Are you a college professor? Maybe an adjunct, or a TA? If so, I apologize. I’m afflicted with a case of academia, too. Let’s help each other. If the job weren’t hard enough, we suffer from rating anxiety. Not just semester evaluations, no. RateMyProfessor gives students a platform to say whatever they want about us to a wide public audience. Students are so judgmental sometimes. You make one small mistake in November, like showing up hungover in a cocktail dress with puke on it, and that’s all they can remember. Forget all those hours you spent grading their awful papers, pumping up their egos, telling them shit like, “You’re on the right track. But maybe some sources would help?”
On the other hand, a lot of professors genuinely suck. I’ve lived some true horror stories. One of my professors accused me of plagiarism before he’d even read my paper. He made me write another one, then he emailed me to change his mind. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “Your title looked familiar at first. But when I read past the first paragraph, I realized it was clearly your work.” Another professor used an entire 2-hour class period to show us funny YouTube videos that had nothing to do with the course.
What was he doing? Trying to pump up his RateMyProfessors score probably. You see, I’m fine with that site. But they’re worth making fun of. After all, they don’t really foster an atmosphere of respect for education. Do they? They’re trying to gain traffic and sell ads. The more salacious the comments, the better. A few years ago, they even added a platform for professors to “strike back.” They could upload video responses to their students. Fun. I imagine that would go over well during my tenure review, a video of me mocking my students.
Anyway, I’m not here to bitch about RateMyProfessor. I’m here to help you, the poor teacher with a tepid green emoji by your name and no chili pepper. Research on student evaluations shows us that two equally effective instructors can earn completely different ratings based on their personalities and appearance (plus gender and race, but that’s a can of worms I won’t open here). It doesn’t matter how much students learn. It matters how much fun they have while learning, and how painless you can make it. So here’s my advice:
- Free textbooks. Seriously, don’t make them pay for a textbook if you can help it. I’ve used open access, online materials with PDF scans for almost two full years now. Students loved me instantly. I’ve seen a huge shift in their mood, and even how much they read. Think about it. How do your first two weeks ago, if you spend half your time passive-aggressively berating students who didn’t want to shell out an extra $120 for your class? It also sets you up for failure, because that’s the first thing they’ll complain about. “We didn’t use the textbook much.” I can’t even fathom how often I’ve seen that on student ratings.
- Flirt with your students. Admittedly, this doesn’t work for everyone. But it’s worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen, sexual harassment complaint? Actually, never mind.
- Dress to suit your persona. I used to wear a pantsuit to teach. Those days are over. I’m much more comfortable with dress casual. I feel more like myself (barely holding back the snark.) Pantsuits made me look like I was trying to prove something. I’ll usually just throw a cropped blazer over whatever I’m wearing. It works much better.
- Let them call you by your first name. Nothing exudes arrogance like insisting on Dr. This or Professor That. Wake up. You’re teaching millennials. For them, respect is earned, not given. You might think you’re commanding respect from students by throwing out your credentials. But not really. You have to show them you’re a good teacher. Here’s what you should really do: The first week, I subtly drop my PhD on them during the icebreaker activities. Then they’ll ask what they should call me. I tell them just use my first name. Mad respect.
- Let them teach you about pop culture. I’m somewhat literate in contemporary music. But not really. You’d think that would hurt my rating. I play it up, though. I tell them I don’t know the difference between Beyonce and Kim Kardashian. They’re like, “Girl, lemme tell you!” They get a huge thrill out of interacting with someone who knows nothing about their world.
- Show YouTube videos, but not too many. Got your lesson plan all ready? Go find some clips for the beginning or end of class to spice things up. Also, students might reference things you can look up on Vimeo. They love it, especially if they’re talking about something I haven’t seen.
- Be honest. Why? Honesty’s funny. Example: We were talking about a short assignment last semester, and my students were whining a little bit. So I reduced the page length, and turned it into a memo. They sighed relief and made some jokes. I laughed and said, “I’m doing myself a favor too. Because honestly, this is a boring ass project to grade.” I almost didn’t say that because I didn’t want to offend them. Instead, they burst out laughing. See? Sometimes, you should just say what you’re thinking. It makes you human. And students like humans.
- Be fair. When you fuck up (and you will), you should own it and explain what happened. Give them a concession. That’s how the real world works. People make mistakes, and they make it right. A couple of times, I had to cancel class on short notice. I felt guilty about it. So instead of ignoring my guilt, I gave everyone a one-day free pass on attendance. In other words, they got an extra absence on top of what they already had. They like that kind of fairness.
- Trust your students. Yeah, some will lie to you about stuff. Once, a student ran up to me in the hallway and delivered this flamboyant story about how his grandma died during a charity event and that he would have to fly across the country tomorrow to attend her funeral and take care of his grieving parents, who were both diabetic by the way. Something in his eyes and voice made me suspicious. I knew there was some kind of huge festival coming up that weekend. He wasn’t my best pupil, but not my worst. His attendance was so-so. I just shrugged and said, “Let me know when you get back.” A lesser teacher might’ve made an issue of it, but you know what? I didn’t care. This guy had already made a decision to miss my class. The silver lining? He cared enough about my opinion to try and save face. When in doubt, trust your students until it’s painfully clear you can’t.
Overall, the point is to take yourself less seriously as a teacher. Nothing hurts like trying to act like something you’re not. I have expectations and standards, but sometimes I also don’t care so much about things like late papers, tardiness, and cell phone use. I’m a believer in natural consequences. If someone shows up late and texts in class all the time, they’re going to screw up on their tests and papers and come begging me for help eventually. They’re at my mercy then. The worst teachers are the ones who either try hard to be someone else, or just don’t give a shit at all. Try to land somewhere in the middle.