 as opposed to .89).  So we’re talking about some serious consistency here over seventeen years (I think my four years of evaluations in graduate school were a bit lower).

Not that I’m keeping track, mind you!  But I did have to submit the record of my Illinois teaching evaluations for consideration when I was a candidate for this here job at Penn State, so I actually do have a file drawer full of them.

The written evaluations have been remarkably consistent as well: most students write positive things about what they learned or what they enjoyed most, though I’m not in the first tier of professors, where the truly amazing and world-transforming teachers reside, with their dazzling strings of 4.9s and 6.85s (one of whom happens to live in this very house, though she is mysterious and elusive).  Every year, a couple of students find me not to their taste, and a couple more students complain that I talk too fast.  De gustibus non disputandum est, of course, but the claim that I talk fast is just so much arrant nonsense.

Anyway, if you’re a college professor, or on your way to becoming one, the next time someone you know takes RateMyProfessors BathroomWalls.com seriously, please send them this post.  And if you’re not a college professor—hey, if you’re not a college student!—remember, you can write practically anything you like on RMP, about me or anyone else.

Posted by Michael on 08/03 at 12:35 PM
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