Khaled Hal Saad

Registration for winter quarter began last Thursday. If you’re like me, you have a list of web bookmarks at hand: one for POWER, Half.com … and Polyratings.com. Conceived by fellow computer scientists, Polyratings is the premier source for professor evaluations, and indispensable when choosing classes. But this little tool has major implications for our curriculum.

Free markets, often characterized by perfect information and competition, can create a phenomenon called “The Race to the Bottom.”

Sometimes, with the objective of reducing costs or increasing sales, producers will outdo each other by racing to the bottom, tossing ethics or proper standards aside. We’re witness to this phenomenon every day when we turn on our TV and watch news, shows and sitcoms that pander to the lowest common denominator. Some activists point to globalization as another trend that highlights this race.

For example, when a clothing retailer like Gap Inc outsources its manufacturing abroad, it will seek to produce at the lowest cost. Candidate countries establish “Special Economic Zones” to compete for Gap’s business, one-upping each other in the process. Countries may dismantle regulations against pollution or labor standards in order to compete. In essence, countries race to the bottom to win over Gaps’ business.

Polyratings provides an illusion of perfect information, thus creating a market for professors where there arguably shouldn’t be one. Like eBay’s feedback system, professors with high GPAs might be more “patronized” than those with lower ones.

Though some professors are naturally “student-friendly,” others will have an incentive to achieve high Polyratings. In some cases, they might accomplish this by making benign changes like providing a five-minute break or using Blackboard. More worryingly, Polyratings might precipitate a dumbing-down of our curriculum.

Examples of this dumbing-down aren’t hard to find. We’re witness to things like grade inflation and the endemic classroom use of PowerPoint. Students get used to hand-holding and expect their academic lives to mimic the always-on, instant responsiveness of their wired lives. Nurturing student-teacher relationships is what makes CalPoly unique. We should not replace such a relationship with a client-customer relationship.

Polyratings will remain a valuable tool as long as it’s used properly. Review the comments and not just the numerical ratings. Bear in mind a marketing adage that an unhappy customer is 4 times more likely to talk about a bad experience than a happy customer will talk about a good one. Finally, don’t forget that political leanings, foreign accents and even the body odor cloud can affect the reliability of the ratings.

This shouldn’t be construed as a tirade against Polyratings. I’m heavy a reader and contributor to the Web site, but believe it should not be used in isolation. Another student’s take on the teacher is important, but definitely not the only factor to consider.

Just as Gap should consider the plight of villagers in Sri Lanka when making decisions, we should consider the qualitative aspects of a teacher that can’t be gauged by another student’s experience. Good hunting!

Khaled Hal Saad is a computer science senior and Mustang Daily columnist

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