Why objective teacher ratings are impossible

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April 16, 2012

11:26 PM

The week of registration is always an interesting time of the semester at the College of William and Mary. Students plan out their unrealistic — and sometimes downright naïve — perfect class schedules, looking primarily at a few key details: They talk to friends about each course, they look at the time it meets and they consult Ratemyprofessor.com. For many students, Rate My Professor’s frowning blue face is an automatic deal-breaker, which means that a student must look for another class to replace the one the Internet has declared horrible. It should be noted, however, that the blue face sometimes means nothing. I’ve had plenty of professors who have less than stellar ratings on that website, but who turned out to be phenomenal. This past week, it was announced that The Princeton Review is releasing a book on the 300 best college professors in the country — entitled, well, “The Princeton Review’s Best 300 Professors.” The Princeton Review can be helpful, but here its rating system is really just arbitrary.

Students can be horribly judgmental. A professor can do one thing to a student — maybe call him or her out for not reading — and that student could very well begin to dislike the professor. This one incident could earn the professor a dreaded blue face of doom on Rate My Professor. The same thing goes for this list of the supposed “best professors.”

I’m proud that the College was represented on the list; I truly am. However, I believe the professors I’ve had could trump them. As individuals, we have our own likes and dislikes. This individuality is what makes the College what it is. We’re all unique in our learning styles and in our interests. For instance, I despised economics. I took two introductory economics courses and hated each moment in those classes, which usually resulted in my being present only right before exams. Although I’m sure my economics professors were good at their jobs, I had no interest in economics. I was just trying to decide on a major.

It is not happenstance that I don’t think a professor who teaches a subject I don’t like is the best teacher. That doesn’t mean he or she isn’t a good one. It’s because of this that I don’t buy into these lists of great professors, or anything similar from companies like The Princeton Review. Yes, I’m proud when the College is ranked “best” at something. I like showing off my Tribe swagger to the masses. It just makes getting the “best” of something more meaningful when the rankings aren’t based on arbitrary criteria.

What makes a great school depends on the facts. The College consistently produces Fulbright Scholars, who go abroad either to teach English or to complete independent research. Many students graduate and go on to the top graduate programs in the country, and other students begin working at the top business schools in the country. Our professors are experts in their fields. From government to religious studies, the faculty at the College completes research on par with schools with larger endowments and more financial support.

I don’t care that The Princeton Review has deemed 10 of our professors the “best.” We have more than ten great professors. Each student has been affected by a professor here at the College, and for that student, that particular professor is the best. Maybe they didn’t make the cut, but honestly, I don’t think students really care. Prospective students might be enticed to come to the College now that we have so-called “best” professors. In due time, however, they’ll understand that just because someone else decides what the best is, that doesn’t make it the best. The students decide that themselves.

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