August 19, 2008

Rate Professor Site Worries Universities ; Some Anonymous Comments on US Website ‘Very Unpleasant’

By James McCarthy

SCORES of academics from across Wales have found themselves targeted by students rating their teaching skills on a US-based website.

Lecturers from universities in Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Newport, Swansea and Wrexhamare among those featured on the New York- registered Rate My Staff are marked under criteria ranging from the severity of their marking standards, to helpfulness, and even how "hot" they are.

Most statements are positive, but net users are free to write whatever they like in the site's comment section, although there is a warning libellous comments will be deleted and a request people keep remarks "clean".

Jem Rowland, a senior lecturer in computer sciences at Aberystwyth University, is rated on the site, although his name is spelled wrongly.

The 61-year-old, who is given full marks for the clarity of his teaching, is described by one student as a "hard proffesor (sic) when it comes to marks. He is helpful to an extent but does not expect to do the work for you."

The father-of-three, from Capel Bangor, near Aberystwyth, said: "We already give students a lot of opportunity to give feedback, and a lot of that is anonymous anyway.

Some of what's written is very constructive, but some of it is actually very unpleasant.

"If students do want to give feedback on their staff, the best way they can do it is through staff-student panels.

"They're a good opportunity for students to voice their concerns, and we put a lot of what we're told into practice in the department."

The University and College Union, which represents academics, was concerned the site could be a forum for bitter students.

A spokesman said: "A lot of the comments are from American students who come over here, so I'm not sure it's quite the phenomenon that some people think it might be.

"The main point of our concerns is that you can post under the cloak of anonymity, so there is no real way of telling who anyone is or why they may be emailing.

"If they have got genuine concerns I would have thought you might want to go and speak to someone rather than shove an off the- cuff remark on to a website.

"There is no way of telling if someone's complaints are genuine or if someone has written a poor essay and got a poor mark and wants to workout their frustrations and think an anonymous quote is the best way.

"If a student has real concerns about a lecturer, rather than sticking a post on a website they should go and speak to whoever the most appropriate person is."

Cardiff University warned undergraduates about posting abusive comments about staff on the web.

A spokesman said: "Cardiff University students have freedom of expression in all media regarding their courses, including the right to criticise, although the university notes that the majority of comments on this particular website are positive.

"However, any form of written abuse made by students in any public media would be considered unacceptable behaviour and could result in disciplinary action.

"If the university is alerted to a potentially defamatory, abusive or offensive comment about a staff member on any website, it may contact the host and request its immediate removal."

And a spokesman for Swansea University said: "The university recognises there may be instances when individual students may feel dissatisfied with their teaching and learning, and the university has robust procedures in place for dealing with any student academic complaints.

"The university advises and encourages its students to make any such complaint through this channel."

Across the Atlantic some American professors have hit back by posting footage of themselves striking out at critics.

One professor, Sally Boysen, of Ohio State University, said: "Why don't you students come to my office sometime, it's there?

"I'm there before class, after class, the day after, the day before, but no-one comes, very seldom."

Rate My Professors was contacted but no-one was available to comment.

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