Judge not your prof, lest ye be judged

January 27, 2006

Stung by sarky student website Rate My Professors, a US lecturer creates its opposite number and finds hope in the midst of despair

A classroom is a terrific place. A group of people gather together to discuss and make sense of a field of study through discussion and lecture. Ideas are debated. Information is shared. At the end of the hour everybody is smarter, better and more plugged in to the material and the world.

But that idyllic classroom rarely exists. Academics can be hopeless bores, their discourse dense and impenetrable for a room of young minds. And those young minds are busy filling up their iPods and tapping on their Blackberrys, or, in 9am classes, still altered by lack of sleep or excess of ale.

So it's no surprise that tension exists between these camps. Increasingly, university students see themselves as paying customers who have earned an education and its accompanying high marks. They want light edutainment.

Academics, in turn, want the good old days back - when they thought every student could be won over by watching Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society .

And so the rating began. In the US, the Rate My Professors website has collected more than 5 million appraisals of more than 700,000 academics. Most of these appear sincere: "He makes class interesting"; "The lectures are boring, but he is extremely helpful".

A fair number, however, seem designed to wreak revenge: "This guy doesn't care to teach and it shows"; "Nothing he says or does makes sense"; "This guy is rediculously [sic] bad at everything in life". The wanton and wilful carnage has only increased distrust of students among USfaculty.

So it was into this world a few months ago that I ushered in "Rate Your Students", where my original goal in creating the blog was to point out the hypocrisy of rating anyone. Readers responded to the idea, and I began to publish anonymous ratings of students - who are never identified by name.

The posts skewered the archetypal "bad students", the students who could destroy the desire of anyone to learn or teach: "She is a flat-out mean and ungracious young woman"; "A funny kid, but wouldn't work if you put a gun to his head".

But after a few weeks of some gleeful bashing the conversation began to shift. It started with this note from a professor in the South: "We must, as faculty, teach our students to be the kind of students we want to have.

If I get a charge out of learning, isn't it part of my job to give (them) the tools necessary to find their own joy?"

And it was as if a switch were thrown. 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. I build a class based in part on what I think you need to know to understand our field." A lecturer in the Midwest explained: "Students will take their leads from us. If we coddle them, they will learn to run over us. If we expect little, that's what we get."

Within a few days, I began to hear from more students. Horrified that their professors could be as mean as they were, it was clear that the best of them yearned to be understood.

A young woman in the Northeast detailed the rigours of her college life:

"If you 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 every time I walk in to his office. My psychology professor tries to look up my skirt.

He's a married man and old enough to be my dad."

The post reminded us all that our charges, our "dimwits", our students, were just kids, unsure of themselves, hoping to succeed, dying to be led.

An art professor at a college in the deep South wrote: "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. We were not all perfect at being students. But we caught the bug, fell in love with learning and here we are. The ones with talent, and dedication, and drive need and want our guidance, advice and tutelage."

The professor is a US academic who prefers to remain anonymous. Rate Your Students: http:///rateyourstudents.blogspot.com

Rate My Professors:www.ratemyprofessors.com

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