Thursday, 5 April 2012

Sorry Professor!

From time to time, I peruse online reviews of various things: books, hotels, restaurants, etc., and am sometimes reminded of teaching evaluations, but not necessarily in a good way. For example, I recently read two highly negative reviews of two different books, and found that the negative reviews were motivated by technical problems with the e-version of the books, not the writing/plot etc. Is that fair to the authors? No. It reminded me of some negative teaching evaluations I have seen in which a professor was severely criticized for things the students hated about the physical classroom space.

I don't know why I even read reviews of hotels anymore. I guess I am looking for systematic information that will indicate whether a place has a major problem or is a good place to stay. Typically, though, reviews are mixed, indicating more about the review-writers than the hotel. Particularly when reading reviews of small, charming hotels outside the US, I must admit that I am not shocked to the core to learn that there was a crack in a tile in the bathroom, a strange stain on the carpet by the window, or even a front-desk clerk who was not super-friendly.

Sometimes I wonder if the ease with which we can all review almost everything* in our lives affects how some people approach teaching evaluations, either the writing or the reading of them.

* Did you know that you can review rivers and other natural features? For example, the River Seine in Paris currently has 611 reviews on TripAdvisor, has an overall rating of 4.5 stars, and reviews ranging from Average to Excellent. Hooray for the River Seine for not getting any ratings of Poor or Terrible! The River Danube, perhaps owing to its length and the fact that it flows through so many major cities and you can review it in each one, has more variable ratings.

Here is an example of a review of a small hotel in an international city (review modified slightly from original version but retaining its essence):

We are college students from [country that is not the US] and used to traveling but even for the low price and good location we won't be back to this hotel. The staff don't really speak English even though this is a "hotel". The breakfast wasn’t anything special but we didn't really mind because it was cheap and we are young! However the elevator is really small and has no door and that is very unsafe! Again we thought it's not that bad and we are young. The rooms are really small but again I thought it's cheap and we’re young and don’t care but it got worse because the room was NOT made up every day. By day 3 we had no clean towels! It got even worse because of the language barrier but we are young and cheap and don't mind most things, but the staff stared at us when we walked through the lobby and this even creeped me out and I’m a guy. This place is just not worth it, even for less than 30 euros a night for 2 people.
Is it just me, or do you get the impression that the person who wrote this is young? Despite my advanced age, I personally could probably go 4 or 5 days without clean towels. When I first read the review, I wondered if this young man has similar expectations of his classes and professors, and if he writes similar reviews of his professors, if there are student evaluations of teaching at his university.

Maybe he would write something like this:
I am a student in Professor X's class but even considering the convenient day and time of the class I can't recommend this class. Professor X uses words I don't understand, even though she is supposed to be a "teacher". The lectures weren't anything special but I didn't really mind because this is a required class I have to take. However the chairs in the classroom are really uncomfortable and this is unsafe! Also the classroom is really small but that's OK too except that it is not cleaned every day and sometimes I see writing on the white board from other classes and once I saw a candy bar wrapper on the floor. It gets even worse because sometimes Professor X makes eye contact with me during class, when asking a question, and this creeps me out. This class is not worth it, even if it only meets for an hour on Tuesdays at 11 AM.
I think this could be a very fun game (or creative writing exercise) for academics: converting real teaching evaluations into hotel/restaurant reviews, and converting real hotel/restaurant reviews into teaching evaluations.

The game will need a zippy name; something even better than ratemyprofessorsandhotels. Like the various versions of the game Monopoly that involve sports, animals, movies, and New Jersey, we could perhaps propose an academic version of the game Sorry!: Sorry Professor! (other suggestions welcome, although note that all suggestions will be subject to review by everyone).

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