Earlier today this article was mentioned. It is sort of hard to find, but I've clipped it from a PDF I have of it. The formatting sucks. Sorry. But you can get the gist. Obviously I was interviewed for it, but I choose to let the text stand for itself without any commentary.
Rankings and Ravings in the Academic Public
Sara Biggs Chaney Rhetoric Review, 30:2, 191-207, 2011.
RateMyProfessors.com has received critical reception in the academy: While
some college teachers and administrators express support for the site, others complain
that it invades their privacy and impinges on their academic freedom. This
essay looks closely at one response to Rate My Professors, a weblog titled Rate
Your Students that was founded in 2005. The site offers a compelling example of
how Rate My Professors—and the movement to commodify higher education that
it represents—affects public discourse between students and teachers.
Though most teachers experience both highs and lows in the classroom,
the Internet and its users too often prefer to publicize the lows at the expense
of the highs.1 From academic weblogs featuring sour criticism of our course
descriptions to embarrassing videos of our latest bad jokes during lecture—
captured on laptops and, moments later, posted to YouTube—pundits, parents,
and students rarely tire of revealing their college teachers’ perceived inadequacies.
Increasingly common, however, are the cases in which teachers incriminate
themselves. Perhaps the Internet’s many opportunities for public exchange are to
blame: Between The Chronicle fora, the growing network of weblogs, and even
the “Teacher Talk Back” video segments on RateMy Professors, teachers need not
look far for an opportunity to display their worst sides and revel in their lowest
lows. The academic weblog Rate Your Students—a site proudly insulting college
students since its inception in 20052—is a prime example of this reveling. The
site offers a forum in which self-identified college teachers can curse their students
and risk embarrassing their profession on a daily basis. This April 26, 2009
post from a college teacher is typical:
They are trying to steal my joy, but I will NOT let them. I want to say,
“FUCK YOU” to so many of them, it’s not even funny. But instead,
I’m just tired . . . I’m tired of the STUPID, INSANE, ASININE
remarks that are made in lieu of the intelligent remarks that would
come to mind if you READ THE FUCKING ASSIGNMENT. Yes,
there are no “Right Answers” but there are intelligent comments.
There IS a difference.
As is no doubt apparent, the site usually aims for dark and rageful humor but more
often devolves into juvenile catharsis or mewling complaint, as when “Erin from
Erie” tells her Tuesday morning class that
[f]rankly I am disappointed at your choice to spend the first fifteen
minutes of class bitching me out for your inability to read, but unsurprised
no one in this section understood it (a class announcement)—
you are rather slow . . . Maybe—just maybe—if you didn’t take up
class time bitching about how much work you had to do outside of
class, there would be less work you needed to do—gasp!—outside
class! (December 11, 2009)
Since this cyber-community could win a grudge match in immaturity with their
most difficult students, the site seems an unlikely example of public, academic
rhetoric. Yet in this essay I will treat Rate Your Students (hereafter, RYS) as
exactly that—a public, producing rhetoric that is symptomatic of the constrained
teaching conditions in increasingly market-driven institutions of higher education
and representative of a new strain of public discourse produced by those
An initial look at RYS might prompt readers to cry: “Surely this kind of drivel
is not representative of the academic community.” While that may seem intuitively
true, the blog’s growing web traffic and biographical head notes suggest
otherwise. Site representatives claim that since 2005 the blog has attracted “about
200,000 different visitors a month, and in the past few months it’s been approaching
400,000 a month” (personal correspondence, May 15, 2009). A look back at
the site’s short history also confirms this growth in popularity, with the number
of posts steadily increasing each year. Particularly in the first year of the community’s
life, the webmasters attached biographical head notes to many of the posts
that signal a diversity of participation. Head notes describing posters that hail from
very different regions of the country and types of institutions clearly suggest, if
not the reality of diversity, then at least an interest in appearing publically representative.
Academic professionals from different disciplines, institutions, and
professional experiences appear to be included here, joined only by their commonly
sour dispositions. More recently, the creation of Facebook groups like
“That’s ‘Professor’ Uptight to You, Johnny”—which marks its birth in “2009,
the year of the great California Budget Implosion,” and claims 7,786 members at
the time of writing—suggests that this strain of public discourse has real traction
for college teachers, particularly in a time of economic hardship.
Of course, in the case of RYS, the anonymous conditions of Internet participation
mask the material public behind the computer screen, making it impossible
to know what sort of academics truly comprise it. Even so, RYS remains a public
of the sort that can be evoked and sustained through the circulation of texts.3 Just
as Michael Warner explained to us how colonial newspapers offered readers an
opportunity to participate in the construction of the public as a concept through
common reading and writing practices, likewise, any academic could choose to
accept RYS’s invitation to public participation. Like other public fora, RYS features
a rhetoric that offers a common identity position for those who read and
write it, and in this sense at least, it is indeed one of the multiple publics currently
offering a forum for discussion of issues in college teaching.
Also, much as members of the traditional print public were supposedly granted freedom to
“talk back to power” by virtue of the public’s independence from state and market
authority, posters on RYS use the site to “talk back” on matters that they
could not articulate in the same way (or with the same tones) within the confines
of other local and national institutions. They “talk back” to the power embodied
by RateMyProfessors.com (hereafter, RMP), a power that comes to represent
a range of professional concerns—from the basic right to work without undue
harassment, to the loftier ideals of intellectual freedom and the right to privacy—
currently impacting most college teachers. By joining other academic fora (The
Chronicle being the most obvious) in their public response, the members of RYS
have risen up to defend their constituency by exercising their right to critique and
reflect on the nature of a power that, from one view, threatens their academic freedom
and professional well-being. In this sense, they follow a tradition of public
discourse in the service of professional and civic equity.
However, RYS’s comically debased representation of college teaching clearly
differentiates it from other academic publics.4 Participants marshal a rhetoric
of embattled powerlessness to express the miseries of teaching (“I want to say,
‘FUCK YOU’ to so many of them, it’s not even funny. But instead, I’m just
tired”). What warrants this exaggerated performance? I will argue in this essay
that the public rhetoric of RYS is in part a response to the consumerist infringement
on the classroom of which RMP is just one example. By focusing on their
teaching as work and themselves as often imperfect and sometimes unwilling
workers, posters talk back to a business model of college teaching that threatens to
commodify college teachers and their pedagogical product. In the process of performatively
scapegoating students as the primary representatives of consumerism
in the classroom, posters portray teaching as communicative work that often fails,
not because the product/Professor is faulty but because the dialogue on which
good teaching relies has broken down. In dramatizing this breakdown, posters
reject traditional norms of public, deliberative rhetoric to embrace a debasing
rhetoric of emotional self-display.
Analysis of RYS as a public yields results that should be of interest to scholars
and teachers of rhetoric. As a case study, the site stretches the boundaries of how
we define public rhetoric, obliging us to reconsider how the assumed features
of public discourse are changing, and how they stand to change the work of the
classroom.5 More precisely, my analysis of RYS and its rhetorical response to
RMP advances our understanding of an issue that should concern us equally, as
both rhetoric scholars and pedagogues: how public dialogue functions in spaces
defined by consumerism.
Balancing Practice with Theory in Public Writing Scholarship
Public rhetoric has recently received ample attention in composition and
rhetoric scholarship (see Ervin; Mentzell Ryder; Weisser; Welch; Wells), and
much of this work shares a common view of the public as multiple and conflicted.6
Susan Wells, ChristianWeisser, and Elizabeth Ervin have all cautioned us against
thin definitions of public engagement, and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder reminds us
that publics are multiple, culturally and linguistically diverse, and often in conflict
with each other. Mentzell Ryder argues that “a pedagogy of public writing
demands that teachers and students recognize the public as a site of struggle,” a
perspective that can help us understand the importance of the struggles between
multiple publics like RMP and RYS. Public fora are spaces in which countless
groups are “trying to find affirmation for the world we see and for our way of
being in that world” (7). Thus multiple publics will exist in a tension that reflects
the diversity of perspectives they represent, a diversity almost impossible to quantify
in the United States. Using this definition of publics, we can understand RMP
and RYS as separate but complementary expressions of identity and self-interest
that display, in a contained format, the push and pull of all public discourse.
Yet we still lack full insight into the structure and mediation of publics
because the important theories on this topic are usually applied to classroom practice,
in some cases cutting short a more thorough investigation of their theoretical
implications. For example, Mentzell Ryder turns the conclusions of her analysis
toward the classroom, noting that since publics are spaces of conflict, writing and
rhetoric students should not be encouraged to enter them without adequate selfreflection,
purpose, commitment, and support. Both she and others (PaulaMathieu
and Eli Goldblatt, most recently) have turned to service learning and community
writing as stages on which students can apply a more nuanced understanding of
multiple publics and their interactions. In the community-as-classroom, students
can experience public rhetoric in living context, allowing them to learn the art
from the inside and avoid generalization or superficial engagement.
These applications of public writing and rhetoric scholarship, while valuable,
turn toward improved classroom practice in lieu of a deeper investigation of
the forces shaping multiple publics and speeding their proliferation. For instance,
we need to know more about how neoliberal privatization is transforming public
rhetoric, in part by increasing the number of capitalist-sponsored public fora
in which readers and writers are invited to participate. From advertising-driven
weblog sites, to media conglomerates, to corporate sponsored educational ranking
sites, there are few fora of public expression in which capital interests are
not only participating in but dictating the terms of expression. Neoliberalism—“a
reassertion of classical economic liberalism’s central tenet that major political and
social decisions are best decided by the market” (Welch, Living Room 7)—has a
profound effect on public discourse, particularly since the public has traditionally
been defined in theory as a space mediating economic and political spheres.
As economic, social, and political spheres of authority become ever more indistinct,
we know that the traditional intermediary space of the public continually
transforms in kind, although we remain uncertain about how and to what effect.
In particular, those who do address how privatization is shaping public rhetoric
have not investigated the effect on teachers’ public identity in relation to their
students. For instance, in her recent work on public writing pedagogy in what
she calls a “post-public age,” Nancy Welch observes that “our existence suddenly
appears so thoroughly economized that what we find under siege isn’t privacy
but publicity: our rights and access to a public self” (34). Such moments are
evermore characteristic of a public (or, in Welch’s conception, postpublic) world
dominated by privatization and social consumerism, in which “something like
public voice, something like public action . . . [is] not only channeled into consumerism
but defined as consumerism from the very start” (35). Although Welch
makes a powerful case for how the public and private have been transformed by
trends in economic policy and practice, her discussion extends less completely to
those conflicts that might place teachers at odds with students. For instance, she
argues that teachers of public writing and rhetoric should teach students to act
as a mass public in the tradition of the many great labor solidarity movements in
the twentieth century, which presumes that college students and teachers are not
already on opposing sides of at least one labor struggle.7 As RYS clearly suggests,
college teachers do not necessarily share labor or class investments with their students.
On the contrary, neoliberal privatization places many college teachers in
a combative relation to their students, which certainly compromises their ability
to pursue a strategy of solidarity in the classroom. My point is not just that students
and teachers are often not on the same side in public battles over education
but that the privatization of academic publics places some teachers at a perceived
disadvantage that is reflected in their embattled and uncivil rhetoric.
Public Rhetoric on Rate My Professors (and Why So Many People Hate It)
In her recent article “E-Valuating Learning,” Kelly Ritter demonstrates
how student rhetoric on Rate My Professors can be valuable in the classroom
(“E-Valuating Learning”). However, in the course of making her argument, she
assumes that “students . . . [are] arguably the chief agents shaping public rhetorics
of pedagogy” in a system that “is regulated by the students themselves” (260).
Here Ritter disregards how the site itself—its design, and the capital interests
behind it—might play an important role in shaping public rhetoric on RMP. How
you say something is shaped by the media in which you say it, and the consequences
of this shaping are particularly crucial when the media form is itself
sponsored by capitalist organizations.While Ritter may be right that some student
exchanges on RMP aspire to a more deliberative public authority, it is critical to
my argument that the site itself promotes the commodification of the educational
product (represented by the professor), and less directly, the standardization of
students’ critical, public voice.
The commodifying of college teachers and their teaching begins on the home
page of Rate My Professors, where visitors were at one time invited to begin
their rating experience by locating themselves on a national map. Users can pinpoint
themselves in a national community of students that transcends any local
institution.8 Actual schools are only mentioned in a subordinated position on the
opening page, as a part of the twin lists, positioned side by side, of “hottest”
and “highest rated” professors. Because commodification is founded on the erasure
of a product’s origins and the labor relations that produced it, the site’s
original visual argument—that college classes in vastly different contexts are
somehow the same (or can be evaluated by similar criteria)—supports a commodifying
logic. Just as objects become commodities when their individual differences
are removed and their exchange value determined, teaching becomes commodified
when the very specific, local labor relations that produce it are erased in
favor of a standard set of values that make teaching and teachers easier to compare
and exchange. The standardized system of measurement employed by the
site, for instance, instructs students in what aspects of teaching they should prioritize.
“Easiness—helpfulness—clarity—and Rater Interest” are the metrics of
that measurement, defined in language that blends the priority of the consumer
survey—product efficiency—with the priority of the teen magazine (represented
by the chili pepper that users can award to a “hot” teacher). Each teacher’s rating
page is dubbed a “score card,” with their rating numbers listed in multiple bright
colors and surrounded by familiar Internet icons. This layout touts the pleasures
of quantification for a childish audience through visual and verbal analogies to
baseball cards or RPG (role-playing game) profiles. In this playful context, the
teacher and their teaching can be replaced with the score, a number that is easily
consumed, processed, and compared.
In the process of standardizing education as a product, RMP sells the student
a role of consumer-judge, and in this respect it works in tandem with the
economic and cultural forces that are famously working toward the university’s
so-called “corporatization” over the past years. The site’s measure of overall quality
is analogous to the generic measure of excellence that Bill Readings discovered
to be the catchword of the newly bureaucratized university. No longer required to
function as an ideological arm of the nation-state, colleges and universities now
self-define and self-regulate within a discursive framework provided by technological
capitalism. As a generic term of measurement, excellence “responds very
well to the needs of technological capitalism in the production and processing of
information, in that it allows for the increasing integration of all activities into
a generalized market, while permitting a large degree of flexibility and innovation
at the local level” (Readings 32). This flexibility exists primarily to allow
for better niche marketing and the shaping of the product to consumer demand.
It is therefore no coincidence that the site offers students a playful version of the
university’s market-driven standards, wrapping up the complementary worlds of
Internet gaming and corporate economics into one whimsical package. This package
is designed to make public agency easy and instantaneously rewarding, while
also gathering information about the participants as a potential consumer base.
RMP is also even more directly powered by the engines of capitalism. In
January 2007 the MTV network’s 24-hour college network, MTVU, contracted
to buy Rate My Professors. Christina Norman, the president of MTV, notes that
“this acquisition reflects MTV’s strategy of being everywhere our audience is and
harnessing its creative firepower, in this case the millions of ratings generated
by students on RateMyProfessors.com” (Associated Press, January 17, 2007).
In his comment on the purchase, Jeff Chester, executive director of Center
for Digital Democracy, explained that MTV/Viacom/National Amusements
snapped up the rating site as part of a larger (and high-stakes) competition to
harness the advertising potential of the Internet. For MTVU, the purchase was
really about acquiring consumer profiles. “Advertisers in today’s shifting markets
are desperate to win the loyalty of eighteen-to-thirty-four-year olds. Owning
RateMyProfessors.com would give MTVU and its parent company, Viacom Inc.,
access to valuable data” (Vance, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 26,
2007). Although student commentary on their teachers is, in part, the diversionary
activity that business minds hope will hold students just long enough to attract
their attention to the commercial links and banners that now adorn the site,
the character of the activity is not irrelevant. This is critical, rhetorical activity
in service of a discerning consumer subjectivity. As I will demonstrate, the
public rhetoric structured in and produced through the site is itself an engine of
consumerism, or as Welch explains it, “something like public voice . . . defined
as consumerism from the very start” (35).
Of course, we must acknowledge that how a public voice is mediated does
not predetermine its eventual expression. Therefore, it is necessary to consider
how the student users take up the invitation to claim a kind of public voice as the
site presents it. In my analysis of Rate My Professors, I reviewed one hundred
professor profiles from a range of public and private, rural and urban, large and
small campuses. My purposeful sample was drawn from introductory writing and
literature classes, with cases selected on the basis of the complexity and depth
of rhetorical content they would provide. I chose rating threads in which students
had a substantial amount to say and which lent themselves to the kind of rhetorical
analysis I wanted to undertake.9 In my analysis of student reviews on Rate My
Professors, I found that the public rhetoric produced independently by students
in the comment box at their disposal was primarily in keeping with the designlogic
of the site. Students engaged the site as multitasking consumers might—by
engaging the system of evaluation at their disposal to have their consumer needs
met. My reading of the site suggests that participants in this public are united in a
self-interest defined in economic terms, a fundamentally neoliberal outlook—one
that presumes the social value of education to be measurable in the language of
the market—that produces unsavory response from academic quarters.
What They Said: Listening to Critical Discourse in the Commercial Public
Student-raters in my sample saw most positive instructor characteristics
(from humor, to knowledgeableness, to verbal skill) as the means to the most
desirable end of ease. One rater says of his first-year writing teacher: “He is a
funny guy, and he works hard to make class interesting and keep students happy. I
thought this class was very easy.” Another student uses a telling list of supposedly
parallel adjectives to describe her literature professor: “Wonderful, understanding,
and lenient” while another writing student notes: “This class was cake. She
let us go outside on nice days, brought her dogs in sometimes, and was just a super
nice and fun teacher. . . . Oh and she only believes in positive criticism.” These
students see education as something to be overcome, and the best representatives
of education as those who help you overcome it with minimum effort. Although
one could say that this student is passing on useful advice for success—“just pay
attention and go to class”—even the advice is focused on the minimal required
output for desired results. This kind of practical consumer subjectivity—one that
conflates ease, entertainment, and quality—is encouraged by the design-logic of
Most teachers are familiar with this kind of student attitude and skilled at
teaching both to and beyond it. Yet the fact that we can usually manage such
attitudes in practice does not make them unworthy of cultural analysis. In this
case, the students’ logic values the teacher who is most easily evacuated of
human variability over one whose identity interferes with consumption. Because
many students characterize a good quality educational product as easily consumable,
they are quick to mark a professor down for any attributes that supposedly
interfere with that imperative. Accordingly, many critique their supposedly disorganized
teachers as faulty cogs in the educational machine. Of her instructor,
one student asks: “What the f∗∗∗ is he doing? Could not understand anything
in class and needs, needs!! To be organized.” Another warns prospective buyers
of his English teacher to “be warned, very disorganized! He lost a few people’s
papers!” while another exclaims: “Seriously WORST prof ever had! Extremely
unorganized and irresponsible w/lame excuses.” The concern about disorganization
is not a neutral observation but rather a rhetorical convention in most
negative ratings, one often accompanied by the complaint of “tangent-taking”
(a close relative to disorderliness). “I’ve never met another person who goes on
more tangents,” one student declared. This common criticism is given its negative
charge by contrast to those who are “straight to the point.” Here, a set of
common, consumer-minded values are expressed, manifesting as extreme impatience
for any evidence of the professor’s humanity that might still be infecting the
classroom. The very fact that this complaint is so typical in the students’ rhetoric
suggests that it is also reflective of the values around which this public organizes.
These shared values also lead many students to object vociferously to professor
politics. “Just another crazy liberal English teacher,” one student notes
dismissively. One teacher who won big points for personality still received the
comment: “Doesn’t take things too seriously, but knows what she’s doing. Only
fault is her politics.” Within a layout for evaluation that emphasizes ease and
clarity, it is reasonable to infer that students make repeated mention of politics
because they detract from these commercial standards. No student raters that I
studied took time to explain their own opposing politics, suggesting that they have
less a point of political disagreement with their teacher than a general objection to
political expression in the classroom, in so far as it makes their easy consumption
of the educational product more difficult.
In sum, students on RMP express educational values that support the standardizing
and commodifying of higher educational experience, and the professor
as its representative. In embracing these public values, many student raters place
themselves in potentially hostile relation to the professor as a commodity, suggesting
in their “critical feedback” that a good teacher should be less individual,
less imperfect, less situated, less human. This should begin to demonstrate not
only how significantly students’ public discourse is impacted by commercialization
but also how this impact could complicate the public relationship between
students and teachers. The commercial structure of RMP also points to one reason
why the answering rhetoric of Rate Your Students explodes with exuberant
and at times unsavory markers of the professor’s embodied, affective humanity.
In what follows I will analyze the unsavory rhetoric of Rate Your Students
and the values it promotes and resists. I argue that this darker academic public
has been “called out” to the public sphere, not by students alone but by the commercializing
structures that mediate and shape their expressed values and critical
Slo-Pitching It Big Time: The Public Work of College Teaching on Rate
Rate Your Students reads well as satire, but more than satiric impulse has
held together this community around the same rhetorical conventions for more
than three years. What may have begun as a subtle joke has expanded to a public
rhetoric through sustained circulation and participation. One reason may lie
in the site’s portrait of college classrooms as unfavorable ground for pedagogical
idealism. Today’s institutions of higher learning are fallen worlds, according to
a post of April 27, 2009. Once “educational juggernauts,” they are now circles
of hell, where academic professionals are forced to work while forever bereft of
teachable students. This work demoralizes, as “Mutinous Mildred” notes in her
post of December 14, 2008, “[E]very year I reach the end of term staggering, head
hanging, plodding one foot in front of the other, grimly pushing that rock up hill.”
Exacerbating the misery of teaching is the stupidity of the average “snowflake”
(student), whom posters frequently refer to as “last week’s idiot” or “my favorite
moron” (“Only Two Idiots? Sounds Like an Honors Class to Us,” Monday,
December 18, 2008). In the site’s most typical posting scenario, the teacher
releases rage internally while confronting a snowflake, as in a post of December
13, 2008 in which the teacher thinks to him or herself while trying to help a struggling
student: “Duh . . . you sit in front and I can see you don’t do a f#$%ing
thing.” Anger is a recurrent and usually repressed condition for the teacher, but an
exaggerated performance and site of identification in the public of RYS.
This shared world of angry teachers and stupid students suggests a non-elite
teaching environment, one that denies dignity to all partners in the teaching relationship.
An imagined rebuttal to a student email (“Totally Fake But Fun Replies
to Student Email. Latest in a Series,” Tuesday, April 28, 2009) demonstrates this
unfortunate circumstance well:
The final exam is really early in the exam schedule which hopefully
gets you off on your summer holiday sooner than competing courses.
Assignments should be fairly minimal in number and length. And
my friend, between you and me, I’m gonna slo-pitch this bitch big
time because I’m so low on the totem pole that I probably won’t be
assigned a TA or a marker to serve as a buffer between me and market
savvy consumers such as yourself.
Note how the poster ruefully acknowledges his or her total lack of authority in
these working circumstances: He or she stands at a disadvantage in relation to
students, other teachers, and the institution itself. The lowest teaches the lowest,
and neither is enriched in the process. A mixture of vitriol and self-satire only partially
dilutes the honest assessment of many college teachers’ working situation
as it is presented here. Within the public of RYS, participants are invited to selforganize
around both that realist assessment of labor conditions for many college
teachers and the affective pose that frames it—beleaguered, self-deprecating, even
at times debauched, posters commonly represent themselves through the lens of
mistreatment and humiliation in their working lives.
Although the posters’ routine attacks against their students’ intelligence may
seem mean-spirited and even childish, a closer analysis of these put-downs reveals
much about how this public understands teaching as work. A closer look at the
site’s typical scenarios reveals that posters find their students remote and uncommunicative.
In fact, failed communication defines the labor of teaching in the
conventional encounter described in this typical post, “Boston’s Bitchy Bear
Passes Out A Final”:
“Do you have any questions?” I ask.
Dead silence. They start talking to each other. “Can we go?” A guy
in a baseball cap asks. I recognize baseball cap guy as the guy who
has turned in the crappiest work I’ve ever seen. “Sure.” I say, “You
can go. But I’ll stay and discuss the exam with anybody who has
any questions.” Most start packing stuff. “Sure you don’t have any
questions?” I say.
“Do you expect us to have read the books for these questions?”
In such moments of failed communication, students are unresponsive to their
teachers’ appeals. The moment of “giving directions” highlights this problem,
since it is then that the teacher must make him or herself understood in order to
complete the circuit of labor, and repeatedly collides with the students’ apparent
narcissistic indifference when attempting to do so. In a report of the academic
“Fall at Eden” on April 27, 2009, another teacher laments: “I cannot fathom how
far students have dropped, that following directions has become a nearly impossible
task for them. . . . I wish I could say it was one Stupid Snowflake that struggles
with this . . . but it’s most of them” (“The Fall At Eden”). Of course, the structure
of RMP is likely to work better for such students, since it allows them to shape
information as a function of their preferences rather than forcing them to receive
and process information of which they are not the origin.
It is such unabashed narcissism, supported by the culture of student-centered
(rather than learner-centered) pedagogy that takes the blame for failed teaching
in the public rhetoric of RYS. As “Bitchy Bear” explains, on her way
to breezily dismissing the philosophy of active-learning as pandering: “I usually
lecture for 30 minutes out of a 3-hour class. The rest of the time is
play-time, whee, where all their little creations are praised as the very products
of genius. I know: thirty minutes of something being not about them is
akin to waterboarding, but what can I say? I’m old school” (“Boston’s Bitchy
Bear Passes Out a Final.”). Throughout the RYS postings, a pedagogy centered
more on students than their learning debases teachers and their labor,
making them enablers of the very conditions that make education impossible.
For instance, for “Bitchy Bear,” student-centered pedagogy clearly panders
to students’ self-centeredness, logically making it more difficult for them to
receive the teacher’s communication if it does not relate clearly to the satisfaction
of their needs. Another anonymous poster marvels at her “favorite moron”
“Uhm, could I have an exemption to this exam question?”
“I didn’t get this one at all.”
“What do you want me to do?” I ask, incredulously.
“Let me write another question.”
Although framed here as a comical example of students’ self-interested audacity
and lack of respect for authority, the idea of allowing the student to write
a new question would probably pass for sound pedagogy in some quarters.
Within the framework of a learner-centered philosophy, for instance, allowing
students to write exam questions places more responsibility on the learner to
guide their own learning process. Ideally, the instructor would spend less time
controlling the course content and more time building a learning environment
within which students can productively direct their own learning. In this exchange,
however, the teacher mischaracterizes sound pedagogy as mere pandering to student
weaknesses. Though this is certainly not how most teachers who embrace a
student/learner-centered approach understand their objectives, it is interesting to
consider that in this context posters associate student-centered pedagogy with the
more pervasive problem of commercialization and its effect on teaching. If we
consider this association through the subjective lens of the beleaguered teacher, it
makes better sense. Teachers who already feel themselves to be in a service role
in relation to their students clearly find it more difficult to distinguish students’
expressions of agency—of which their ability to judge and evaluate the classroom
is one example—from their consumer role.
In the end, even the angriest posters on RYS keep trying to communicate,
as they feel obligation requires, to students not prepared or willing to receive the
information. “Mutinous Mildred” reports that “this term there are 509 emails from
students in my ‘teaching’ folder. I’ve answered them bloody all. And again it’s not
just the time; it’s the emotional energy, and the energy, especially, it takes to say
‘no.”’ (“Mutinous Mildred Finds a ‘Vision,”’ Sunday, December 14, 2008). For
Mildred the failed communicative labor has a psychic, unquantifiable cost. For
other posters this same unquantifiable cost expresses itself in the range of standard
postures most common to the public of RYS—surliness, cynicism, even a
penchant for ad hominem attack. This public representation of college teachers
counteracts RMP’s commodification of teaching in at least two ways. First, by
presenting teaching as a labor of communication, posters resist its reduction to
the status of a good. Education is not something a student can acquire but rather a
communicative process in which they all too often decline to participate. Second,
posters highlight and construct common ground around the emotional labor of
teaching, giving it public visibility and potential public significance as a site of
community. Whereas markers of the teacher’s subjectivity are eschewed on RMP
as embodied inefficiency within the educational system, on RYS they are rescued
and reevaluated in unexpected forms. Regardless of whether we as teacher scholars
personally approve of this public response to Rate My Professors, we can
still acknowledge what it stands to teach us about public dialogue in a neoliberal,
Reconsiderations of Public Writing and Rhetoric
How should teachers’ multiple public relations to their students inform pedagogy?
To some extent, recent treatments of public writing and rhetoric pedagogy
presume that teachers can strategically simplify or even disregard the range of
pre-existing public relations we may have with our students in order to more easily
teach them strategies of entry into the public sphere. While I admire the objective
of teaching students to contribute to a future, more perfect public through rhetorical
action, I suspect that our teaching of public action would be grounded more
solidly by a closer, initial study of the publics in which they are already actively
involved. For instance, by studying the structure of multiple publics in relation to
each other, students can begin to understand how their conscious intentions cannot
always fully account for the effects of their participation in particular commercial
publics. Public participation, in the case of the two sites I discussed in this essay,
is truly a dialogue, and more importantly, it is a dialogue not only between people
but also between the socioeconomic interests that provide them space to speak
The example of the interaction between RMP and RYS also indicates how
relations between publics and the values they represent are already framing the
work of the classroom, offering conventional perspectives for students and teachers
to take up in relation to each other before the syllabus is distributed and the
lesson in public writing and rhetoric begins. As Kelly Ritter points out, “teaching
in the twenty-first century is . . . a public, polyvocal enterprise encompassing
ideologies that are often internally competing” (260). The public nature of teaching
can put students and teachers in contested relation to each other, a relation
that cannot be permanently bracketed in the classroom. If various forces of commercialization
have produced a more public resistance on the part of teachers to
the perceived excesses of student-centered pedagogy, which sites like RYS suggest,
that social fact has real implications for any classroom, but its impact on the
daily business of writing classrooms is even more significant. For it is in college
writing classrooms that we are both most likely to adhere to the orthodoxy of
student-centered learning and to rely on economically vulnerable part-time faculty.
It clearly follows that “putting the student first” can and does become an
increasingly vexed issue in writing classrooms, where the line between classroom
and consumer authority easily blurs.
Public case studies of this sort could valuably teach public dialogue as a complex
balance of intentions and effects, with particular focus on how the mediation
of public fora shape the values expressed within them. A focus on the interactions
of multiple publics—presumably, those in which both student and teacher
already take part—could help all parties work through the ethics of participation
in a chaotic world of multiple publics. In this process all participants should be
encouraged to consider how their evaluations of another group’s labor or cultural
productions will solicit response, and to what effect.
In the opening pages of Living Room, Nancy Welch cautions readers that
[t]here is something breathtaking and terrifying about the dropping of
all pretense: The measure of America isn’t democracy but capitalism,
the measure of one’s citizenship isn’t one’s participation in public
decision making forums but one’s spending in the private sector. (35)
It is both terrifying and necessary to consider how deeply public participation
has been altered by commercial interest. Rather than closing our eyes (or our
classroom) to this transformation, we should accept it as the given that will define
public fora of the future.
I thank RR reviewers Duane Roen and Edward White as well as Dana Anderson, Theresa Enos,
Christine Farris, Joan Pong Linton, and John Schilb, for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this
With a masthead that reads “Plagiarism, misery, colleagues, absinthe, snowflakes, ennui,”
Rateyourstudents.blogspot.com has hosted academic complaints about students multiple times a week
since 2005. As of June 2010, the site closed down after five years, citing insufficient staffing as the
primary cause. The original website still maintains a limited archive of its first five years. A spin-off
site called CollegeMisery.com opened its doors at the same time. Both sites regularly accept and post
reader comments about the drudgeries of academia, peppering them with bits of news and commentary
related to higher education. Although the site’s content is now somewhat more diverse than it was
in the earlier years (not all posters are now attacking students, and some even defend them) the blog’s
initial inflammatory rhetoric has attracted attention and even inspired debate. However, the site itself
is still strongly framed as a space for virulent and personalized critiques of students.
In this essay I organize my thinking about publics according to Michael Warner’s three definitions:
the public as social totality (what Elizabeth Ervin terms in Public Literacy as the national
public), the public as concrete audience, and the “public that comes into being only in relation to texts
and their circulation” (Warner 50). Warner focuses on the third type of public, as will I in this essay.
A textual public is self-organized through discourse and operates independently of structuring institutions
such as the state or church. Such a public is maintained through the circulation of discourse, and
one can become, even temporarily, a part of that public simply by accepting its address (61). There is
then not just one public but many that overlap and intersect at local, national, and global levels. Publics
represent a heterogeneous range of context and group-specific interests and values, and they are maintained
through the circulation of discourse that is both personal and impersonal—that addresses us (if
we accept the address) and some group of imagined strangers beyond us.
While I want to adopt this textual understanding of public formation for the purposes of this
essay, I also do not want to lose sight of what David Kaufer and Amal Mohammed Al-Malki recently
refer to in their analysis of the Arab-American press as the material embodiment of counterpublics
(50). Drawing on work by Nancy Fraser, Rita Felski, and others, Kaufer and Al-Malki remind us
that oppressed groups generate resistant and/or self-protective rhetoric in counterpublic spaces, offering
insight into how power differentials between groups structure the terms of their participation in
publics. Based on this understanding, I also define publics in this essay as not purely textual but also
importantly connected to embodied experience and unequally positioned in relationship to cultural
power, often in ways that place them in a contested relation to one another. However, as my analysis
of the interaction of RMP and RYS indicates, public power differentials do not always manifest
directly in the embodied presence of the actors involved; rather, power dynamics are written into the
structures that mediate a public’s textual circulation.
The exaggeratedly caustic and insulting rhetorical postures of participants in RYS are certainly
legible as a kind of Menippean satire, one that indirectly buffoons student rhetoric on Rate
My Professors and the attitudes it implies. By returning the volley of character assassination begun by
RMP, posters reveal some measure of the childish irresponsibility inherent in the rhetoric itself. Yet,
while I do think there is certainly a relationship of subtle satire at work in the interaction between these
two sites, I do not choose to concentrate on this relationship in my analysis but rather to look beneath
it at the more lasting and meaningful public investment that posters on RYS seem to be expressing in
Nancy Fraser provides a crucial foundation for this point in her critique of Jürgen Habermas’s
understanding of the public sphere. Fraser contends that Habermas’s concept of the universal public
actually emerged in conflict with a variety of counterpublics, which themselves represented the
interests of oppressed groups who could not meet the minimal expectations of property ownership
and disembodiment, which were requirements for participation in the so-called liberal bourgeoisie
public sphere. In imposing dominant interests as universal and seeking to delimit the terms of what
could be civilly debated (and in what language), the bourgeois liberal public sphere in fact represented
a larger shift from more openly autocratic to hegemonic forms of social control (Fraser 62). While
Fraser is most often credited for rendering Habermas’s concept of the public as a plural one, her critical
intervention more pointedly challenges the vaguely positive connotations usually associated with
public dialogue. Far from being an open forum for meaningful civic discussion, Fraser finds that the
so-called public sphere is a veil of rationality that kept more divisive forms of social conflict out of
In her article Welch persuasively argues that we err as teachers when we present public writing
and rhetoric as an individual activity. According to Welch, seeing public action as individual dangerously
isolates students and makes them less able to effectively confront the complexities of privatized
My analysis of the site layout was written in the spring of 2007, and the homepage of
RateMyProfessors has since changed.
The method of purposeful sampling is, I maintain, appropriate to the site and my inquiry alike.
Obtaining a random sample from a site like RMP would be not just impossible but unnecessary, since
I do not aim to make generalizable claims about the broader student population as a result of my
analysis. I do want to make claims about how the site structures a kind of public discourse through
consumerism, and a purposeful sample is more than adequate to that task.
Ervin, Elizabeth. “Encouraging Civic Participation among First-Year Students: Or, Why Composition
Should Be More Like a Bowling Team.” Rhetoric Review 15.2 (1997): 382–99.
——. Public Literacy. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson, 2003.
Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard UP, 1989.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing
Democracy.” Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Boston: MIT P, 1991. 109–42.
Goldblatt, Eli. Because We Live Here: Sponsoring Literacy Beyond the College Curriculum. Cresskill:
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of
Bourgeois Society. Boston, MA: MIT P, 1991.
Kaufer, David, and Amal Mohammed Al-Malki. “The War on Terror through Arab-American Eyes:
The Arab-American Press as Rhetorical Counterpublic.” Rhetoric Review 28.1 (2009): 47–65.
Mathieu, Paula. Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition. Portsmouth: Boynton/
Mentzell Ryder, Phyllis. “Rhetorical Publics: Beyond Clarity and Efficiency.” Enculturation 6.1
PR Newsire. “Network’s MTVu Agrees to Acquire Ratemyprofessors.com; Acquisition Establishes
mtvU as Number Two General Interrest Online Destination for College Students.” 17 January
2007. May 11 2007. <http://www.prnewswire.com/cgibin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/
Readings, William. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.
Rate My Professors. MTV Networks. 11 Jun. 2009. <http://www.ratemyprofessors.com>.
Rate Your Students. 11 Jun. 2009. <http://rateyourstudents.blogspot.com>.
Ritter, Kelly. “E-valuating Learning: Rate My Professor and Public Rhetorics of Pedagogy.” Rhetoric
Review 27.3 (2008): 259–80.
Vance, Erik. “MTV Unit to Buy Web Site for Rating Professors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education
26 January 2007. 11 May 2007. <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i21/21a03501.htm>.
Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 49–90.
Weisser, Christian. Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
Welch, Nancy. “Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Post-Publicity Era.” College Composition
and Communication 56.3 (2005): 470–92.
——. Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook
Wells, Susan. “Rogue Cops and Healthcare: What Do We Want from Public Writing?” College
Composition and Communication 47.3 (1996): 325–41.
Sara Biggs Chaney is the Assistant Director for Program Development in Dartmouth’s Institute
for Writing and Rhetoric, where she also teaches first-year writing courses. Her research interests
include public rhetoric and neurodiversity.
Didn't think anyone was going to take this all so seriously. What's neurodiversity?ReplyDelete
Dear Sara from Dartmouth,ReplyDelete
is this your first semester teaching, dear? We'll excuse you for your wide-eyed innocence then. This blog and RYS are an anonymous way for us to let off steam. Don't think that we sit up nights making this stuff up. We spend time making sure that there are no identifiable bits of information on our entries, sure. We want to keep our jobs, you see, as many of us are addicted to eating and other such luxuries.
" [...] public power differentials do not always manifest directly in the embodied presence of the actors involved; rather, power dynamics are written into the structures that mediate a public’s textual circulation."
You aren't winning a contest on clear writing on this, but maybe it's just me, the teacher of Hamster Fur Weaving. That is about as far away from neurodiversity as one can imagine.
She's in Rhet/Comp, for the love of god. Who writes like that after their first year of graduate school?ReplyDelete
Cal, I should have twigged when I read the paper that you were the one she interviewed. I'd be interested in your insight, but understand if you'd rather not comment.ReplyDelete
The reason I was interested when I came across the paper is that I think most of us would like to have the concerns we rant about on CM taken seriously. Sometimes this author seems to get that. Other times it feels like RYS/CM is being analyzed as if it were a novel specimen in a bell jar, like a new species of beetle.
It seems to me that people outside the RYS/CM community just see one thing. "Supposed professors say 'fuck you' to students. Reprehensible!"ReplyDelete
There's so much more to the discourse that I find it difficult to talk to anyone about the blogs. I don't see how they can miss the larger things going on. Truly. I cannot fathom why people don't see what it is we're doing.
I read this article and I think it sorta does capture some elements of what RYS was started for; the original moderator was responding specifically to the anonymous and unmoderated nature of RMP. But the rating of students has never been a major part of CM, and was not for most of RYS's lifetime.
I'll always be thankful that Fab Sun named the new blog College Misery. It helped remove the stigma of that original name, although I didn't have a problem with that name either.
The writing is belabored. Usually they do better than this at Dartmouth. The perspective is very much in character, however.ReplyDelete
I know Dartmouth College well. It is the smallest of the Ivies, and proudly the "Iviest" of the Ivies. Its motto is "Vox clamantis in deserto" (a voice crying in the wilderness). This is because Dartmouth was founded as wilderness outpost, for the education of "Indians and English youth." They still don't celebrate 4th of July there because the faculty almost walked out during the American Revolution, because they were tories.
Dartmouth is still geographically isolated. It's isolated intellectually, too. It's really not so much of a university as it is a theme park, for rich kids with high SAT scores. It's essentially the last place they have to act out their Great Gatsby fantasies.
All the other Ivies are in cities or suburbs, except Cornell, but Cornell is so large and diverse on purpose, it's in no way as well shielded from reality as Dartmouth. Dartmouth is therefore absolutely the perfect place to breed Goldman Sachs or Bank of America executives. Now you can see what kind of environment it took for Sara to write this.
A close relative of mine went to Dartmouth. He came out OK, a good guy--and a good writer--but holy lord god the access to power he has. It's unfathomable to me.ReplyDelete