How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth It Is…Or Is It? The Radical Rates Rate My

April 27, 2008, 3:42 pm

A couple weeks ago, I Googled myself. Admit it: you do it too. But it really is worth doing occasionally if you have become a blogger, because it gives you the illusion that you have some clue as to whether you are being needlessly slandered by others. Strangely, Tenured Radical itself is #5 in terms of hits for “Claire Potter,” whereas a paper I gave at the University of Connecticut five years ago is on the top of the list (I suppose because the paper was about J. Edgar Hoover, who is slightly better known than I am.) But imagine my surprise when I saw at spot #3 the phrase: “Claire Potter is arrogant and inflammatory….” Whoa, now. Imagine my further surprise when, upon closer inspection, the post was not located in any place where I am used to being bashed for my politics or my behavior, but on the website faculty love to hate,

Since I asked RateMyProfessors to take it down, I reproduce the text posted on April 5, 2008, in full here:

Claire Potter is arrogant and inflammatory, but also one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met. Her ideas and lectures are interesting, if offensive and disorganized (she sometimes tells the class she hasn’t prepared). If she spent more time engaged with students and reality and less writing her blog, perhaps she’d be more palatable. Well perhaps, but not likely.

While I was at it, I took down this one from last semester:

While Potter is very engaging and clearly knows her stuff, she teaches a very biased view of history (that is, liberal feminiest[sic] history). any conservatives are always “they” and there is far more focus on liberal presidencies-with some scoffing over the kooky reagan years. If we’re going to teach History, let’s at least try to tell the truth. Yes let’s — like, for example that we spent a week on Barry Goldwater, and subsequently, the last three weeks of the semester on the new conservatism and neo-liberal governance. And all historical figures are “they” to me because — well, they aren’t me. You don’t need to know much about object relations theory to know that.

Now, why did I have these comments taken down — a move which is, by the way, only temporary, since permanent deletion occurs at the discretion of the site managers, who have no idea whether the comments accurately reflect an experience in my class? Well, because I consider them inaccurate and malicious, and I don’t want them popping up on random Google searches. There actually is also a little matter of truth at stake here. In relation to the first comment, I have never told a class I was unprepared, although strangely, the day before this “evaluation” was posted, I had lectured the class about their uneven preparation, and given them a little in-class, surprise writing exercise. And as for the second comment I took down, also completely wrong: this strikes me as something that may well have been written by someone who knows about me, assumes that I would teach a political history class in a certain way, but was not actually in the class. This is not the first time I have suspected that people who are not my students comment on me, since several years ago I had RateMyProfessors take down a comment for a class I had not even taught. This took several tries, by the way, and the rating itself remains.

To test my theory that ratings could be posted by people who had never been my students, I went to the dreaded site, and registered myself, under my own name, as a Zenith student. Easy-peasy. The only false information I provided was a birth date that made me 19 years old (I wish!) and the box I checked that affirmed my status as a Zenith sophomore. I then successfully added a rating about myself. You can see it here: it’s the anxious looking green emoticon that has the comment “interesting.” I thought it only fair to add something right down the middle, neither good nor bad. Inflammatory perhaps, but arrogant never, that’s my motto.

Now if I can do this, using my own name and without setting off any alarm bells on the website, what this means is that anyone can register as anyone and leave an evaluation — for anyone — that says anything. That’s right. You could do it from prison if you had internet privileges, or from Afghanistan, if you were just farting around in between avoiding the Taliban. So think about that the next time you go into a class feeling insecure and betrayed because someone has posted something nasty about you on RateMyProfessors: it might not even be one of your students who did it. Furthermore, it makes you wonder — when most professors have fewer than a dozen ratings, if someone has amassed an unusually high number — sixty or seventy say — who the heck is actually adding them? Can it really be students?

RateMyProfessors does not address the question of verification anywhere on its site, nor does it even suggest that it is possible for a person who is not actually your student to post a review of your teaching. But it does have a page where the site managers tell you what you can do to correct an unfair comment (other than post a video of yourself telling your students how wrong they are, a new feature called “Professors Strike Back” that is designed for those of you longing for your own reality show.) You can also ask that the comment be reviewed by the site managers as false or defamatory, as I did with the comments above: when it is, should they decide not to put it back up, the rating itself remains, something they don’t tell you. But what else can you do? Why you can give them more publicity! As they explain:

“The best thing you can do is write an article about the site in your school paper. This ALWAYS has a huge impact on the number of ratings and makes the site become less entertainment oriented (an admission that selling advertising is the actual point of this website — duh) and more of a resource for helping you plan your class schedule. Other things you can do is post flyers around campus, post links to the site on message boards that are school-related, and email your friends about the site.”

Other than friendly advice on how to make a complete fool of yourself, this speaks to what I think is the central feature of the site. Students need to be highly motivated to use it, and normally they are motivated because they really like you or, conversely, they are getting revenge for some imagined or unimagined insult by writing something spiteful in public. The suggestion that professors themselves should mobilize students to “tell the truth” about their classroom experiences I find just bizarre and manipulative. I mean, who would do that?

But this isn’t the only problem with RateMyProfessors from my point of view, or even the one that deserves serious attention. The problem is that, while accepting employment at a college or university means that you agree to the principle
that your teaching will be evaluated as part of your contract with the school, none of us have any obligation to have things written about us by God Knows Who on a site that is completely and utterly commercial. Furthermore, the site can do whatever it wants with the ratings — including, if it desires, publish a book based on the “data” it collects. The Terms of Use state explicitly that everything posted to the site is owned by the site and, while posters are warned that they may not do anything that violates civil or criminal statutes, by rules they themselves have established, RateMyProfessors claims that it may reproduce anything on the site without restriction. I’m sure that this is boilerplate copyright language, and I am equally sure that the site manager’s refusal of liability is unenforceable, but the point remains that we — the faculty — are the ones whose work and identities are the substance of the site. And we have not been asked for our permission for “data” to be collected and published about us.

But that said, corporations are not this powerful: I think universities and individuals probably have the legal right to have themselves removed from, or to opt-out of, this site. If I knew how to do it I would, just on principle. Like Facebook, it is nothing but a crude marketing device in drag, where getting you on the site and keeping you there for as long as possible is the real point.

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