The website Rate My Professor, which allows users to rank and write reviews of their teachers, is more than just a valuable tool for college students who want to be smart consumers about their classroom experiences. It also embodies the greatest promise of the Internet revolution—its ability to not only disseminate information, but encourage people to better understand why quality education is so important in the first place.
When I worked as an assistant T.A. for a seminar on medieval Europe, I was asked to teach The Cheese and the Worms, a classic microhistory by the legendary Carlo Ginzburg that tells the tragic story of Menocchio (real name Domenico Scandella), a 16th-century Italian miller who was tried and eventually executed for heresy by the Inquisition. Since this also happens to be one of my favorite books, I made a vow to myself that no student would leave the classroom without having caught my eager-beaver bug for the material. I even gave out some comical brain food before class (cheese puffs and gummy worms—I will fiercely defend my pedagogical privilege to force puns on my students) to make sure everyone was in good spirits when I started my lecture.
The enthusiastic discussion that ensued, which even continued for a few minutes after the class had officially ended, remained one of the satisfying memories of my academic life.
Although I have no idea how my students would have commented on this if I’d had a page on Rate My Professor (which I don’t), the basic lesson remains the same: For those entrusted with carrying the torch of education to future generations, there is no substitute for student feedback. While the criticisms can be cruel and unfair (more on that in a moment), they also help instructors see themselves through the eyes of those they need to reach in order to fulfill their fundamental duty as teachers, and, when necessary, to change so they can be better at their jobs. Just as importantly, it allows them to understand why they succeed, providing them with both a precedent they can follow in the future and an inspiring reminder of why they entered the field of education in the first place.
On one level, Rate My Professor can be viewed as a manifestation of the Internet’s growing role as an instrument for empowering consumers. Before, a customer dissatisfied with a certain good or service had to go to the Better Business Bureau, a local newspaper, or (if applicable) a courtroom for redress of their grievances. Today, the Internet gives every consumer a forum to express their views. Whether it’s rating a corporation on Consumer Reports or a vendor on eBay, expressing an opinion on a blog or assigning a star rating to a movie on IMDb, there is no limit to the ways buyers can reward or punish those who ask them to part with their hard-earned dollars. Thanks to cyberspace, caveat emptor (buyer beware) is gradually returning to caveat venditor (seller beware).
This isn’t to say that there aren’t downsides to this phenomenon, and specifically to Rate My Professor. Although professors are given an opportunity to respond to negative reviews on their pages, many still argue that the comments are off-putting and mean-spirited instead of constructive. There is also the controversy surrounding the inclusion of categories such as “Easiness,” which risks punishing teachers who insist on intellectually challenging their students (including many of the professors who mentored me), and “Attractiveness,” which is frankly downright creepy. Like any site that offers a soap box to any and all, the reviews on Rate My Professor are only as insightful as the students who write them. Groupthink, shallowness, and the distinct brand of cruelty abetted by online anonymity are inevitably rampant.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to argue that Rate My Professor does more harm than good. For one thing, it holds professors as accountable as members of any other craft or trade. As an article in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education put it, “students who post ratings may be regarded as experts who have had significant experience with the professors” and can thus help the best ones earn tenure and promotions. Moreover, the website serves as a potent reminder of the deeper responsibilities inherent in the education profession. There is a reason why Thomas Jefferson wrote that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
For any democratic society to fully realize the potential of its human resources, it needs to pass on the legacies of past generations so that their successors can learn from their mistakes and build on their accomplishments. We need experts in physical sciences like chemistry, physics, and earth sciences so we can better understand and manipulate the world around us; experts in life sciences like biology and medicine so we can improve the length and quality of our lives and maintain a respectful relationship with the ecosystems of which we are a part; experts in social sciences like history, political studies, economics, and law so our government can best protect individual rights and serve the needs of society as a whole; and experts in arts such as literature, music, cinema, theater, and painting so we can fully appreciate the richness of the world we inhabit.
While the Internet has done wonders in spreading opinions and ideas, formal education still plays an indispensable role for the brightest and most well-informed minds in a democratic nation. Professors teach those who study at their colleges and universities how to separate sound reasoning and information from nonsense (which is particularly useful given the avalanche of bullshit available online today), provide aspiring scholars with the intellectual training they’ll need to master their fields, and offer society’s brightest and most well-informed minds with institutional credibility to promote their work.
Considering the significant threats facing academics today—from the right-wing’s reflexive anti-intellectualism to the fact that new professors are grossly underpaid—any modern development that strengthens academia, even with harsh criticism, should be embraced. As I learned from my own time in front of the classroom, it makes the triumphs of the job taste that much sweeter.