Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo
The Record (Kitchener, Ontario), 7 September 2004.
How would you like a job where everybody you work with is allowed to rate your performance from 1 to 5, add a pungent comment about your strengths or weaknesses, and post it all on a public bulletin board?
I mean everybody, not just your boss and co-workers, but the people who report to you.
Postings are not required. The people who take time to write them tend to be those with strong feelings about you. They identify you by name, but are themselves anonymous.
One other thing: The bulletin board covered with their opinions about you is miraculously placed where the whole world can see, including your son, mother-in-law, ex-husband, nosy neighbour and prospective future employer.
This is the real world in which professors work today.
The reason is a website called ratemyprofessors.com, begun in 1999 by a whiz kid named John Swapceinski in California's Silicon Valley. Easily and quickly, anybody with web access can rate and comment on any professor in the United States or Canada. Results are available worldwide by a few clicks of a mouse.
The site has become a hit, especially in large, mass-market universities. It has grown exponentially from 11,000 ratings for 3,500 professors in 2001, to two million ratings for 400,000 professors in mid-2004.
Among all institutions on this continent, the University of Waterloo ranks sixth in popularity of this website, with 21,000 ratings for 1,500 faculty. Guelph has 8,000 ratings for 850 faculty. Wilfrid Laurier has 7,000 ratings for 650 faculty. For Conestoga College, there are 1,300 ratings for 200 faculty.
Generally, professors have tried to make the website go away. Many insist they have never looked at it. Others lambaste it in print media as biased, dangerous, frightening, unhelpful, worthless and of only entertainment value. A few try to sabotage it. About one professor a week threatens a lawsuit, according to Swapceinski.
But ratemyprofessors is unlikely to go away. It has flourished from the grass roots because it lets students do what was possible before only by washroom graffiti: say exactly what they think of professors they have had and get the lowdown in advance on other ones. To judge by current statistics, the website has passed a tipping point and will snowball further.
From my study of the website over the past year, here are five things that students, faculty, relatives, nosy neighbours and prospective employers should keep in mind.
First, since dimwits exist among students as well as faculty (possibly in greater proportion), a certain percentage of evaluations for any professor are noise. Maybe the harshest number five per cent, maybe the kindest 10 per cent. There is no way to tell which ratings come from bright, hard-working students and which ones from insolent slackers.
Second, multiple positive or negative appraisals of a professor may all have been posted by a single rater. Cookies and filters are in place to prevent this, but there are ways around them. A determined handful of malicious raters, or even just one, can put a professor's ratings in the cellar. One industrious groupie can send the ratings sky high.
Third, a rater need not have taken a course from the professor. A given evaluation may reflect an off-campus lover's adulation or an ex-lover's spite. There is no way to tell.
Fourth, institutions vary in how carefully comments are monitored. Swapceinski tries to have a site administrator on each campus to screen out the more imaginative hateful jibes that filters miss. Some of these local volunteers take their jobs seriously. Others do not. All are anonymous.
Fifth, despite all these possibilities of error and abuse, the bulk of postings to the site are the plain, unvarnished sentiments of ordinary students who have taken the courses identified and posted just one rating per course.
If I were a student, would I check a professor's page on ratemyprofessors before enrolling in his or her course? Sure. The website is an aid for choosing courses wisely. I would study the evaluations critically, aware that some may be ill-founded or fake. I would try to guess from the comments what kind of student the professor and course seem to satisfy, and see if I fit the bill.
While giving the website profile cautious respect, I would place more trust in the views of friends who have studied with the professor in question. I would also scrutinize course outlines.
In sum, I would treat the website as thousands of real students do, as one among several sources of information to help decide which courses to take.
At the same time, as a professor who has studied the website in detail, I oppose any formal use being made of it. I alerted the UW administration earlier this year to the unreliability of ratemyprofessors.com for any official purpose, despite the site administrators' diligent efforts to prevent abuse of it, and even though the vast majority of postings are honest and well-intentioned.
The risk is simply too high of making wrong decisions about professors' careers and livelihoods. Clever people abound in universities, and this website is too vulnerable to untruthful cleverness. In the case of a tenure candidate, for instance, the deck on this website can too easily be stacked for or against.
For decisions about tenure, promotion and salary, deans and department chairs should instead rely on course evaluations administered in class at the end of term. These are standard procedure at UW, as in most universities. The professor leaves the classroom when students fill out the forms. The results have more claim to validity than results on ratemyprofessors.
Even so, for most professors, the website results conform closely to those obtained on in-class questionnaires. The big difference is that the website is public and easily accessible. As its popularity grows, professors and administrators will find it steadily harder to ignore student opinion in decisions about professors' careers.
The unyielding presence of ratemyprofessors may also induce universities and colleges to publish the results of in-class questionnaires on their own websites. The University of Western Ontario already does this with numerical ratings, but without any comments.
Meanwhile, people in other lines of work should not gloat over the painfully public evaluation professors are now subjected to. The technology that spawned ratemyprofessors has endless possibilities.
Swapceinski himself runs a parallel site for teachers at lower levels. Iludes hundreds of ratings for teachers in nearly all the high schools of Waterlt incoo Region.
Ratemydoctor is next, Swapceinski says.
For better or worse, anybody identifiable by name in any occupation may soon be subject to evaluation on the web by anonymous fans and detractors. We might as well get used to it.
Kenneth Westhues is a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo and a winner of its distinguished teacher award. Summary: "The site has become a hit. . . . It has grown exponentially . . . to two million ratings for 400,000 professors in mid-2004. " Photo: ILLUSTRATION BY DIANE SHANTZ, RECORD STAFF.