This started out as a companion post to Teaching Unwaged Workers below, but has also morphed into a response to a post by Tenured Radical about RateMyProfessors (RMP) -- the infamous site that collects anonymous student ratings and comments about faculty. My starting premise is that the current state of student evaluations is simply another symptom of students' unacknowledged status as unwaged workers and, like so many symptoms, it is unlikely to be cured without addressing the underlying pathology. But to get from here to there, let me start with some of the issues raised by Tenured Radical.
One of Tenured Radical's chief concerns about RMP is the fact that just anyone can write and post a review of a professor, even folks who aren't students.
what this means is that anyone can register as anyone and leave an evaluation -- for anyone -- that says anything. That's right. You could do it from prison if you had internet privileges, or from Afghanistan, if you were just farting around in between avoiding the Taliban.Now, I have enough worries in my life without the added concern that anti-Taliban refugees might be gaming my student evaluations. For this to rise to the level of an actual concern for me, I would need some evidence that these sorts of abuses are actually having a real impact on the site.
This is from last week's Inside Higher Ed:
Last year, a scholarly study found a high correlation between RateMyProfessors.com and a university’s own system of student evaluations. Now, a new study is finding a high correlation between RateMyProfessors and a student evaluation system used nationally. ... The similarities were such that, the journal article says, they offer “preliminary support for the validity of the evaluations on RateMyProfessors.com.”This certainly matches my own anecdotal evidence. The comments I get online at RateMyProfessors are very similar to the ones I get in my more traditional student evaluations. And that seems to be true for many of my colleagues as well. If you think that student evaluations have a part to play in teaching assessment, then RMP may be as useful as any other survey instrument we have, even given the absence of any specific sampling controls.
However, further down in the article comes this interesting observation:
For his part, Sonntag [one of the authors of the study] acknowledged that some RateMyProfessors.com reviews are “so mean-spirited” that they aren't worth anyone’s time. But he said that if you cast those aside, there are valuable lessons to be learned.This, I think, is really the point Tenured Radical objects to. It's that the comments on RMP can be so mean-spirited -- coupled with the fact that they are so very public. But why does this vitriol creep into our student evaluations? Where does it come from?
We like to imagine that we are reviewed by students in much the way we review books in our own fields. What matters is the content and ideas, with perhaps some occasional remarks on the style and presentation. But we would never comment on the way an author dressed, or if we thought they were "hot." We are not literature though. We aren't even pulp fiction. And the reviews we receive from our students are not reviews of our self-worth as human beings in any case even though we often tend to experience them that way.
Instead, we are reviewed more like bosses. And our teaching evaluations read much more like the reviews we write about our own Department Chairs and Deans than the reviews we write about scholarly books in our field. What this should point out to us, is that our relationship with our students is not simply one of teacher to student but that it is also colored by the relationship of boss to worker -- and boss to very poorly paid worker at that. Given this, I think it speaks well for our profession that we aren't more universally loathed by our students. That students resist the conditions of their work is unsurprising. That they find avenues to share their experiences with each other online on sites like RMP is also unsurprising. But if we are truly serious about addressing this particular symptom of student dissatisfaction, then we need to take a serious look at the material conditions of our students' lives in the academy that cause them to react like overworked and underpaid employees.