• September 12, 2014

In Cheeky Pushback, Colleges Razz Rate My Professors

The Internet can be a nasty place, as academics know well from Rate My Professors.

It is on that website that faculty members might learn, for example, that their students think they are “useless” or a “general moron,” and say anyone “would enjoy eating the rectum of a brown, exotic Australian toad” more than taking their course.

Yes, those are real reviews.

Many professors assail the website and anything that might give it credence. But at least some faculty members have recently concluded that the best way to challenge the site and its unsubstantiated ratings is to mock it without mercy.

Lehigh University became the latest institution to use the website as fodder for comedy. Taking a cue from a popular late-night comedy trope in which celebrities read cruel tweets about them, Lehigh filmed faculty members reading negative comments about themselves from Rate My Professors, and posted the videos online.

“‘Awfully boring class if you’re not interested in environmental engineering,’” says Kristen L. Jellison, an associate professor of environmental engineering, reading a comment aloud.

She looks up, bemused. “Well, it is ‘Intro to Environmental Engineering’ that I was teaching,” she says. “So, OK, duly noted.”

The video, which was posted last Friday, has already racked up about 6,000 views, nearly the size of the university’s student body. The response has been “very strong,” said Jordan B. Reese, director of media relations and producer of the video.

He said he had chosen faculty members with a good sense of humor. Then he would start filming and hand a card with a particularly nasty review to capture their reaction. The goal, he said, was to play with social media while also sending the message that academic rigor is important at Lehigh. Faculty members might take teaching seriously—some commenters complain about course workloads—but they also can take some ribbing.

“This says I’m useless to the IPD program and a general moron,” says Todd A. Watkins, a professor of economics, referring to the university’s Integrated Product Development program. “Hell, I started the dang IPD program!”

Cathartic Shtick

Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night comedy host, popularized the shtick of having people read aloud the incredibly nasty things that other people write about them online, set to “Everybody Hurts,” the plaintive tune by REM.

A good example from the spot’s debut is Andy Dick, the comedian. “Oh, this one’s actually sweet,” he reads. “‘Can it be my turn to punch Andy Dick until there’s bones in his stool?’”

As much as faculty members tend to loathe Rate My Professors, comments on the website rarely approach that level of venom. Many professors simply ignore the site, while others confess to girding themselves to peek at the comments, reasoning that even the rawest feedback can offer useful information.

“We criticize students all the time. That’s the deal,” said Mr. Watkins. “If they can’t do that to us, that’s kind of lopsided.” While he said he doesn’t read the site’s comments, he did find the experience of shooting the Lehigh video to be cathartic.

But he also worries that people will associate him with the two criticisms in the video—that he’s a “general moron” and he rambles. And he answers that critique by rambling, deliberately. In all fairness, students on the site also call him “nice” and “one of the best professors ever.”

Canadian colleges appear to have been the first to apply Mr. Kimmel’s idea to higher education. Professors at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in Toronto, did so last year. Faculty members at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, followed soon after, and their version is perhaps the most successful as a work of comedy, in part because they leave intact the students’ odd word choices and poor syntax, making the criticisms sound even more ridiculous.

“Hes hot in during the lecture, but after lecture hes super cold,” reads Peter Tingling, an associate professor of management information systems.

“Before I attended his class, I thought he was a women prof,” says Enda Brophy, who is an assistant professor of communications. And a man.

Some professors manage to pull off a deadpan delivery. “I found this course to be tediously boring, and Steve was useless, although he is a very nice guy,” reads Stephen Collis, a professor of English, before giving a subtle nod. “Consolation prize.”

Activating Empathy

Striking the right tone can be difficult. Professors aren’t always natural performers, at least not on a par with professional actors. They also aren’t famous, and Mr. Kimmel’s setup works partly because viewers have a “parasocial” relationship to celebrities. That means they often know a great deal about famous people and even feel as if they’re friends with them, even though there’s a vast distance between them, said Dannagal G. Young, an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware.

Ms. Young appeared in a Rate My Professors video produced by students at her institution, Her reviews were uniformly positive, so she attempted to act obtuse and to disparage her students as nerds for liking her course.

In both the professional and amateur versions of the videos, the key to making them funny is to find a comment that is suitably offensive, and for the reader—and object of criticism—to own those sentiments proudly, said Ms. Young, whose scholarly research is on the uses of political humor and satire.

“That allows you not to activate your own empathy,” she said, describing viewers’ responses. “Once empathy is activated, it undercuts the joke.”

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