Campus Life

Shopping for College Professors


The first thing I do when I'm looking for something to buy is to read the comments that others have posted on the various sales sites I visit, such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, etc. That also goes for when I'm going to either bid on or buy something from a place like eBay, where I look for a seller's rating comments. The same advantage exists for future or current college students, where they can find opinions about professors. Probably the most prominent of these sites is RateMyProfessors.

I've spent some time on RMP and have arrived at the same personal guidelines that I use on Amazon and other sites. I do a quick scan of the comments and then infer a trend. That is, I try to ignore the extremes of giddy happiness and bitter disappointment and get a general feel for Good, Bad or Average (which could be hit or miss). That way, I may be able to eliminate the cheerleader shills and those bent on revenge, for whatever reason.

The revengers show up on sites like Rate My Professors many times because of getting poor grades in a particular course. It's almost impossible to tell the reason a student got poor grades. Were they lazy and avoided doing the work? Did they not take advantage of the professors' availability to help through office hours or TAs? If the professor's first language was not English was s/he hard to understand? There are many subjective reasons for a bad review.

Multiple Review Sites Exist

In doing research about professor ratings sites, I was surprised to see that there are others out there beyond RMP. For example, if you look at these search results, you can discover such sites as Uloop, MyEdu and ProfessorPerformance. Had I had the advantage of something like this when I was in college, I'm sure that my passage through higher education may have been a bit less bumpy.

Before I cite some specific examples of what you can find on these opinion sites, let me voice some additional, more elaborate, words of guidance and caution about relying on them. Here are some highlights from Fastweb's What to Know about Professor Rating Websites:

- Take each opinion with a grain of salt because such extreme opinions are often biased and somewhat of an inaccurate portrayal of the professors' teaching methods.

- It's also much more common for people to write negative reviews than positive. (Think about how much you complain about services versus complimenting them, for example.)

- It's always best to read a lot of reviews to see what the general consensus is and form your own opinion, rather than just taking one opinion as fact.

- Remember, you're just getting a one-sided story. Students who complain about poor grades but didn't work to achieve higher ones doesn't really reflect on a professor's teaching style.

These cautions reflect what I mentioned about “averaging" Amazon comments. Extremely positive or negative comments can be misleading because many times they are driven by emotion rather than reason.

Pay particular attention to this advice:

- When professors rank highly on the difficulty scale, it does not mean you should avoid the course.

- Great courses are often the most challenging. In fact, some of the most boring classes are the easiest.

- A difficult course and a bad professor, on the other hand, should be avoided at all costs. It's smart to keep an eye out for courses ranked as difficult with professors that also have ratings that describe them as overly hard or as unfair graders.

- However, if the professor is ranked highly in terms of being respectful and grading fairly, it's not necessarily a class you should steer clear from. You may just need to work a little harder for your grade.

Challenging Classes Aren't Always Bad

I can speak to this from a personal perspective. I satisfied one of the distribution requirements for my college major by taking an art survey course called (something like) The History of Art. The professor, a senior faculty member, was notorious for not abiding sloth or silliness during his lectures. In fact, during one class session, which was in a large lecture hall, he noticed a young man sleeping, midway among the hundreds of attendees.

The professor was using a laser pointer to highlight details of the paintings projected on the big screen above the stage. When he noticed the snoozing student, he stopped in mid-sentence and, using his pointer like a Star Wars lightsaber, made a fast, illuminated arc that landed on sleepy's chest. He then politely asked the person sitting next to his target to awaken the offender.

Upon awakening, the sleeper was greeted by a high-volume lecture about the entitlement of youth, the dangers of capitalism and conspicuous consumption, and lack of culture in America. Apparently, all this is what sleeping in class meant to this professor. I was quite impressed with the professor's presentation (politics aside), as were the newly awakened snoozer and the rest of the class, which responded with an appreciative ovation.

This was definitely a tough course with a professor who took no prisoners, but you know what? To this day, I can comment with assured authority about Rembrandt's use of chiaroscuro in The Night Watch. I enjoyed this course as much as any I took, but had been warned that its professor was a holy terror. I'm glad that I kept an open mind ... and stayed awake!

Now that you have been brief and cautioned, let's take a look at the kinds of opinions you can find on one of these rating sites. Let's check what may be the most popular: RateMyProfessors. Ratings range from 1.0 to 5.0, much like Amazon's one-to-five-star ratings.

In order to protect the identity of the professor I've selected for this example, I'll not mention the school where s/he teaches and will obfuscate his/her gender. What you'll see, though, is how these ratings can illustrate extremes. It's similar to movie critics reviewing major motion pictures.

I always recall one headline in an article about Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey: “The critics loved it; the critics hated it!" And so it goes for these professor rating sites. You'll see what I mean by the following, which, sticking with my own experience, are from the area of art history.

The sample ratings display an overall subjective headline (“Awesome," “Good," “Poor," etc., followed by the “Overall Quality" and “Level of Difficulty" score (5.0 is tops).

This professor's overall rating: 3.6/5.0. Level of difficulty: 4.6/5.0.

- “Awesome" 4.5; 5.0:

I got an A in the class and I'm a sophomore. If you pay attention you are fine. Don't skip class, don't text during class, and talk to [the professor] outside of class. [The professor] isn't interested in handing out A's like free pizza.

- “Awful" 1.0; 5.0:

DO NOT TAKE THIS CLASS. [The professor] is mean, boring and degrading. In the class I was in, [the professor] yelled at the TA and was mean to all of us. I have a good GPA, and [the professor] talked to me like i was stupid. [The professor's] tests are rediculously [sic] hard, and [the professor] doesn't teach very well. I dropped it after a couple weeks. SAVE YOURSELF THE AGONY!

Apparently, “a good GPA" doesn't translate into being a good speller.

- “Good" 4.0; 4.0:

Definitely go to office hours! [The professor] comes across as gruff or as a jerk, but [the professor's] old, ...and most of it's really just for show. [The professor] has good ideas is smart and you'll learn a lot, but you'll have to work for it. [The professor's] helpful outside of class, but don't expect anything but plain lecture when you're there.

- “Poor" 2.0; 5.0:

[The professor] is soooooo hard. [The professor] gives you over 100 images to memorize and [the professor] chooses the most obscure images to test you on. [The professor] expects so much and yet doesn't teach you enough to write an entire essay on certain images. [The professor] is not helpfull [sic] and is very condesending [sic]. [The professor] is a really smart [professor] with an interseting [sic] perpective [sic] on what is important to teach.

There's a lot of “[sic]"ness at this school.

- “Awesome" 5.0; 5.0:

[The professor] is the reason I am pursuing my PhD in Art History. [The professor] is extremely knowledgeable, supportive (outside of class), and demanding. [The professor] has extremely high expectations for [the professor's] students. This is not an easy 'A', but nothing in life worthe [sic] having is easy.

There was one other “Awesome 5.0; 5.0" comment, but I skipped it. So, this prof scored three Awesomes, one Good, one Poor and one Awful, for an overall 3.6 rating.

This is a somewhat typical ratings curve on these sites. Students loved him/her and students hated him/her. Accordingly, maintain a balanced perspective when shopping for professors. It's sort of like taste in food. Some people love calamari, others love Big Macs. Still others enjoy both.

The best piece of shopping advice I can offer you is: Know what kind of student you are. If you love intellectual challenges, you would likely prosper in the above professor's course. If you're looking to just get by and satisfy your degree requirements, then you may judge him/her to be “awful."

However, there is the possibility that you may discover something new and exciting about a subject with which you were previously unfamiliar, taught by a learned teacher who can spark your ongoing interest, even though he or she is demanding. That's what happened to me and chiaroscuro!