A history professor at Northeastern University in Boston has just developed a tool to search the ubiquitous student rankings found at “Rate My Professor.” For those of you who don’t know ratemyprofessor, it is an online site where college students can go and “rate” their professors on a range of factors, some related to their teaching (and to student learning) and others, not so much (students can assign a hot chili pepper to those professors that the students find, well, “hot”). Because this rating system is voluntary, and not administered to all students in a given course, it tends to disproportionately draw students who either love or hate particular professors.
As a female professor, I have had my share of caustic student comments (on university evaluations as well as ratemyprofessor) that have taken on a gendered tone. But as a tenured, full professor, I have less concern for myself than for the deeply unsettling insight that this data exposes about how sexism is working in the classroom (for an example of this put the terms “smart” and “intelligent” in the search engine and check out the results). My concern is both for the learning environment and how students’ own sexism is negatively impacting the students in question as well as for the junior female professors who struggle with questions of their classroom persona, their teaching authority, and how best to embody what it means to be a smart, intelligent, and respected teacher and scholar in a world where those categories are still, too often, defined by male norms. A good friend and colleague is currently writing a piece on how women professors decide how to dress in the classroom for a teaching website, a question that, I suspect, is far more challenging for women professors than our male colleagues.