Pat McGuinness is currently sitting at a 4.9 out of five rating on Rate My Professors — the highest in the entire economics department of MacEwan University. Yet every semester on the first day of class, he tells his students to “not believe any of that shit.”
On the slim chance that anybody reading this doesn’t know already and hasn’t intuited, Rate My Professors is a website that allows students to rate their professors. Users assign two scores for quality and difficulty (a third, for “hotness,” was removed a couple of years ago), and leave short written reviews, all anonymously.
The idea is quite innocently to give an additional set of information to students picking out their classes. If you are picking between a few options or the same class in different time slots, you might choose whichever one is taught by a four-point professor who’s a relatively easy grader over the one who has a bunch of comments like “every Tuesday I would take the icy sidewalks to school hoping to fall and concuss myself before having to go to his class.”
Naturally, you would expect some professors to take issue with such a website, but McGuinness’ problem is obviously not one of feeling maligned by negative reviews. He would welcome that type of feedback.
“It seems to me, the people who are more likely to bash Rate My Prof are those with not-as-good evaluations,” he says. “That’s a little disappointing. I look at students as being my customers, and if a customer is coming back to me and saying ‘you are not doing a very good job,’ I should be listening to that.”
The issue is precisely how some of the users are making their evaluations. On the occasion McGuinness looks up his colleagues out of curiosity, he inevitably finds reviews that include some variation of: “Didn’t even come to class and I got an A,” and, “don’t bother buying the textbook.”
“It’s discounting MacEwan education,” says McGuinness. “If I’m an employer looking at that, I wouldn’t hire you. I would be thinking ‘these MacEwan graduates, it seems like they never have to crack a book or go to class — why would I pay for that?’”
It’s more than just a few comments one professor happened to see. On Rate My Prof, attendance and textbook requirements are two of the most important considerations. To leave a review, you have to check a few boxes, including “Textbook Use” to which you can answer “Yeah” or “Um, no” and “Attendance” to which you can answer “Mandatory” or “Not Mandatory” — and these responses show up at the top of every post. Reviewers can also attach tags to their posts that say things like “Skip Class? You Won’t Pass,” “Lecture Heavy,” and “Get Ready to Read.” Across the website, getting a good grade while doing as little as possible is treated as a big selling point.
It isn’t just that this might reflect poorly on outside observers. To McGuinness, the search for easy A’s on Rate My Prof indicates a complete misunderstanding of what university is for.
“I tell my students all the time that if you come to school for education, the GPA will take care of itself. If you come to school and you’re totally GPA-oriented, you’re not going to learn very much — and in the real world, your GPA matters for about six months and then it doesn’t matter at all.”
Viewed in this way, a significant portion of Rate My Prof is devoted to encouraging students to waste their time and money. Posters go on about how little they did so other users can go around shopping for classes on the basis of how little they will have to do.
“Would you go to a movie theatre, buy a ticket, and then get in your car and go home? That sounds ludicrous and that’s $12. How does it make any sense to spend thousands and then skip?” McGuinness says. “You’re not going to class, you’re not opening a book, you’re getting very little benefit from the thousands of dollars you’re spending on tuition. Save your money. Invest it.”