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Professor-rating site receives poor marks

The most interesting part of writing a column for over a year and a half is the e-mail I receive. This feedback has ranged from agreement to disagreement to even the occasional e-mail that has nothing to do with what I have written. Recently, I even received one that suggested I should sign a petition to fire a professor of whom I have never heard.

The author claims this professor is horrible. As justification for their claim they cite, which states on its Web site, “numerous complaints at how ineffective, unclear and horrible” this professor seems to be. Putting aside the fact that I would not judge the quality of a professor based on a student I do not even know, negative comments on a professor-grading Web site do little to sway my opinion.

If you have been around this campus for a while, certainly you know about Founded in 1999 by a software engineer in Silicon Valley, the site has grown in popularity. In a column about the Web site by a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, the author indicates that there were “11,000 ratings for 3,500 professors in 2001,” while when I checked the Web site Wednesday there were over 3.5 million ratings for some 574,000 professors.

Although critical of the premise of the Web site, I recently looked at the comments of some of my previous professors. I did this for entertainment value and to see, after completing a semester with these professors, whether my views fell in line with any consensus.

The first thing I learned was that there was no consensus on any of the professors whom I viewed. One gets the impression that if you did well in the course, you were more likely to be flowing in your praise, while if you ran into difficulty, the professor was to blame. In this sense, it is merely a popularity contest.

The Web site loses even more credibility with a feature in which reviewers can signify whether a professor is hot or not, the results of which are indicated by a chili-pepper icon.

There were plenty of ratings of my professors with positive comments such as, “Best professor ever. Lectures are engaging and challenging,” as well as the more critical ones that said, “Very poor teacher. Quite obvious never studied education at all.”

The comments were also sometimes comical, as in the case of a student who substantiated a poor marking by stating, “His tests are semi-hard.” And somehow this is a bad thing? I guess if your expectations are that good professors make easy tests you would have this view.

In the end, students shouldn’t abandon looking at these Web sites, but should put them in proper and limited perspective. These comments represent those students with the strongest-held beliefs about their professors, and by no means do they indicate a median view of the quality of a professor.

So where should you go to get credible information about professors? One way is to look at journals and read their current research and scholarly articles. I know, this doesn’t sound too cool or may be too time consuming, but it does allow a student to learn about a professor’s interests and expertise. While sharing an interest with a faculty member does not mean that they will necessarily be a good teacher, it may make the subject more palatable.

Also, remember those green and white bubble sheets that invariably are passed out at the end of the semester? If you go to the Student Government Web site you can see the cumulative percentages of these markings for a particular professor. The downside is that this amounts to a huge data dump without student comments. But we have nobody to blame but ourselves; how many students really take those bubble sheets seriously?

Perhaps the easiest and safest way is not to listen to others on Web sites or in person and just find out for yourself. A professor who someone thought was too hard due to lack of preparation on their part may turn out to be your favorite.

Avoidance of a professor based on other’s comments may work for introductory courses with several different professor options, but what are you going to do when only one professor teaches an upper-level requirement? Make the best of it; others have succeeded before you.