The Site is owned, operated and/or provided by RateMyProfessors.com LLC (“RMP”), a subsidiary of Viacom International Inc., which offers television channel or programming services (such as Internet websites, applications or other interactive services) and offers other products and services under various brands, such as those Viacom Media Networks brands listed here.
He always has a piece of paper in front of his mouth when he talks which makes it hard to hear. He also hisses like a vampire a lot. I would not recommend this class.
Rate My Professors, actual comment
The consumerisation of student opinion: there’s gold in those hills, for sure. In 1999, a Californian software engineer created teacherratings.com to aggregate college student reviews of individual college professors, and the site became ratemyprofessors.com in 2001. In 2005 ratemyprofessors.com, was sold, and then sold again in January 2007 “for an undisclosed sum” to mtvU, a Viacom subsidiary. This wasn’t the only item in the shopping cart. Recognising the captive commercial value of the campus student market, Viacom were hunting channels, brands and products that would enable them to bracket the social and consumer dimensions of being a student to their other entertainment investments. mtvU promotes among its popular shows Professors Strike Back, redirecting users back to RMP (click!) to see video clips of academics reading their reviews aloud, where they can also take a moment to rate their favourite professors from the movies (click!).
It’s feedback, on $tilt$.
So at one level, RMP is a story of extraordinary personal success. Patrick Nagle (Internet Enthusiast, Dealmaker), who bought and sold RMP and also owns Rate My Teacher (“helps students, parents and teachers make informed decisions by promoting transparency within education”), is 33 years old. He has been buying and selling internet real estate since he was 16. He’s a role model for young entrepreneurs and innovators. He makes stuff, and makes stuff happen. It’s just that in Rate My Professors, what he has made happen is complex at the human level, and ethically fraught.
Let’s get the big distraction out of the way: Rate My Professors leans on Likert scales like they’re going out of fashion, and true to its current corporate home in the entertainment world, it still rates professors on their hotness. Yup, this is what you think, with a chilli pepper. And even if you’re OK with this as a harmless bit of internet lint, RMP is now such big business that its annual rankings of the top college professors in the US pop up all over the place, including through cross-promotion via other Viacom products. So if you link back into the site (click!) from a seemingly serious national ranking of professional standing and start browsing, there it is: you’re staring at a professional colleague’s hotness rating, and that’s an actual thing now.
And suddenly you remember everything about the sophomorish social origins of Facebook as a hot-or-not student rating site, and the hopeless commentary on women as sexual distractions in science labs, and everything we know about role congruity perceptions in the evaluation of performance, and every comment you’ve ever read that’s focused on appearance not performance. It’s tiring, and sad, and dealing with it is exactly what Audrey Watters recognises as the affective labour of higher education that won’t be replaced by a machine any time soon.
(The three professional factors that are included in the rating itself that are more obviously about teaching are helpfulness, clarity and easiness. Some comments valiantly defend the idea that a thing that’s hard isn’t necessarily what you came to college to avoid, but there’s a powerfully visible aggregation of sentiment around fairness that mentions how easy it is to get a good grade from this person.)
And wait, there’s more. The rating of individual professors has now expanded to be the basis on which RMP rates whole colleges. Hello, college rankings! What we have here is an uncontrolled brand situation, that will draw in the social media teams who keep a very close eye on this kind of malarkey. And when they get there, what do they see but the very professors who are holding up the averages, and those who appear to be holding them back. Suddenly those who are hissing like vampires, or grading too harshly, or are difficult to contact because they have 400 students in a gen ed class, or are working three teaching jobs across town while holding office hours in their car, or who have an invisible disability, or a kid in hospital, or a class that was dropped in their lap because someone else pulled out, are right there in a handy list.
And if it turns out that one or two have a red grumpy face by their name, how could you possibly not remember that when hiring comes around?
Because this is really what bites about both formal SETs, and informal but immensely powerful and profitable reviewing platforms like RMP: in a majority casualised workforce, the reform of service delivery that disappointed consumers seek is simplest to achieve by not hiring a person again. US higher education is only patchily unionised which makes not hiring of an adjunct pretty easy; even in Australia it would be very hard for a casual academic to prove that not being hired was the direct result of an unfavourable evaluation, when the labour market is at saturation point, and then some.
What can we do better? This week while worrying generally about the ethics of customer service reviews in higher education, I’ve been thinking about good examples from healthcare, and a heartbreaking but really important example from Veterans Affairs.
There are several organisations working to solicit and pass on patient feedback, on both good and bad experiences. The best of these, I think, is Patient Opinion, and the Australian site is here. A recent example of how effectively and thoughtfully they reflect on whether they serve organisations or patients is in their blog here. They argue that organisations solicit service user feedback in part to limit risk; while patients are cautious about being labelled difficult if they complain. As an intermediary in this often confronting environment, Patient Opinion is focused on doing better—on building a reflective relationship around critical care incidents, not just a complaints forum. It’s a really good model for higher education.
But there are no short cuts to this model. Real change doesn’t come from one-sided feedback, but from negotiated relationships built on trust and reciprocal respect, and this is a point made in a useful post from the Cancer Geek blog, “Does Healthcare Need Cooperation or Collaboration?“
Collaboration requires all involved stakeholders to listen to one another, define the problem together, and understand the expectations and requirements for what a successful outcome will look like upon completion. Collaboration takes time, effort, and commitment.
Time, effort, commitment.
What would it take in time-impoverished institutions like public universities or hospitals for their service users to be fully and respectfully included in the story of what is being done to provide the service? How can our reputation-mad institutions take the risk of sharing with students the way that they’re cutting service costs? How can academic staff conscientiously and professionally deal with the affective cost of austerity budgeting while trying to do a good thing in the room, in the grading, in the vanishing time for consultation?
While you’re thinking about this, and perhaps while you’re thinking of reviewing a service incident—either as a patient, or a student—take one minute and listen to a VA employee and a veteran break down together on the phone over access to care. They’re both exhausted, and weeping, and neither of them is wrong, and everything is wrong, and at the end, this is what the veteran has to say about what happened:
“I want to give that fucking woman a hug. I just want to tell her that I know it’s not her fault. I wish she hadn’t hung up the phone.”
Think like this.