Web rankings put JMU lecturer Kimberly DuVall-Early at head of national class

"If you don't like your life, change it," Kimberly DuVall-Early tells her psychology students at James Madison University.
"If you don't like your life, change it," Kimberly DuVall-Early tells her psychology students at James Madison University. (Diane Elliott/James Madison University)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

At the front of a steep lecture hall, beneath two broad projection screens, Kimberly DuVall-Early was teaching 100 tightly wound college students how to chill out.

"We think, in our society, that we're supposed to do two or three things at a time," she said. "If you're washing the dishes, just wash the dishes, and focus on that. Go on the quad and just watch the squirrels. It's relaxing."

DuVall-Early's lectures about stress, memory and aging hold students in thrall. A line forms outside her office at James Madison University whenever she is inside. To a legion of freshmen and sophomores away from home for the first time, Professor D is more than an instructor: She is a life coach.

This month, the Web site RateMyProfessors.com named DuVall-Early, 48, the top-rated professor in the nation, based on student appraisals. Worshipful students have logged 125 effusive ratings of her course, Life-span Human Development, over six years, with the average rating falling just below a perfect 5.0 on the professorial virtues of "clarity" and "helpfulness."

"I know she's the best professor I've ever had," said Lis Palmer, 20, a junior from Virginia Beach. "I actually changed my whole schedule around so I could take her class."

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DuVall-Early's chemistry with James Madison students is legend. But she is not, perhaps, an obvious choice for best professor in the nation. She is not even technically a professor.

She taught at James Madison as an adjunct professor for 20 years and was hired full time last year. She has a master's degree, not a doctorate, and carries the title of lecturer. She is not on the tenure track. She teaches 500 students a year and doubles as an adviser -- a very popular adviser -- to 500 students who are considering psychology majors.

But pedigree doesn't count on RateMyProfessors.com. The site is affiliated with MTVU -- not a university, but a cable music channel.

Founded by a California college student 11 years ago, RateMyProfessors has amassed 10 million ratings on 1 million professors at 6,500 colleges. It's a massive, searchable database of professors and courses, in the tradition of student reviews such as Harvard's Q Guide and Wesleyan University's irreverent Squid's Eye View (now known as E-Squid).

"It elevates student voices," said Carlo DiMarco, vice president of university relations at MTV Networks in New York, MTVU's parent company.

The rankings, vetted by a University of Maryland researcher, are surprisingly sophisticated. They use a weighted average of numerical ratings submitted by students over the past three years. Only professors with 30 or more ratings are ranked. The calculations "reward those with consistent long-term performance," said Wolfgang Jank, director of the Center for Complexity in Business at U-Md., who oversaw the project.

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