If professors followed the lead of their students and posted anonymous evaluations of students as a rejoinder to RateMyProfessor.com and the Yik Yak app, how would evaluations change—and how might students react?
Before I try to answer these questions, let me tell you a story. It happened one night long ago to a very new university teacher: a rare ice storm on the northern prairies. Rain and sleet fell as temperatures dropped just as steeply (if that’s how ice storms work), and in the morning everything outside was perfectly and beautifully protected under a hard coat of ice—the trees, the sidewalks, and all the porn that could be spread out over his four-door sedan (or hers, of course).
Who, for the sake of a prank, carries around a dozen glossy skin mags to pull apart in an ice storm?
Somebody did. It was that wintry time of year when students, steaming after getting bad grades, feel only the heat of the moment instead of a chill. Some of them flame their profs or post hot-headed criticism on social media. Others prefer revenge served cold.
I never found out whether the prankster did have some connection to said teacher, but the prank happened to have a lot in common with the implicitly sexual evaluations that students can put on RateMyProfessor. The rubric there identifies “hotness” and “easiness,” both potentially sexual terms, both implying a “meat market.” Chilli peppers rate the hotness, so the food-sex-commodity implication is pretty clear.
How foolish I would be to suggest that profs are the porn stars or nude models of their students’ fantasies when the opposite is the better known problem, but RateMyProfessor definitely shows that the problem is not one-sided in an era of social media. Some students, for example, have used the Yik Yak app to post a long and anonymous series of sexual and insulting comments about three people who were team-teaching their large class.
Teachers are public figures—in that their classes are sometimes large enough to contain strangers (this being one of Michael Warner’s criteria of a public), or include students who are practised enough at disappearing into the crowd that they aren’t recognized by name—and a lot of students would freak out (as many teachers do) if they realized that any of their mistakes could be witnessed by 45, 185, or (God forbid) 600 or 1,000 people. Rampant video recording on cell phones does threaten a lot of bullied kids with terrifying publicity. Teachers are not immune either.
Friends of mine have quit their teaching jobs because of how scary they (the jobs) can be. Besides a politician’s, what other job demands the worker to submit to mass anonymous evaluations—and, in the teacher’s case, with a frequency measured in months rather than years?
Politicians are not the only ones with their jobs on the line. In another example, an untenured instructor was fired on the basis of a potentially baseless allegation. RateMyProfessor calibrates the student-teacher relationship and gives the powers of anonymity and of the crowd to students. Although anonymous evaluators have no fear of reprisal and can therefore speak freely and disburden themselves (a plus), hate speech and libel become much more likely when no one has to anticipate results other than the satisfaction of an insult with no comeback. Some people I know monitor their RateMyProfessor comments and invoke their lawyers to compel the site to remove its more egregious claims.
If profs had RateMyStudent.com, I wonder what changes in the power differential would occur. Free of consequences, anonymous and commenting alongside each other, would professors gang up, indulging in sexual innuendo and cyberbullying too?
Protective anonymity would be more difficult to maintain for the profs, of course, because there are so few of them compared to their students. If a prof dissed a student’s understanding of the poet John Keats’s concept of negative capability, it might hint at the identity of, obviously, a literature prof. (Or the prof could have been anybody, and “negative capability” was just meant to describe the student’s academic prowess.)
Would students react differently to anonymous online evaluations?
They might take them less seriously, but even if the evaluations refrained from bullying or outright shaming the evaluations would still be crucially public. Students do some assignments, such as in-class presentations, in public, but most assignments are remarkably private: intended for one reader (in addition, I hope, to the writer's future self). Private assignments are ideal vehicles for trial and error, hence the essay's link to the French verb essayer, "to try." If students were evaluated in public and anonymously, I think that students would be even more anxious about conforming, and education would be whole magnitudes more intimidating and miserable for them. We would lose many more of them to attrition. Many would not enroll at all. Many might also be justifiably concerned that public evaluations might be read by prospective employers. Whether this possibility would lead students to work more diligently is a question up in the air.
The anonymity of online feedback is probably less threatening than the threat of publicity, but it is also problematically less meaningful. I know that when I get anonymous feedback from 45 students and one of them has a negative comment, I sometimes dismiss it precisely because I have no way of knowing whether the claim is valid. When a student writes, “It’s impossible to get an A in his course,” I can point to (though the student can’t see) the fact that several students got As. But if a student were to write, “I worked really hard on that assignment and got hardly any help or feedback,” the comment is almost meaningless—to me—unless I know who wrote it and can put it in context. I would want to change my teaching if I realized in retrospect that I had misinterpreted a student as a slacker who was too shy to ask for help.
Sometimes knowing our students and their mitigating circumstances can help us to be fairer. Blind justice might not be so just. To generalize: Specificity is good. Generalization is bad.
And yet RateMyProfessor is so full of generalizations that an individual comment could often apply to almost anyone else on a bad day. Whew! So the site’s usefulness is not so much in its particulars as in the prof’s overall score.
Especially easiness. Frank Donoghue writes: “The ‘easiness’ category provides students with the perfect instrument for boosting their GPA. Simply choose the instructors with the highest ‘easiness’ ratings and your grades are bound to improve.”
In the United States, the grade that most college students get is already an A.
This is also the grade that most professors want and were accustomed to as students.
We profs should therefore be able to relate to our students, and I wish more students who post anonymous online evaluations would try to relate to us, too. Most of us, I hope, offer mainly task-based criticism so that students take it less personally: less ego inflation and less crushing of self-esteem. We have to try to be considerate. Our students know who we are—and quite possibly where we live.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "RateMyStudent.com." Publicly Interested. 4 Feb. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.