Phi Beta Cons

A Taste of Reality

One of the more amusing recurring elements of Scott Jaschik’s excellent Inside Higher Ed is the occasional professors’ screed against RateMyProfessors.com. The most recent version of this rant discusses the high correlation between easy grading and high scores on “Rate.” The previous screed (linked above) discussed the relationship between high scores and professors’ “hotness.” For both columns, the theme is the same: “Rate” harms higher education by placing such random factors as “hotness” or easy grading over quality of instruction and depth of learning. Money quote:

A rate[d] professor is likely to feel like a contestant on “American Idol,” standing there smiling while the results from the viewing audience are totaled. What do any of them learn? Nothing, except that everything from the peculiarities of their personalities to, ah, the shine of their shoes, counts. But of course as professors we knew this already. Didn’t we? Of course it might always be good to learn it all over again. But not at a site where nobody’s particular class has any weight; not in a medium in which everybody’s words float free; and not from students whose comments guarantee nothing except their own anonymity. I’ll bet some of them even wear dirty shoes.

Well . . . welcome to the real world. If a professor thinks it is frustrating to be judged on the quality of their shoes or the ease of their course, ask a lawyer how it feels to know that the guilt or innocence of their client will be judged by such seemingly random criteria as the lawyer’s suit or the look on the client’s face during testimony. (And isn’t personal liberty far more important than quality student evaluations?) Ask a politician whether it is fair that their bold policy ideas may or may not be as important to the public as their rugged good looks and ability to turn a phrase on “The Factor.” Or, for the most glaring injustice of all: Why does this company have so much less market share than this company?
But here is the interesting part: In the aggregate, all of these seemingly random evaluations actually add up to something important. Ask almost any veteran trial judge, and he’ll tell you that juries almost always seem to get it right. The democratic process may yield Bill Clinton, but it also can result in Ronald Reagan (and we haven’t yet elected a Saddam Hussein). Apple may be better than Microsoft, but Bill Gates was empirically better than Steve Jobs at planning and executing a marketing strategy.
One final note: A professor commenting on the huge importance that students place on “easy” grades should not just express frustration but also pause for a little institutional self-examination. Don’t wild fluctuations in grading practices from class to class present an institutional problem? Doesn’t this variability encourage the rational student to shop for maximum return on their investment? So who is at fault here, the institution that provides incentives to shop for low-effort/high-grade classes, or the students who respond to that incentive?

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