Modern culture’s appetite for ranking and grading has reached an inevitable critical mass. The desire to catalog every waking moment of our lives, rate it on a five-star scale and submit a proud travelogue can only be satiated by a dependency on the experiences of others. In today’s consumer-driven market there exist review forums for nearly every product, business and service, and most of them seem to possess a complete disregard for credibility. If you are willing to make a profile (and in some cases, this isn’t even required), then you are granted access to grade any institution in any manner you please. This vulnerability is the standard, and it provides anonymous users the opportunity to dispense unsubstantiated judgments and accusations with the click of a button. The negative customer experiences that result can yield seriously adverse consequences for their unfortunate targets, and, in turn, creates sites like “Yelp,” a genuine nuisance that can’t possibly be ignored. The popular website Rate My Professors, a communal gathering of college professor reviews that allows students to award their instructors with a performance-based number rating out of five is a glaring example of this broken model.
Now, there are benefits to a free-flowing mechanism like this. A place where experienced users of a product or service express their personal sentiments does provide some intrinsic value, but I’d argue that the confidence we afford these judgments is disproportionally high compared to their actual usefulness. Indecisive about choosing a restaurant for date night? A simple internet search will produce several types of public-access ratings; all of them chock-full of anecdotal advice from complete strangers to aid in your decision making. While these cumulative ratings might provide some bits of objective information, (i.e., cleanliness, location, price etc.), most of these unbiased specifics are openly advertised by the business in question. Most consumers aren’t particularly interested in these unimaginative details, and according to a 2016 BrightLocal poll, only 12 percent of users even bother to read more than ten reviews before making a decision.
And, it’s the ratings that significantly skew the data, as those ratings intended to either praise or damn the organization is those we pay the most attention to. Because deceit is not limited exclusively to negative diatribes, perfect scores also serve to diminish the overall quality of the gross data. But, while they might not add any constructive elements to the internet review process, they can’t be indicted for any tangible consequences either. Consider the repercussions that a one-star review might have on it’s intended party. Loss of business and a tarnished reputation are very likely when one considers that this potentially fabricated customer experience will live on the internet indefinitely. Regardless of the business or product on the receiving end of this ill-fated internet transaction, the damage is incurred.
The Rate My Professors student sounding-board exhibits all the qualities found in other hapless review systems, to an alarming extent. The integrated search engine allows the student to search by interested instructor name or subject, in hopes of selecting a professor for their next course. The user can then read through posted reviews and make their personal opinion known by clicking the thumbs up, or down icons. The option to leave a personalized review is obstructed only by verifying the pertinent course number and clicking a box that ensures that the user is, in fact, a sentient being and “not a robot.” In addition to these pathetic security measures, Rate My Professors reviews are published anonymously and the site doesn’t prevent users from leaving multiple reviews for one professor or even limit the amount times a user can vote on a review. Acknowledging the existence of this unchecked capability that allows users to anonymously defame a professor’s reputation must surely be enough to delegitimize the website in the eyes of its users, right?
In fact, most of the students I spoke with on campus had an unnerving amount of confidence in the site and its authenticity. A small portion suggested that they read each review with a grain of salt and realize the potential fraudulence in some of the more extreme posts. Kim Ball, a freshman at the U, provided a refreshing response when asked about her general impression of the website; “I think it’s beneficial in that you won’t go to class completely in the dark, but I think the replies are very skewed.” Kim speculated that because of the effort involved in leaving a review, that the majority of the site’s posts must be written by either “the students who loved the professor [or] the ones who hated them.” While I realize that an appeal to skepticism concerning information found on the internet to be an obvious one, it has been my experience that this rule is forgotten more when it involves our peers. So, until a better, vetted system that still allows the freedom to write a personalized review is instituted, I’ll stick to the school’s student surveys. Overall, I give Rate My Professors one out of five stars.