RateMyProfessors and Subverting Hierarchy

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Back in May, Kaimi commented on Prawfs about Ratemyprofessors.com. Law students came somewhat late to the site, but my anecdotal sense is that there has been an explosion in ratings in the last six months. For most law schools in the country, multiple professors are now listed and rated. Most law school ranking sites have an anonymous student “moderator,” which would seem to suggest that RMP is trying to defend itself against defamation suits. If that’s the case, it would be fascinating to see what directions the moderators have received. From a brief review of the ratings of lots of law profs., I can’t believe that the directions are particularly restrictive. There is some nasty stuff out there.

Recently, I came across this article analyzing why undergraduates comment on and use RMP. The money paragraph:

[Students] want to provide information to others, and they also feel part of a community of posters. Primarily, students appear motivated to post ratings for teachers who are perceived as being either very good or very bad. This explains why the number of ratings per professor did not show linear correlation with the perceived quality of that person’s teaching. The data show that the only significant relationship with regard to the number of posts was that of the “hotness” rating. Professors with higher hotness ratings received more ratings on average. However, while perceived hotness seems to relate to the propensity to post ratings, this factor did not seem to affect the average quality rating as there was no significant relationship between hotness scores and overall quality scores. This suggests that perceived attractiveness of professors is related to students’ propensity to post about them, but is not sufficient to influence what is posted.

As far I can tell, the lack of correlation in this study between attractiveness and quality rankings is anamolous.

I wonder what would have happened were law students to be asked why they post on RMP. My suspicion is that law students, unlike undergraduates, are more motivated by feelings of powerlessness and a desire to sanction (with online gossip) professors who take particular advantage of the (conservative) hierarchy that the Socratic dialogue offers. As Duncan Kennedy explained in his little red book, “it is meaningful to oppose [hierarchy] by talking, by joking and refusing to laugh at jokes, through the elaboration of fantasies as well as through the elaboration of concrete plans for struggle.” That is, I bet at least some law students use RMP as a way to implicitly whittle their professors down to size.

But maybe that is giving students too much credit. It’s not clear to me whether the student who thinks that I “bounc[e] around the classroom like a leprechaun” was hoping to subvert traditional ideas of law school classroom management. Maybe s/he just didn’t like me much.

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6 Responses

  1. Dave! says:

    Or, maybe you bounce around the classroom like a leprechaun. 🙂

    I think that the ratings are a good idea. I just checked out the ratings for a few professors I’ve had at my school, and I found on balance that they were pretty accurate, discounting a couple of people who either had an axe to grind or were plants.

    Ratings are a good way to get valuable information–look at Amazon product ratings. I think the average reader is able to discount the extreme (positive or negative) and look at the aggregate for a closer representation of reality.

    I don’t think anyone is trying to subvert anything (only a law professor could think students care that much about law professors)… I think we’re trying to get some information about which professors to seek out and which to avoid when we’re finally free of required courses. Or trying to figure out whether Contracts will suck or not…

  2. Eric Goldman says:

    Actually, I disagree with Dave!–I think polarized ratings don’t provide very useful insights at all. I blogged some more thoughts on this at http://blog.ericgoldman.org/personal/archives/2005/11/are_you_hot_or.html.

    FWIW, RateMyProfessor.com doesn’t need moderators to insulate itself from defamation liability–the 47 USC 230 safe harbor applies irrespective of the presence or absence of moderators. However, the moderators may help stabilize the rating system to prevent it from degrading into junk.

    Eric.

  3. Pupil says:

    I agree with Dave! completely. I’ve never posted on RMP but I’ve found the comments for my old professors to be fairly accurate. It’s easy enough to spot an entry that is over the top one way or the other, and if you filter those out most comments are well within the ballpark of how the prof really is.

    I think you’re really overanalyzing students’ motivations for posting on the site.

  4. Dave Hoffman says:

    Dave and Pupil – the motivations for posting and the motivations for surfing are different. I don’t want to make too much of my D.Kennedy point, because it is easy to oversell it, but I don’t think that students are posting on RMP just for altruistic reasons, or out of a sense of fun.

    In terms of insights, I agree with Eric. RMP listings are likely to confirm your preexisting beliefs – private, non-sample-biased, student evaluations are much better ways to get at mean student opinion.

    Needless to say (?), I think it is usually safe to assume that contracts will not suck. We get to learn about unconscionability. What else could you want?

  5. Dave! says:

    Prof. Goldman: Actually I agree that *polarized* ratings don’t necessarily provide much information. However, in the ratings on professors I’ve had, of a dozen or so posts only one or two were so obviously biased that they could be discounted. The others were either critical without being mean or positive without being sycophantic.

    Prof. Hoffman: I don’t think people are posting out of altruism or fun either. Those that clearly post over-the-top sycophantic boasts are either ass-kissing or plants; similarly, the mean spirited ranting screeds obviously have an agenda, too. I think most students can tell the difference.

    I don’t think students post out of fun–they do so to provide some measure of utility. I think students are perfectly capable of posting informative reviews of professors to provide information so that they in turn get information from others.

    Allow me to pose a question: is the person who posts a review of a vacuum cleaner on Amazon doing so out of altruism or fun? I doubt it. And from the evidence I’ve seen (admittedly purely anecdotal) the ratings on Amazon are a phenomenal success. What about eBay feedback? Another hit. My point is that, yes, you can discount the extremes, but that doesn’t mean students are any less capable of providing accurate information about their classroom experience–not for altruism, for the purpose of building a system that also returns value to them.

  6. lisa says:

    you all are assuming that the people posting reviews on rmp are even students. my gues is about half, if that, are.