By Hollyn Scott
March 2, 2004: “Knew the material very well, so she did a good job of lecturing. Also she’s pretty funny, so she keeps the class atmosphere stimulating.”
This was the very first RateMyProfessors.com post for University of Georgia political science professor Dr. Audrey Haynes. Fast-forward 11 years, and Haynes is not only one of the most ranked professors at the university (she has 162 ratings), but also among the most highly rated, showcasing an impressive 4.7 out of 5 overall quality score.
The story is much different for Dr. Kris McWhite, who sits just a few minutes away at his office on the fifth floor of Brooks Hall, which holds the offices of many of the University of Georgia economics professors.
McWhite received his first RateMyProfessors.com review on Oct 24, 2014. It reads: “McWhite is the absolute worst teacher. His class consists of his TERRIBLE sense of humor, usually discriminating and offensive jokes towards students. He offers no actual helpful information in class. Do not take him even if it’s your last option! They should have let his TA teach in his place.”
In just three semesters at the university, McWhite has received 50 reviews for a relatively low overall quality rating of 2.0.
Haynes and McWhite are only two small fish in a sea of over 1.4 million professors who have been added onto the site by students across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Software engineer John Swapceinski originally founded the website as TeacherRatings.com in 1999, but changed the name to RateMyProfessors.com in 2001. The website was bought by William DeSantis and Patrick Nagle in 2005, who resold it just two years later to its current owner, Viacom’s mtvU.
Now 16-years-old, RateMyProfessors.com is listed as one of the 10,000 most popular websites in the world, receiving approximately 38,986 page views a day and having a website worth of $896,538.
Publications have both praised and criticized the website.
In 2008, TIME magazine listed RateMyProfessors.com among the 50 best websites writing, “Whether you’re deciding between French teachers or you just want to vent about last semester’s lousy history lecturer, Rate My Professors is the place to go.”
Contrastingly, a 2012 USA Today article dismisses the website’s helpfulness saying, “The categories used by RateMyProfessor are vague and fail to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of things that are important.”
The categories in which a student may rank a professor on a scale from one to five are Helpfulness, Clarity, Easiness and Hotness. The website’s Help page explains, “The average of a professor’s Helpfulness and Clarity ratings determines the type of ‘smiley face’ the professor gets. The Easiness and Hotness ratings are not included in the Overall Quality calculation.” Professors will have a “green face” for a high score, a “yellow face” for an average score, or a “red face” for a bad score. Students can also provide the grade they received in a particular professor’s course, which can then be calculated into the Average Grade display.
Despite the name, professors aren’t the only ones being rated on RateMyProfessors.com. Users also have the option of rating and leaving comments about specific universities to help incoming freshman decide which school will be best for them. The categories for rating universities are: Reputation, Internet, Opportunity, Campus, Social, Location, Food, Library, Clubs, and Happiness. The rating for these categories are compiled into an overall quality rating which is used to determine the website’s annual Highest-Rated Universities List.
The University of Georgia came out at number eight on the list for the 2014-2015 school year. Its highest-rated category was Campus with a 4.7 out of 5 rating and its lowest-rated category was Internet, with a 3.8 rating.
Although UGA is ranked among the website’s top 10 universities, not all the reviews posted to its page are positive. In a post from Aug 31, 2015, one user writes, “It is an ok state school if you just wanted to party and drink here. Most students are like this. It is virtually unknown outside of Georgia. UGA and GSU are basically the same school. If you live in Atlanta, I suggest u go to GSU, for you do not even have to dorm and have a meal plan. The only schoolsworth attending in Georgia are Emory and GT.” Despite this negatively charged comment, most users seem to have a good relationship with UGA, writing things like, “If you get accepted into the University of Georgia, YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY GO! There’s nothing finer in the land,” and “There are so many opportunities for the diverse race of people and the experience is not one to miss. I have too much pride in this school and that’s because it has provided me with so many fun things.” But one student in particular seems to sums it up best, posting, “Love my classes and campus life, my professors want me to succeed and dining halls are bae. Especially ECV and the Niche.”
According to the website’s FAQ page, “User-generated content makes RateMyProfessors.com the highest trafficked site for quickly researching and rating professors.”
Clearly, RateMyProfessors.com has built a reputation for being the authority when it comes to professor ratings and reviews, but just how significant of a role does it actually play for professors seeking feedback and students looking to find the best professors? In an attempt to answer this question, McWhite and Haynes, along with several University of Georgia students, agreed to lend their perspectives.
Dr. Kris McWhite:
While leaning back in his office chair and unwrapping a piece of hard candy, McWhite explains, “Generally speaking, you could ask a lot of them [other professors] and they’d probably say, ‘Yeah I know it exists and I haven’t been on it in long time,’” nonchalantly adding, “The last time I heard someone mention something about it, it was in a joke.”
McWhite would probably find it bizarre that a 2006 article about RateMyProfessors.com from The Chronicle of Higher Education found that of the more than 50 professors interviewed for the story, “nearly every one had either manipulated the site or knew someone who had.” One of the professors interviewed, Mathew L. Julius, says, “The world is littered with professors who’ve said they don’t check it but do” and admits that he is a culprit of this manipulation, but posted his fake review only to “amuse his graduate students.” He cops to writing the comment on his page that reads, “Dr. Julius is the single greatest instructor that has ever graced a classroom. His patience and kindess can only be truely appreciated once you’ve seen the raggedy and motely group of students that he lets work in his lab” (the misspelled words were made deliberately in order to make the review seem more believable).
Although an overwhelming number of users advise students to “NEVER TAKE THIS PROFESSOR,” several users share a completely opposite opinion of McWhite’s teaching methods.
Right below a user’s comment that reads, “Tests are impossible and he is no help,” is another comment reading, “I really enjoyed his class! A lot of interesting useful information that I can apply outside of class. Just read and come to class everyday and you should be prepared for the tests. If you’re ever confused about something just ask he’ll clarify.”
McWhite understands that in a lecture class of 300, there are going to be differing attitudes about his teaching style, this is why he does not consider the website to be a significant source of feedback. “If everything is all in one direction, I think there’s information there. When it’s in both directions, I think you have to take it with a grain of salt,” he says.
Because McWhite’s profile is littered with comments from both ends of the spectrum, he believes student course evaluations administered by the university are a better resource for professors looking to improve. “I’m fully aware that there are certain things I can improve on,” he says, “but if you’re looking for real information, evaluations are probably a better place.”
A 2007 study conducted by the University of Maine, however, might make McWhite think twice about disregarding the information available on the website. The study used 426 professors at the university to examine the relationship between their ratings on RateMyProfessors.com and their formal in-class student evaluations. The key finding was that, “RateMyProfessors.com ratings have a significant correlation with the formal student evaluations on the questions about the overall quality of the course and the relative difficulty or ease of the course.”
McWhite applies the same principle that unless most or all the reviews point in the same direction, the information available for students researching which professors to take is not useful. He explains, “You have the people who are looking at it from the perspective of, ‘I’m looking for the easiest way out’. If someone posts this is the easiest class, you might be getting it from a student who does all the work.” Because of the disparities in how one student may judge easiness compared to another, McWhite recommends students seek an alternative resource. He suggests, “Whether you’re looking for the easiest class or the class that best matches your style of learning, probably the best way to go is to ask people you know.”
Dr. Audrey Haynes:
In an office decorated with numerous teaching awards, a self-portrait (it looks JUST like her), and various political campaign buttons (most of them for Democratic candidates), sits political science professor Haynes.
“I’m going to throw this cup away,” she says picking up a Jimmy John’s cup on the corner of her cluttered desk, “It’s been sitting in here for 15 years.” When she comes back she jumps right into her thoughts about the website.
“I read my Rate My Professors to get a sense of how well the class went overall. I know I’ve done a good job if at least four or five people after a class log on and go, ‘I learned a lot, it was a great class.’”
Although Haynes is more interested in her RateMyProfessors.com profile than McWhite, she does agree that student evaluations are a better source for feedback. Haynes does not rely on online evaluations provided by the university, she creates her own evaluations and hands them out on the final day of class, a day when students are required to attend.
“I ask specific questions. With Rate My Professors you’re basically getting a thermometer rating: Did they like you or did they hate you? They’re communicating to their peers, they’re not communicating to you.” She continues with an insightful analogy, “It’s just like any restaurant. People who really love it get on Yelp. People who really hate it get on Yelp. The people who were in the middle who thought it was pretty good, they don’t really get on there. It’s not really an average rating, it’s an extreme.”
Haynes is often described on the website as being “Concerned and caring like your Aunt” and as having, “A good heart for her students,” which mimics the results found in a recent RateMyProfessors.com study.
The study, conducted in February 2015 by Northeastern University professor Benjamin Schmidt, used roughly 14 million reviews from RateMyProfessors.com to create a searchable database that revealed the disparities between the words used to describe male and female professors. Schmidt concludes that the database shows, “Men are more likely to be judged on an intelligence scale, while women are more likely to be judged on a nurturing scale.” Although Haynes’s profile seems to confirm these results, her page contradicts the findings in another study.
James Felton, a professor of finance and law at Central Michigan University, conducted a study in 2006 that looked at nearly 7,000 RateMyProfessors.com ratings from 370 institutions in the United States and Canada. His study concluded that, “The hotter and easier professors are, the more likely they’ll get rated as a good teacher.”
Along with not receiving a chili pepper for Hotness, many students give Haynes a five for both Helpfulness and Clarity, but give her a one or a two for Easiness. One student writes, “She does really make you work for a good grade.” Another student echoes this sentiment writing, “Learned a lot, but had to work.”
“They believe students shop for the easiest classes…sometimes I think that’s not necessarily true,” says Haynes.
To get a feel for the creative kind of reviews Haynes receives on the website, the latest rating on her profile reads, “There are two things that would without a doubt ruin America: Trump becomes president or Dr. Haynes stops teaching. She injects experience and a genuine care for her students into her teaching. I wish I took her courses earlier!”
When asked if she had seen this comment, Haynes admits with a laugh, “I like to look at my Rate My Professor every now and then to make me feel good.”
Observing a single class taught by both McWhite and Haynes could not confirm or deny that McWhite is a “TERRIBLE” professor or that Haynes is “caring like your aunt,” but the students in Haynes’s class appeared much more engaged than in McWhite’s. While the students in Haynes’s undergraduate political science course were eager to raise their hands and create a dialogue, many of the students in McWhite’s undergraduate economics lecture were more preoccupied with scrolling through their Twitter feeds on their cell phones and laptops.
The University of Georgia students interviewed for this story had some unique perspectives on the validity of the website.
“My experience with Rate My Professor hasn’t always been accurate with what people have reviewed about them. My accounting teacher this semester had an awful rating on the website, but he is like the best teacher I’ve ever had,” says University of Georgia senior, Bailey Toombs.
Another senior, Hadley Langston says, “For the most part my teachers have been pretty close to the reviews I’ve read on Rate My Professor. I used to check on there a lot for my core classes and read the reviews but as I’ve gotten into major classes I’ve used it less because they don’t have all of the teachers on it.”
Anne Holland, a third year special education major, points out why most of the students in her major don’t have much use for the website. “I never really saw the point because we have the same ten or so professors for special education and because I don’t get a choice of professors there really isn’t a point in looking them up or making comments about them,” she says.
In the UGA library, Sophomore Andrew Daily looks up from his biology textbook to sum up his thoughts about RateMyProfessors.com, simply stating, “If a teacher has a red face, I won’t take them. If a teacher has a green face, I will take them. Obviously they are doing something right.”