Too much is never enough

Mon 22 Jan 2007 07:59 AM

The short version: was recently acquired by MTV. This is something of which we academics should be aware, and perhaps it is a cause for concern.

The long version: I have known about the website for several years. Visitors to the site rate their professors for easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. They can also add brief comments.*

I have always considered the site a curiousity. I learn from the entry on me that, although I am a "loud dresser", I am "awesome." Who can argue with the accuracy of that?

Admittedly students want and can use this kind of information. Students do share information like this informally, but on a campus with over ten thousand students that kind of testimony is not always readily available. At UCSD, my grad alma mater, the Course and Professor Evalations are systematically summarized and made available to students. UAlbany does not do anything comparable.

Regardless, the information on ratemyprofessor suffers from serious sample selection problems. There is no reason to believe that the dozen students who have commented on me, for example, are anything like a representative sample of the hundreds of students that I have taught. My more senior colleagues have comments from people who admit they are commenting on a course they took more than a decade ago, and there is nothing to stop non-students from posting any sort of fabrication.

There is also a certain frivolous tone about it. In addition to rating courses for 'easiness', students can assign chili peppers to professors that they think are 'hot'. Beth Davison (also here and here) complains that this sexualizes the role of the professor. I can't imagine any students taking the chili peppers seriously, however, and informal gossip often does include that kind of information. Any professor who cared about their number of chili peppers would already be a bit messed up.**

Still, it would worrisome if an unrepresentative and deliberately somewhat frivolous resource came to play an important part in campus life. Last week it was announced that MTV has acquired ratemyprofessor. I do not think that it will serve as a beachhead from which MTV is able to conquer campus. I do, however, worry that MTV has no interest at all in having ratemyprofessor be a useful source of information. When there are already jibes about "sexualizing of the professorial environment", the entry of MTV onto the scene is hardly reassuring.

* Bill Sledzik, who welcomes MTV's acquisition of the site, says that it "works the same as Wikipedia." This is not quite right. Users of the Wikipedia can edit the contributions of other users, producing one aggregate document. Users of ratemyprofessor can only add an additional line to the professors rating. They can respond to other comments, and they do, but they cannot directly edit comments from other users. I address such fora in an old paper.

** My dismissiveness has nothing to do with the fact that I have zero chili peppers.


from: Bill Sledzik

Sun 28 Jan 2007 08:58 AM


Sorry it took me a while to jump back in on this topic. Long week full of classes -- and those pesky students. But you know about that.

Point taken. I do recognize that RMP is not a wiki at all. But I also believe that as more students use the site, it will become a sort of self-correcting aggregate.

Of course, it'd never work as a wiki. I'd be paying my PR people to edit all the bad posts!