Of course I have heard (a lot) about that wondrous website, ratemyprofessors.com, but I have not been tempted to examine its contents. I think I looked at it briefly about 10 years ago when it first came into existence, but I didn't find it particularly interesting or illuminating, and did not return.
I looked at it recently, however, because I was semi-horrified to see a link appear on Facebook to the ratemyprofessors.com page of one of my colleague-friends. A student who is a "friend" of my colleague-friend had posted the link so that it showed up in the FB feeds of all the colleague-friend's friends. The student had done this to show his professor-friend how great the ratings were for a recent class my colleague taught, so the link was posted out of admiration and affection.
Even so, would I want a link to my evaluations on ratemyprofessors to appear on FB? Unlike my colleague-friend, I no longer friend (on FB) my undergraduate students, so this is unlikely to happen to me, but still I wondered: Would I want my (real) friends to see my teaching evaluations? Of course anyone can look these up at anytime, but I doubt most people would, unless a handy link appeared in their FB feed one day.
So I looked. My evaluations are quite nice; I need not lie awake at night in fear that a link will be posted on Facebook. The only surprise was how few there are, despite the large number of students I have taught in recent years. From the frequency with which ratemyprofessors.com is mentioned in articles and conversation, I thought that there would be more evaluations for someone who has taught as many students as I have.
I'm not sure what this means, but I have an unoriginal hypothesis, developed when I looked at the ratings for a colleague who had recently lamented the sorry state of his ratemyprofessor evaluations.
This colleague is an excellent teacher. The last time he taught a big intro class, the students clapped at the end of his last lecture. He got very positive (official) teaching evaluations. Nearly 100% of the students would take a class from him again. Students who hadn't expected to like the course instead found it interesting. The students loved him and were very happy with the class. Not one of them went to ratemyprofessors.com and wrote about this.
A few years ago, however, this same colleague was asked to team-teach the same course with a younger professor who was struggling with teaching. The course had some rough spots related to the times when the struggling professor was teaching, but my colleague worked hard to keep the course on track and to make it interesting (in terms of content) and fair (in terms of grades). The course was not a disaster, but it was not great. Quite a few students were inspired to go to ratemyprofessors.com and rant in a rather hostile way.
I can understand that students in this course may have had some difficulty separating the teaching abilities of the two different professors. To the students, it was one course, and they blamed both professors for the disorganization of one.
What is too bad is that the students in the later, excellent course were not similarly inspired to broadcast their happiness with their professor's outstanding teaching. If you only look at the evaluations for this professor on ratemyprofessors.com, you would not be tempted to take a course with this professor. That would be too bad, because he is an excellent teacher.
Of course, some professors do get rave reviews on ratemyprofessors.com. I was reading recently about the instructors who have the top ratings on this site, so there are some students somewhere who are sufficiently inspired by the excellence of their teachers to provide positive ratings.
At some universities, websites such as this may be the only way that students can get information (however flawed) about a particular professor. At other universities, the official teaching evaluations are available to students. I wonder if there is a difference in ratemyprofessors.com participation at different universities as a function of whether official teaching evaluations are available or not.
There are pros and cons of having official teaching evaluations made available to students, but at least these evaluations are a bit more comprehensive in terms of who participates. Or at least they used to be, back when evaluations were mostly done on paper in class, thereby capturing all those who weren't skipping class on the day of the evaluations. Now that many evaluations are done online, participation levels have dropped. Now that students can do evaluations anytime, anywhere, many don't.
The fear is that only those students who are unhappy -- perhaps the same ones who would be inspired to go to ratemyprofessors.com to share their complaints -- will now dominate the official (online) evaluations.
I personally have not experienced a downturn in evaluations, in part because I make a concerted effort to get students to do the online evaluations. I repeatedly remind the students (in class and by e-mail) about the evaluations, I request specific information in the evaluations, I explain why the evaluations are useful, and I share the %completion number with the class, showing the number increasing day by day. I typically end up with 80-100% participation, depending on class size (100% for small classes, closer to 80% for larger classes).
With these numbers, I can get a reasonably balanced view of how a course went, to the extent that one can get that sort of information from teaching evaluations.
It seems that we are all supposed to want to share everything about our lives with all our friends, but I guess I'm not quite on board with that yet. I am happy to share all sorts of information with my friends, but, however (mostly) positive my teaching evaluations are, I'd still rather not see a link to them appear one day on Facebook, wedged in between one friend's many graphic veterinary woes (TMI for dogs) and another's daily note to Jesus.
My evaluations might make more interesting reading for my friends than how I felt about my flight delays this spring owing to Icelandic volcanic ash (there are worse reasons for flight delays) or whether I liked the most recent books I read (The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, and yes, in fact, I loved it; also The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte.. both excellent books), but, if I have a choice in this particular case (and I may not), I'd still rather not share this aspect of my professional life with anyone other than my department chair and a few hundred students.
9 months ago