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Photo Credit/ RateMyProfessors.com

I’m not a fan of RateMyProfessors.com. It’s an unpopular opinion, probably, but hear me out.

This isn’t to say that I don’t see the utility in RateMyProfessors (RMP). Of course it’s useful—we want students’ real, honest opinions of what a professor is like before we sign up for the binding commitment of a semester with him or her. We need some sort of list of dealbreakers and dealmakers, just like we’d ask our friends for their opinions of a person before we ask him or her to get coffee.

With RMP, the middling professors are ignored. It’s the really “good” ones and the really “bad” ones that students take special note of, because you want the class that’s in high demand and you would never sign up for an Econ class with that dreaded professor.

My problem with RMP is the same problem statisticians have with a study that depends on voluntary participation: there’s an unknown sample size, the population is biased and the motivations to contribute are variable and unreliable. Think about the last time you contributed to RMP (if you ever have). Why did you do it? Looking back on your review, do you regret anything you said? Would you trust what you wrote?

Oftentimes, the people who write reviews are those who have the strongest opinions about a professor (I’m not saying this is always the case, but from what I’ve observed, it’s fairly true). Why else would you feel motivated to write? If your opinion of them could be described with the word “decent,” then what would you have to add to the discussion, in theory? You’d leave the reviewing to those who like or dislike the professor enough to write something down.

But that kind of logic is toxic, and not reflective of the population’s true opinion of a class. If you read the RMP review of a professor, and end up getting the high and low outliers, you’re shortchanging a professor who deserves more than that.

You should also be careful to note a few things that skew the statistical accuracy of RMP reviews. First, we go to a very small college, and as I said, RMP reviews are completely optional. The professors with the most reviews, Valenza, Pitney, Bradley, Helland and Keil, all have between 45 and 60 ratings. The average untenured professor, however, usually has less than 10 reviews, which puts the data at risk for being overly affected by outliers. One student’s out-of-the-ordinary, horrible experience may just turn the face next to the professor’s name from smiling green to reticent yellow—and let’s be honest, that’s the first real judgment we make on RMP.

The oversimplification of professors into the three categories of “helpfulness,” “clarity” and “easiness” tends to push students towards the easy classes, especially for GEs. Although we all want to take classes in which you can get an easy A, reason with yourself and remember that you didn’t come to CMC for easy As. Oftentimes the best professors assign the most reading, are the toughest graders and expect a lot out of their students—but you’ll get an unparalleled classroom experience in exchange. However, you wouldn’t know that from reading those professors’ RMP reviews; it’s easy to be scared off by the warnings of “It’s impossible to get an A in this class!”

But not all hope is lost—there are some solutions to this problem. We already fill out course evaluations at the end of the year, ones that professors aren’t allowed to read and ones that every student (of a non-tenured professor) is required to complete. Those evaluations are honest and are available in the Dean of Students office. (Side note to the Dean of Students Office: nobody has time to go into your office and sort through that huge binder. It would be awesome if you could make that mysterious file more accessible to us—we fill the reviews out online anyway!)

Pomona has an online, voluntary course review system that’s available on the Pomona portal. To encourage students to submit reviews, negative or positive, the College has a raffle that ends the day class registration begins. CMC should have a similar system, if the Dean of Faculty course reviews aren’t a good alternative.

Either way, my final takeaway from this article is directed at you, freshmen, who are likely poring over the course catalog, watching the open seats in every class you want slowly tick down and frantically submitting PERM requests.

My first piece of advice is to take a class based on the professor, not the name of the class. When you finish the semester, you’re going to cherish the teaching style and office hour discussions you had with that amazing professor more than any assigned reading.

My second piece of advice is to not put all your eggs in the RateMyProfessors.com basket. Ask your upperclassmen friends and their upperclassmen friends for advice about the best professors and best classes, or check out the Forum’s recent article about senior students’ favorite classes at the 5Cs. If you’re really feeling motivated, visit the Dean of Faculty and check out the course evaluations of specific classes and professors.

My third and final piece of advice is to, for now, be a good citizen and submit Rate My Professor reviews for all your classes, no matter how boring or middling you think they are. Add to that statistical integrity by putting your voice out there, and encourage your friends to do the same.