Kernel of truth, grain of salt: RMP, part 1

The college where I teach made the Top Ten of community colleges on Rate My Professors recently.

Of course this is silly—utterly meaningless but amusing.

But the silliness of the ranking is trumped only by that of the ensuing email discussions in which anecdote replaces evidence. Consider this:

I don’t place much creedance in on-line ratings.  I bought a fish finder once based on on-line ratings–turned out to be a piece of junk. I don’t trust them for anything–not for hotels, professors, beers, colleges, shotguns, or leaf blowers.  I find no satisfaction in my positive ratings nor do I feel bad about my negative ones ’cause I have no faith in any of them.

And this:

Frankly, some of the professors I most strongly disliked as an undergraduate are the very ones I most admire in retrospect.   I was a lousy judge of teacher-quality and I have no reason to suspect today’s students are any different than I was

And this:

At the tender age of 21, I had a graduate professor…  who had a Byronic cloak, a shiny black cane, and a sharp, derisive tongue.  After numerous lashings from her in class, I was ultimately forced to visit her in her third floor palace.  I was rather surprised to find a witty, cordial and forgiving human being.  At the time, we were studying William Blake; and in a comment that later endeared her to me for life, [she] remarked blithely, “Well. . . sometimes the Tygers of Wrath are wiser than the Horses of Instruction. . . “.  If I had gone on ratemyprofessors at the time (had such a website existed), I no doubt would have deplored her pejorative and condescending teaching methods!

And finally, in response to some substantive discussion of the silliness of rankings that have neither meaningful methodology nor representative sampling, there was this:

. . . this is y so many ppl hav lost faith in science–& I thot I was the only 1 who wood ever challenj r feel good mentality 😉

I have no idea what that last one is supposed to mean.

Here is my perspective on Rate My Professors (and on student evaluations more generally)…

Kernel of truth, grain of salt.

Grain of salt

This is the easy part, and it’s the one alluded to in the first quotation above. Students with strong feelings go to Rate My Professors. Students who had run-of-the-mill experiences in a course aren’t going to burn the calories or spend the time to let the world know about it.

So don’t take anything said there too seriously. Similarly, we would be wise to question whether liking a course or a teacher has anything at all to do with whether useful learning has taken place there. This is why I always feel uncomfortable with my professional development work. Feedback forms are different from assessments.

But this doesn’t mean we can totally dismiss everything on those feedback forms…

kernel of truth

Students have no incentive to make stuff up on Rate My Professor. Of course they are going there to vent or to sing the praises of a fabulous experience. But they have no incentive to lie.

So I think we need to read what’s there and ask ourselves what we can learn from what students have written.

For example, I have learned:

  1. Too many of my early ratings involved the word fun. I’m OK with students thinking math is fun, but when it appears again and again, I had to ask myself whether the emphasis on hard work and critical thinking needed to be stronger. The change from then to now is noticeable.
  2. Students don’t forget when I screw up, but they forgive me too. See the third one down on this page. (And for the record, I remember what the formula was.)
  3. That I can manage my online profile. After my first year at the college level, I started showing students my RMP page and asking that they go there with substantive feedback. I don’t tell them to post positive stuff; I tell them to post substantive stuff.
  4. That I can’t get a chile pepper to save my life (seriously, what’s up with that?)

More kernels of truth

I have advice for anyone starting a new job in education. On your first day (or as early as possible), ask this question of a few nearby colleagues, What sorts of things could I do wrong that I’ll hear back from the Dean about?

The question comes across as a request for help staying out of trouble. And it is. You’ll get useful information. But you’ll also get insights into your colleagues.

I have strong memories of asking this question twice. And I remember the answers. And I saw evidence of those answers in the corresponding Rate My Professors comments.

Kernel of truth indeed.

More on student evaluations coming soon.

4 responses to “Kernel of truth, grain of salt: RMP, part 1

  1. I’ve never been a fan of “What sorts of things could I do wrong that I’ll hear back from the Dean about?” The Dean, or whoever is temporarily holding that post, has never been my moral guide. Nor do I worry about offending authority. I want to do what is right because it is right, not because the Dean cares.
    If I were asked that question (which I suppose I could be now that I’m one of the most senior members of the department), I’d have to honestly say that I have no idea what the dean cares about (other than space and money) and I could care less about his opinions. If you do a good job of teaching, research, and service, you won’t have to care about the dean’s opinions either.

  2. Interesting perspective, gasstation. I have a couple of observations.

    First is that, as a senior member of the department, I would hope you would see a new colleague asking this question as a (perhaps clumsy) request for support and guidance. That is, the junior faculty member is hoping to get off to a good start with colleagues and administration. I think senior faculty have a responsibility to provide that guidance. Not necessarily by answering the question as asked if it makes us uncomfortable. But certainly we should address the root of the question in a helpful way.

    My second observation has to do with my hypothesis in the piece. My hunch (which I have not checked) is that there is likely some correlation between feedback from students and your response to the question. That is, I am arguing that student feedback usually contains a kernel of truth. Often (as in the fun example from my own student feedback), that kernel of truth might not get our full attention unless we’re looking for it. And that’s a huge reason for not dismissing student evaluations-whether on paper and private, or electronic and public.

  3. I try to be a supportive mentor for junior colleagues, though I’m aware that my opinions are far enough from mainstream that I recommend other people who will give them more conventional advice. I’ve never had anyone ask for advice in terms of what the Dean would think—more often they ask for advice on how to handle specific problems (like cheating incidents or weird university bureaucracy) or about priorities (research vs teaching, funding vs. publication, …). I think that the way you phrased the question implies a hierarchical structure to the university that is not the way things work here, where shared governance is still very much alive. People are more likely to ask what the department expects or what the Committee on Academic Personnel expects, than what the Dean wants.

  4. Pingback: Department of misleading headlines: Student evaluations edition | Overthinking my teaching

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