My conflicted view of RateMyProfessor and its problems
I have been at Brandeis for over a year now, and I’ve taken my fair share of good and bad classes. I’ve sat in lecture halls that felt electrified by passionate professors and students, with subject matters more interesting and entertaining than some of my favorite movies. The opposite has also been true, and I’ve found myself thinking that going to certain classes wasn’t even necessary. I have thought to myself, “maybe I should have consulted other students’ opinions and thoughts on said classes and professors before enrolling, or at least shop it before spending hundreds of dollars on used, rented textbooks.” I became wary of which classes I signed up for, almost to the point of paranoia; what if a class is required for my major or University requirement, and I’m unable to pass it due to either a teaching style that I can’t follow, or some incomprehensible, poorly-explained material?
At the end of my first semester, a friend of mine showed me the popular academic rating website, ratemyprofessors.com. On this website, you can search almost any institution and affiliated faculty, and you can find other students’ opinions on particular professors and the course they teach and have taught in the past. Generally, most professors and the difficulty of their classes are rated on a scale of zero to five, and students can attach comments or thoughts to these ratings. Out of curiosity, I searched up a class that I took my first semester at Brandeis that I didn’t particularly enjoy, and to my surprise, I saw numerous negative comments not about the course or the way it was taught, but personal attacks directed towards the professor himself, with hundreds of negative ratings that were nothing more than what seemed like a group of disgruntled students seeking retribution for a bad grade on a paper.
Following this experience, I began to see RateMyProfessor as a way to vet professors and classes before I took them, to the point where if I even just glanced upon a course whose subject matter seemed interesting, I would immediately go onto RateMyProfessor to see what other students had to say. However, I only really paid attention to the numbers as opposed to the comments. Looking back, I can see how unhealthy this was, as I was viewing many hardworking individuals who have likely accomplished more than I will in my entire lifetime as nothing more than mere numerical constructs of quality and difficulty.
Rating an instructor with only cursory secondary comments, as the name of the website implies, is not only highly dehumanizing, but outright Orwellian. We are hard-wired to pay extra attention to scorn and negativity; this trait is exacerbated when gazing upon a series of negative ratings.
We tend to be quick to form judgements about an entire person, turning a blind eye to actual real-world experience and the reasoning behind said classifications.
Furthermore, students might be far less likely to take a class taught by a professor with a low rating, even if they are glancing at nothing other than just a number. It is this lack of observation that particularly concerns me about the ethical implications of being able to rate a professor. One can simply issue a negative rating for reasons as simple as receiving a bad grade in class or on one specific assignment and mask the rating as a referendum on the instructor as both an educator and as a person.
To anyone with a well-oriented moral compass in our highly digitized, impersonal society, this is highly disconcerting. Moreover, this system can be used and abused to spite professors with whom students may have had a disagreement with and as a means of petty sabotage. One low rating can influence the way a prospective student sees a class going into the course, causing them to develop a confirmation bias and form unrealistic judgements of what could otherwise be a unique experience — positive or negative.
Interestingly, any professors on the website who have high difficulty ratings often have lower quality ratings. To me, this implies an unfavorable view of professors who seek to challenge their students — and not for the better.
How can one who innocently seeks to look at ratings tell the difference between a genuinely unfavorable view of a professor or class and a vengeful, unlucky student? Here, it is easy to see the destructiveness of RateMyProfessor on not only the reputations of hardworking professors, but potential students and the entire college experience. Websites of any sort that reduce individuals and the classes they teach to nothing more than mere numbers almost begin to resemble controversial aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes, which reduces movies to numbers in a similar fashion.
I would even go as far as to say that the ratings on ratemyprofessor resemble product reviews akin to those one would see on Amazon, leading to what chillingly begins to resemble China’s social credit system, where people are given numerical values that translate to self-worth in response to how they go about their lives.
In the end, RateMyProfessor may be used as a tool for good, one that allows its users to better inform the decisions they make about which classes to take. On the other hand, one should be wary in their use for it; it is one thing to look at a negative rating, and it is another to actually attend the class, attempt to learn a thing or two and listen to viewpoints and speech beyond one’s own. Experience is something no rating website can replace.