Irene Katele finds it useful. With just a few clicks of her mouse, the associate director of legal studies at the UW Law School can read dozens of online comments from UW students about her performance as a teacher. A yellow smiley-face icon tells her she's doing a good job. A blue frown appears when a student has had a less-than-stellar experience. And Katele welcomes feedback of all kinds.
"I can use the [university's] written evaluations and the Internet both for self-improvement and for verification that what I'm doing is correct," she says.
The Web site helping Katele assess her performance is called RateMyProfessors.com. It offers college students around the world a forum to extol the virtues of those who educate them or, more commonly, to vent invective.
"College students spend a tremendous amount of money on education," says Patrick Nagle, the 23-year-old president of RateMyProfessors.com, based near Baltimore. "They should have the option to choose their professors and know what they are paying for."
Nagle sounds patently egalitarian talking about his Web site. He says it allows students to tailor their education to their own needs. He refers to students as "customers" of professors, and sees himself as an ordinary guy trying to give students a voice.
And, Nagle notes, "A lot of professors use the site to gauge how they're doing. It's not RateMyProfessors versus the education system. We're there to help."
Katele has the good fortune of being highly rated. The site contains reviews for 1,582 UW-Madison professors, lecturers and teaching assistants, and Katele is tied for first place among those with 20 or more reviews. Her charges give her high marks in the categories "Helpfulness" and "Clarity." While her "Easiness" rank is tougher than some students may desire, Katele is called "cool," "helpful" and "responsive." One student says she's "the only professor who has kept me awake at 9:30 in the morning." Another anoints her "by far the very best professor I have had."
Other professors aren't so lucky. For every "best teacher ever," there are many more comments that were once scrawled in dorm bathrooms.
"Holy crap," one student writes about one UW-Madison professor, "hopefully this guy will die of old age before he teaches another class." Another says a class was so bad he or she (the postings are anonymous) "wanted to gouge my eyes out with a spoon." Other postings offer sage observations like, "She sucks at life."
Nagle admits that content on the site can be rough on some professors. He says angry teachers and administrators threaten to sue his company for slander and libel "on a weekly basis." But he calls the threats "toothless," citing the First Amendment as his primary source of protection.
Anatole Beck, a long-tenured professor in the department of mathematics, is among those who bear the brunt of students' freedom of speech. Several postings on RateMyProfessors.com label him the "worst professor ever." Out of 38 reviews, none offer up the yellow smiley icon.
"It is impressive how horrible he teaches, tests, and basically inflicts damage to your mathematical understanding," one student declares. Another shares a formula for Beck's performance: "Here's some math for you: Beck = Bad."
Professor Beck is unfazed by these criticisms. As he sees it, such ire is more a reflection of the subject he teaches than his abilities as a teacher. In fact, six of the 10 lowest-rated UW-Madison professors are from the math department, lending credence to this claim.
Beck says the problem is that many of his students are fresh out of high school and poorly prepared for classes that stress critical thinking. He blames "the kinds of things people learn to pass a standardized test" for many of his students' struggles and complaints. Math at the college level requires students to do much more than memorize formulas and theorems.
"If all you want to do is calculations," Beck says, "there are machines that do that better than anyone in this [department], including me. But that's not learning."
Another reason for his negative reviews, Beck adds, is that many of his students are not in his class voluntarily. "There is a difference," he says, "between the people who take my courses because they are interested in actually learning the material, and those who are not interested but required to do so."
Bob Wilson, another prominent member of the math department, agrees.
"Students may react against me or any other teacher quite as much for [not wanting to be in a class] than for how I, as an individual, teach," he says, noting that math is an especially sticky subject. "In our society it is legitimate to say, 'Oh I could never do math.' When was the last time you heard someone say, 'Oh I could never read'?"
Yet Wilson, who like Beck teaches calculus to undergrads, has escaped the mathematician's curse on RateMyProfessors.com. He ties for fifth place on a list of the UW-Madison's top-rated professors.
"He's easily the best math teacher I'll ever have," writes one student. Adds another, "He's like Santa Claus, only he teaches calculus."
Wilson admits the rows of smiley faces under his name are nice to see. And he says the consensus of his 33 reviews approaches something resembling statistical significance. But he is unconvinced of the site's validity.
"It tends to be an extreme thing," he says. "You must either love this person or hate this person to be motivated enough to [write a review]."
RateMyProfessors.com boasts 5.75 million reviews of more than 770,000 professors. While Wilson concedes that the sheer number of reviews "indicates the need for something like this," he "would hesitate to put a lot of weight on what I read there."
But thousands of students do trust the site. Through her role as an undergraduate adviser, Katele has spoken with several advisees who told her they often use the site to research professors. As she sees it, RateMyProfessors.com is akin to the word-of-mouth networking from her college days 30 years ago.
"To this day, I can tell you which professors we thought were good and which were bad," Ketele says. "I think RateMyProfessors.com is just an electronic means of accomplishing the same purpose."
The best and the worst*
Irene Katele, lecturer and associate director of legal studies, Law School. Score: 4.8, based on 22 reviews.
Charles Hallisey, associate professor, department of languages and cultures of Asia. Score: 4.8, 22 reviews.
Kenneth Mayer, professor, department of political science. Score 4.7, 31 reviews.
David Canon, professor, department of political science. Score 4.6, 45 reviews.
Robert Wilson, professor, department of mathematics. Score: 4.5, 33 reviews. (Four other UW professors ' Scott Mellor, Rodney Schreiner, David Lindberg and Mark Wendt ' also scored 4.5.)
Anatole Beck, professor, department of mathematics. Score: 1.1, based on 38 reviews.
Johanna Hertel, assistant professor, department of economics. Score: 1.3, 21 reviews.
Ronald W. Dickey, professor, department of mathematics. Score: 1.5, 47 reviews.
Arnold Johnson, professor, department of mathematics. Score: 1.8, 37 reviews.
Joel Robbin, professor, department of mathematics. Score: 1.9, 23 reviews.
* Rankings based on a scale of 1-5 for UW-Madison professors with a minimum of 20 reviews on RateMyProfessors.com.