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Alicia Wang / Sun Graphics and Sketch Editor

November 3, 2019

Longtime Teacher Evaluation Website RateMyProfessors Receives Mixed Ratings from Cornellians

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In its two decades of existence, the website RateMyProfessor.com has become notorious on college campuses. While some students turn to the review site for informal evaluations of their prospective professors, many criticize the site as unfairly biased and unrepresentative.

As students begin to choose classes for the upcoming semester, with pre-enrollment for undergraduates starting on Nov. 4, Cornellians are doing their own ratings of RateMyProfessor — and the reviews are mixed.

Becky Borrazzo ’22 started using RateMyProfessor to help choose classes in her first year, when she didn’t have a network of peers to tap for class recommendations. It hasn’t always been successful, though, she admitted.

Borrazzo generally uses the site to pick classes outside of her major’s requirements, for which she has more flexibility in choosing. For those courses, it’s especially important for her to enjoy the class, which is heavily influenced by which professor is teaching.

“There are so many options when you’re looking at extra classes,” Borrazzo said. “I use it to help narrow it down … But it’s not the end all, be all.”

There are a few key words Borrazzo looks for when parsing RateMyProfessor reviews, rather than looking just at the average score. If reviewers write that a class made them want to take more classes from the same professor, she knows it’s a good sign.

The site allows students numerous predetermined options to describe their professors, too, including “inspirational,” “hilarious,” “accessible outside of class” and “tough grader.”

But Borrazzo admits that it’s not the best system. A lot of the classes are big lectures, without much face-time with the professor, and reviewers are ultimately strangers who Borazzo doesn’t know if she can trust, or who might not have the same interests.

For Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, RateMyProfessor has numerous benefits, filling in the gaps that exist when students don’t have free access to evaluation data. He thinks that students deserve to know how past students felt about their professors and that the pressure encourages professors to improve.

“In general, I’ve always complained that student evaluations are not made public,” he said. “Absent a public, accessible evaluation system in the University, [RateMyProfessor] is the second best thing we can have.”

Katzenstein, who has taught at Cornell since 1973, actively encourages his students to review him on the site, whether they give positive feedback or not. With 139 ratings, Katzenstein boasts an overall rating of 4.3 out of 5.

“I think it’s of value; I think students are quite responsible on the whole and get professors right,” Katzenstein said.

Katzenstein admits that some abnormalities appear in the online ratings, but that it’s true of the official course evaluations as well.

But not all faculty are quite so optimistic about RateMyProfessor’s assets.

Prof. Simone Pinet, romance studies, said in an email to The Sun that she hesitates to read reviews on RateMyProfessor, based on “extensive research on gender and racial biases on all kinds of evaluations.”

Up until 2018, reviews included a chili pepper “hotness” rating. After professors criticized the site for “contributing to a poor academic climate for women,” RateMyProfessor eliminated the feature, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Beyond the gendered and racialized language in the reviews, other Cornell professors warn against RateMyProfessor as unrepresentative on the whole — having overly emotional responses, thin data and no checks on if the student actually took the class.

“[Online evaluations] are weighted toward (and written by) disgruntled people,” Prof. Jane-Marie Law, Asian studies, said in an email to The Sun. “A person dislikes a professor (and the reasons a person may dislike a professor can range from the very legitimate to the crazy) or gets a bad grade and writes a scathing review.”

Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education, similarly explained that RateMyProfessor ultimately does not represent the experiences of all students who took a given course.

“My reality is not RateMyProfessor,” Prof. Pedro Pérez, applied economics and management, said. “During the last 20 years, I have taught close to 20,000 students. So what you’re basically saying is that these 1 of every 100 [students] are representing who I am.”

On RateMyProfessor, no Cornell professor has more than 250 total ratings.

Pérez makes a point to get as many official evaluations as possible, because he uses them as valuable feedback. However, when cross-examining those evaluation results with the ratings on RateMyProfessor, he finds the online reviews “harsh.”

While Law, Nishii and Pérez agree with Katzenstein that student evaluations are valuable, both to professors and students, they maintain their hesitations about RateMyProfessor.

“I think it is great that there are places students can share discussions of faculty, but the criteria on Rate My Professor seem thin,” Law said. “The data set is too random to be truly useful.”

To address these varying opinions, Nishii told The Sun about her work on the course evaluations.

“I have convened a committee to evaluate both the content and use of student evaluations of teaching at Cornell,” Nishii said. “Among other things, we are discussing appropriate mechanisms for sharing student feedback with students who may be interested in taking the course in the future.”