Grades Come Back To Haunt Teachers

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By Melissa Hart
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 16, 2006

Before computers revolutionized the transmission of gossip, my friends and I discussed the pros and cons of our professors in university pubs.

This one begrudged students a B in biology. That one's lectures assured the weary scholar that he or she would enjoy 90 minutes of undisturbed slumber, twice a week.

In this way, we attempted to control the uncontrollable -- namely, the 10 weeks in which we'd be thrown into a relationship with someone who could deem us passed or failed, make or break our GPA and a shot at grad school, label us for life with a scarlet letter C.

Thanks to the Internet, today's students pass judgment on professors for all the world to witness. Web sites such as RateMyProfessors.com allow scholars to rant or rave about syllabuses, grading practices and something called "Hotness Scale."

"Log on," my husband suggested. "See what your students think of you."

"Those sites are a joke," I retorted. "Besides, I know what my students think of me."

I teach journalism at the University of Oregon, where some of my fellow professors feel threatened by the ratings sites.

"What if you're having a bad term?" a colleague complained to me. "Your dad dies. Your son's diagnosed with Tourette's, and you develop insomnia. Some freshman rates you poorly on the Web, and your reputation's ruined."

Such is the nature of subjective assessment, now readily on display for anyone with a modem. But in June, research from the College of Business Administration at the University of Northern Iowa found that, in general, student evaluations of teachers are deeply flawed.

"Being knowledgeable, well-prepared and conscientious and producing skilled students can count for very little," UNI marketing professor Dennis Clayson said in releasing the report, "unless the instructor is also well-liked and willing to inflate grades."

I'm a popular professor, but regarded as a hard grader. "Better you hear it from me than a busy New York editor," I tell journalism students.

My university requires us to distribute teacher evaluations to our classes at each term's end. I use them to see what's working, what I need to improve. I trust my students to tell the truth, and I take to heart those forms that read, "Professor Hart's the best teacher I've ever had."


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