Any activity can be an art, as long as it inspires. Lecturing is no different. Throughout one’s experience as an undergrad at UC Irvine, one has the luxury of constantly being inspired by a lecture. Some lectures inspire learning and others a siesta. While inspiring mouthfuls of dripping drool can have its glory, the real heroes to any student are those professors who can make an abominable subject digestible.
Lecturing requires the finesse of gauging one’s audience to know when to slow down and when to speed up, when to be serious and when to be light-hearted. Lecturers have to balance opposites to appeal to a crowd of fickle students who morph into cynics the minute they land in an environment that considers learning a priority. In this environment, lecturers are burdened by the judgments of critical students, and that environment can be no less chaotic than a frat party without alcohol. Regardless, some lecturers manage to penetrate seemingly impervious skulls with information while holding steadfast to the rapport they have with their students. So it is time to recognize the best professors who pull this off.
The well-known Web site RateMyProfessor.com was used to identify the best lecturers at UCI. The professor rating system is deemed accurate enough by most students that they often reference it when planning out their academic schedules. To be more representative of student opinion, the search considered only lecturers with 50 or more votes, and if two or more lecturers had identical overall scores, the one with the most votes was given precedence.
Under the auspices of those simple rules, the two best lecturers at UCI are anthropology lecturer Thomas Douglas and math lecturer Catherine Famiglietti. They received near perfect scores of 4.8 and 4.7 respectively. Honorable mentions are given to math lecturer Rachel Lehman and psychology professor Donald Hoffman.
However, don’t throw the confetti yet because the problem of using such simple rules to reach such a grandiose conclusion is self-evident. The problem stems from the set-up of the site.
For one, the ratings on RateMyProfessor.com are not current. They are a collection of evaluations from all the students who have had the instructor since his or her name was put up on the site. So instructors who may have started as turtles, slow and inarticulate in the subject they know best, will always be haunted by those original evaluations, regardless of their current ability. The ghosts of the past will be their bane in the future and will help shape the opinions of prospective students, who are quick to be contemptuous of instructors at the bottom of the ratings ladder.
The opposite also holds true: Instructors who start off knowing no wrong – instructors that have ballads carved out in their names on toilet stalls – will always be boosted by their original ratings, regardless of how lethargic they have gotten at the skill they once possessed.
The outdated nature of the system poses a minor problem since most instructors retain a predictable consistency. There is also a far more egregious problem that tends to skew results in the favor of the polls. The problem is the passion of the vengeful and the infatuated. Even though RateMyProfessor.com is accessed by a large portion of the student body, only the vocal minority take the precious time to submit votes.
To make matters worse, they are able to submit more than one vote, amplifying their voices. So the results tend to be of one extreme or the other, which isn’t conspicuous from a simple glance at the final score. The ratings are either from students who burn effigies of an instructor or dream of establishing a formal cult around one. The middle ground is no ground and is virtually nonexistent. Unless all college professors fall into these categories, RateMyProfessor.com should be traversed while being circumspect of the passions within.
The problem shouldn’t be blamed on an Internet startup that has a monopoly on ratings. The problem is that a lack of resources equals unbalanced opinions and questionable decisions. Students access the site because it is the only resource available in locating an instructor suitable to their needs. Skewed information is better than no information. An alternative does exist, one that everyone is familiar with: the quarterly teacher evaluations filled out by students. The teacher evaluations are more representative of student opinions and are current. They provide a more in-depth overview of instructors’ strengths and weaknesses. With all the upside, such a golden resource, by virtue of an administrative decision, is still not open to students, leaving students little choice but to open their browsers and put their faith in the passions of the few.
Ali Saadi is a third-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.