What happens when students rate their teachers online.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 17 2005 1:59 PM

The Hottest Professor on Campus

What happens when students rate their teachers online.

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Dear Professors, the college students of America are silently judging you. While you are nattering on in lecture, they are clicking over to RateMyProfessors.com —remember, more than 42 percent of college classrooms now have wireless—and assessing your performance. As of yesterday, the site had 4.5 million ratings of 676,416 professors. They've been grading you on "easiness," "helpfulness," and "clarity." And if they think you're hot, they award you a red chili pepper, which appears next to your name. It also adds one point to your "Hotness Total." Perhaps you've already looked at the site and checked out your rating. If you haven't, let me save you some time. All across this great collegiate land, students want pretty much the same things.

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Don't play favorites, yet don't deny students extra credit or a second chance on a paper or test. Don't "get sidetracked by boring crap." Don't refer to yourself in the third person. Don't ever call on students. Don't be "mean," "hateful," or "ambiguous." Don't take attendance. Don't be "high on Viagra and full of yourself." Don't be "distractingly spastic." Very important: Don't talk about stuff in class and then put other stuff on the test. Most important: Don't give low grades. Do show slides. Do offer easy assignments. Do crack jokes and "provide a fun teaching atmosphere." Do show up at your office hours. Do give A's on all group projects. Do walk your dog around campus. Do resemble a celebrity of some sort. Finally, try your best to be "awesome."

The uncomfortable truth for the non-hot is that hotness is important. A hot professor can have a powerful effect on a student. Here is but one example of a potential intellectual awakening inspired by hotness: "I never had her class, but supposedly she is a hot 50 year old . . . what could be bad." Students write about hot professors who are "the only reason to get out of bed in the morning." They also express desires to take classes with certain hot professors "forever." A hot professor can leave a student weak, unable even to hit the shift key: "so hot. so so hot." Even if you occasionally wander off topic—say, to discuss a conversation you had with Woody Allen that inspired a scene in Manhattan (yes, we're talking about you, Renata Adler, at Boston University)—well, hotness can make up for that.

Not that you asked, but language departments appear to have the hottest professors. They also have the best dancers. Professors at the big state universities and community colleges garner the most ratings. Some famous professors—John McPhee at Princeton, Henry Louis Gates at Harvard—don't turn up in the ratings at all. (Although you do uncover a cult figure here and there.)

The overall top-rated professors can be found at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Fla. This is not a sailing school; it caters to computer animation and video-game jockeys. The most academically elite college in the top 10 is Amherst College, where students rave about professors whose voice "touched me to the quick" and who are also "damn smart." At the bottom currently lies Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., a Catholic liberal arts institution, where one teacher is described as a "dictator" prepared to "destroy you." The lower-ranked schools tend to be in cold places, while the upper reaches are flush with California schools. Never underestimate the educational power of a healthy tan.

Distressed by your ratings? Remember—as demonstrated by your fellow marketing professors—people who are compelled to rate things online have usually had a strong emotional response, i.e., they either hated you or loved you. For every student complaining that "this is the most boring class ive ever taken ... she is too much of a hippie and needs to occasionally wear a bra," there is another who will write, "Clone her as the model of a Perfect Prof!" And, if it makes you feel any better, a casual read through the ratings turns up a lot of suspect data. I doubt, for example, that a professor named "Homer Saxshual" really teaches art history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. I also doubt that the student who took Joyce Carol Oates' writing seminar at Princeton was being truthful when he or she wrote, "Brooke Shields told me this was a great blow off class."

RateMyProfessors.com probably isn't all that useful to most students, who will continue picking classes the way they've always done: by listening to friends, by avoiding 9 a.m. lectures, and, yes, by satisfying their intellectual curiosity. But student evaluations have a place in academia—a RateMyProfessors exercise of a more considered sort just took place at Harvard, where the students made it clear in a curricular review that their star professors were too removed; they asked for more seminars and "small class settings." No one wants to reduce college education to a consumer experience, but the Harvard study suggests, professors, that perhaps you need to pay more attention to the product you're peddling.

And, while the student comments on RateMyProfessors.com may be akin to scrawlings in the library stacks, that doesn't mean students don't have anything useful to say or that you should take your cues from Stanley Fish, the dean at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who writes about throwing his student evaluations, unopened, into the trash. The take-away impression of RateMyProfessors.com is that students want you to be organized, fair, accessible, and reasonably interesting. When you think about it, that's kind of hot.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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