Rating is a great debate

Over the course of his 45-year career as a history professor with the University at Albany, Richard

Over the course of his 45-year career as a history professor with the University at Albany, Richard Kendall has doled out tens of thousands of grades.

But when the recently retired Voorheesville resident learned some students were grading him on a Web site that let pupils have their say on everything from a professor’s teaching style, fairness and personality to course difficulty and even personal appearance, Kendall was both intrigued and amused.

“I guess with technology being what it is now and with freedom of speech, there is no way to get around sites like these. It’s human nature to want to grouse, or bitch or say something nice. This lets you do that,” he said. Kendall noted he was pleasantly surprised by a majority of his 31 reviews on ratemyprofessors.com where students boasted about his flair for “winging” lectures and keeping classes interesting even at the “unthinkable hour of 8 a.m.”

As students prepare to head back to colleges and universities in the coming days and weeks, who a course’s professor is — perhaps even more than the course itself — will play a large role in determining which classes will be chosen, so say numerous Capital Region students.

To that end, Web forums like ratemyprofessors.com, professorperformance.com and pickaprof.com, as well as a host of similar sites will be hit in record numbers by students. But such Web destinations are stirring controversy on many campuses because there is little control over who joins in on the reputation-making rankings.

May not be trustworthy

William Zwicker, a Union College mathematics professor, says these forums, which are free to users and supported by advertising, may not be trustworthy because the pool of responses is anonymous, making it impossible to determine whether the person submitting a comment ever was a legitimate student.

He is also concerned that evaluations could be skewed by a disgruntled or overly enthusiastic student.

Still, he’s not ready to let a few reviews influence his 33 years of teaching, especially since he can count the number of reviews he’s received on two hands.

“Nine is a pretty small number of students,” said the Union College mathematics professor of his review count on ratemyprofessors.com. “They don’t bother me, but I do worry about the student who behaves irresponsibly. A single bad rating can have a disproportionate effect. On these sites, you get punished for being tough.”

Zwicker noted that he places much more stock in student evaluations that are handed in at the end of each semester.

His colleague, Joanne Kehlbeck, said she finds the sites and their reviews more entertaining than anything. But she, too, expressed concern that students might choose the wrong times to make their opinions known.

“Personally, I think it’s a good thing, and I am pleased students have a mechanism to share positive and negative comments,” said the organic chemistry professor. “I just worry that those negative comments are written when emotions are running high. Maybe they’ve just taken an exam or gotten a bad grade. They may not mean everything they say, and once it’s posted, it’s there to stay.”

Kehlbeck can’t help but laugh about the fact that her students consider her “hot,” as depicted by the chili pepper stamped on her ratemyprofessors.com review.

“That just makes me smile,” she said. “But I don’t pay too much attention to it.”

Student views

On the Skidmore College campus, several students admit to using professor rating sites before embarking on a new school year.

“I wouldn’t make a move without it,” admitted a sophomore at the Saratoga Springs college.

He pointed out that he has posted positive comments about at least two of his professors in the past on several heavily trafficked sites.

“If you’re not careful, you could really get stuck with a dud. Then, what do you do? You either have to drop the class or maybe get a bad mark,” he said. “I have to admit that as a student, I tend to pay much more attention to the nice things people say on these sites. I kind of automatically take the really scathing remarks with a grain of salt. More often than not, people that write the really bad stuff have an axe to grind.”

Another Skidmore student added: “Yeah, this is the one way we have of warning our peers about teachers or, if they’re really good, singing their praises. It’s much better than word-of-mouth because you get the word out to so many more people than you could possibly do in person.”

Ursula Williams, on the other hand, said she really doesn’t give these Web sites or their content too much credence.

“I’d rather talk to someone about their experiences,” said the Union College student, who will be a senior majoring in both chemistry and English this fall. Still, Williams admits, she has visited a few of the sites just out of curiosity.

Kendall said when it comes to such sites, he tends to have faith in his student body and trusts they will not unfairly grade him, just as he would not unfairly grade any one of them.

“It comes down to trust. I trust my students,” he said.

Pick your site

Here is an overview of the most popular professor-rating Web sites.

RateMyProfessors, ratemyprofessors.com: A free service that rates nearly 1 million professors at more than 6,000 schools. Ratings include smiley faces and other expression icons for quality, using categories such as easiness, helpfulness and clarity. There’s also a section for comments, and professors are ranked by their appearance, with six chili peppers denoting a professor who is super good-looking.

ProfessorPerformance, professorperformance.com: A free service that allows users to give letter grades on such factors as coolness, ease and worth. There is also an area for extra comments about such aspects as sense of humor and enthusiasm.

Pick-a-Prof, pickaprof.com: Professors are rated with between one and five stars, and space is provided for comments about teaching style, exams and homework. Most of the info is free, but some involves a small user fee. The site also tries to get school feedback surveys. Included are professors’ grade patterns (the percentage of As to Fs a professor issues to students).

Pickaprof.com doesn’t stop at posting students’ comments. Students can also locate classes their friends are enrolled in and exchange textbooks.

“There will always be good and bad professors,” said John Williams, who occasionally takes a class at several of the area’s several community colleges.

“Who knows professors better than students that have to sit through their courses? I think these sites are invaluable, and I thank my lucky stars that I can get this kind of information. A good professor can make all the difference in the world,” he said.

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