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Short, Brave Life of Rate Your Students

Graphic by Enrico Varrasso
November 28, 2010
The Short, Brave Life of Rate Your Students.
by W.T. Pfefferle
for The Chronicle of Higher Education

In November of 2005, spurred by a distaste for the anonymous ratings on RateMyProfessors.com, a liberal-arts professor from somewhere in the American South started a blog called Rate Your Students. The first post read: "We will rate our students here. And we will do it without compunction. Then we'll just see where we're at. We'll still be poor academics. But at least those callous and ignorant 'customers' of ours will know what it's like."

Slowly, faculty members from around the country began to find the page, and the founder—"the Professor"—started posting their e-mails. Professors shared student excuses, from the banal "dead Grandma" to the exotic "I left my homework inside my mascot costume." No students were named. Professors, colleges, and identifying details were changed. Right from the beginning the site was raw and shocking. Someone wrote about a student-athlete: "He's never prepared for class, and he mostly shows up so he can run his mouth into the sweet ear of that sorority candy who sits next to him. I'd just like him to write his own paper once. Or at least crack the spine of that $40 textbook. I'd like to smack his smug face." Others saw students' misbehavior as evidence of a system that was in trouble: "All I want students to do is try. It's all I ask. I just want to see that they give a damn, and that they're willing to be a part of their own educational process."

A flurry of national press helped the blog reach thousands of page views per day. Each day the site published a new set of complaints. Professors went on the attack, releasing the day's frustrations or, in some cases, years of pent-up rage. Parents who found the page demanded to know where various posters taught so that their sons and daughters would never have to take a class with someone so angry.

Some students wrote to complain. They were misunderstood, they said, and the site was unfair: "Why rate us? You already give us grades." One such note had a profound impact on the site's readers. The student wrote: "If you really want to understand what it's like to have professors like you grade us, rate us, poke us, and prod us every day, take a walk in my shoes. My major field adviser is a stinking drunk. I can smell his scotch or whatever every time I walk in to his office. I have to smile so he fills out my forms, even though he makes me sick to my stomach. My psychology professor tries to look up my skirt when I wear one. He hardly even pretends to do it casually. ... While you're all getting your jollies picking on students, please realize we're not all the same, and not all of us deserve your scorn."

The post reminded many Rate Your Students readers that the students being rated were real, not just anonymous punching bags. The idea of simply skewering them was limiting.

The tenor of the page began to evolve. A reader who expressed mixed emotions about the site gave this advice: "Bitch, moan, vent, shake fist at heavens. Please do. Because teaching is a human interaction and it affects us just like any other human interaction. But then get on with it, stay open to them. ... The ones with talent, dedication, and drive, they need and want our guidance, advice, and tutelage."

In June 2006, the Professor wrote in Times Higher Education about the change that the page was undergoing: "Academics who had reacted earlier from frustration by calling their students 'dimwits' were now writing about ways to fix things."

A professor in New England wrote a manifesto to his future students: "If I ask you to read a book, or go to a gallery, or watch a video, I really mean it. It's not just some random thought I've had. When someone else is talking in class, that means you are to shut your pie hole and listen in. When I ask you a question, I'm asking a serious question, one that has to do with your ability to pass the class. It's not optional. It's not as if I said, 'Uh, Marcella, if you don't want to I'll understand, but would you care to tell me what you know about cubism?' I mean, 'Tell me what you know about cubism from my handouts, the textbook, the film I showed, and the gallery we walked through for two hours last week. Your life in this class hangs in the balance.'"

When the Professor stepped down, three moderators took the site over and began putting up 30 to 40 essays a month, chosen from hundreds. Students remained the focus. The site called those precious creatures that were at the center of academic vexation snowflakes because so many of them had been told by parents and feel-good teachers that they were special and unique. But the students featured on the blog seemed to have a lot in common. They copied chunks of Wikipedia and turned them in as essays. They cheated on tests in a dizzying variety of ways (notes on cap brims, formulae saved in cellphones). They wanted extensions, they wanted class to meet outside on the lawn, and they really wanted to know if they "had" to do the reading. They drank all night and slept late, and when they did get to class (in pajama bottoms) they were too busy texting and listening to their iPods to get much out of it.

Writers griped about all manner of academic hindrances besides their students: draconian deans, ego-blind department chairs, and colleagues who coveted our office, our publications, or just our parking space. Adjuncts wrote about their miserable salaries and heavy workloads. Fresh Ph.D.'s wrote about their job searches and ponderous interviews with old-fashioned committee members. And committee members complained about the young candidates' rudeness, inattention to detail, and impossibly tiny eyeglasses.

The posts were satirical, profane, irreverent, scandalous, and always interesting—and all anonymous. Rate Your Students had become an academic water cooler where professors could vent, share their misery, and offer tips.

The first time a piece of mine appeared on the page, I felt electrified. I had written things I could not say in my own faculty lounge. The next day, when a number of other readers responded to my post, I felt that I was a part of a new community of professors who, like me, loved teaching but were confused and helpless. I was asked to join Rate Your Students as a moderator several weeks later. Each day I read a hundred e-mails or more and posted a few representative samples. I realized early on that I was getting a rare and unfiltered look into my profession. These people were my colleagues in a very real sense, but their e-mails often closed with, "I can't say this to anyone I teach with."

In our last full month of service, we received almost 400,000 page views. That's nothing compared with mainstream blogs or blogs about Lady Gaga. But for an often-vulgar set of essays full of inside jokes about academe, it was a big, angry crowd, a secret society—and the secrets were sometimes chilling.

I began to have doubts that the page was helping everyone who trafficked it. "Dale from Denver" sent me this: "My students don't want to be there. Does anyone else see that? Why am I beating my head against the wall for them? 'My boyfriend has a split toe.' 'My mother can't find a babysitter for MY BABY.' 'I didn't know we had class today because it was snowing everywhere.' 'Do we have to staple our essays?' 'Do we have to stay all class today?'

"I smoke more than I used to. I drink more. I sit in front of American Idol and just stare at the flashing images instead of prepping class, because I get a knot in my stomach otherwise. I walk the dog at midnight because I can't sleep. I stand under the stars and just wish that a fire would break out on campus and burn down my office and my classrooms.

"I spent half my life in school. I devoted time and energy and passed up countless other opportunities of love and business and money and location so that I could teach what I loved. And now I just want out."

The profession had gotten to Dale, and I worried that the blog was getting to me. I still got jolts of excitement from its humor and crude, inventive, abusive prose. But I started to carry others' pain and anger into my own life and my own classrooms. My students morphed into the students I read about in the mail each morning. I suspected that each would try to fool me, each would do something blogworthy.

I needed to distance myself from Rate Your Students. When I was the last moderator running the page, I tried to recruit new folks I could trust to take it over, but after a few months of trying I could not. So I killed the site.

The mail poured in. "Thank you so very much for being there when I needed you," wrote one longtime reader. Another wrote, "Perhaps in the future, academics won't be dismissed (in more ways than one) for speaking honestly about what's really going on in our institutions of higher learning." Others grieved the loss of the page: "It's like I've been sucker-punched in the stomach. And all I can do to somehow resolve the cognitive dissonance is to say, 'I hate you.' Please don't leave me. I'll go insane."

I don't miss the hours of sorting through e-mails or the feeling I got after reading a hundred depressing messages from people teetering on the edge of a career. But I do miss seeing into the heart of my profession. Rate Your Students taught me that I was not alone and that my anxieties were shared by many others. It made me braver.

The academy is full of well-intentioned, wonderful teachers who are afraid, lost, and in need of support. Teaching has many pleasures, but it does not resemble what many of us imagined our academic career would be. If we want to save the profession, we need a place—like Rate Your Students—where we can talk about that.

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