Polyratings.com, Cal Poly’s unofficial teacher rating site, is back online after technical issues during fall quarter 2009. The site is an unrestricted tool for Cal Poly students to rate their teachers and make comments about them for their peers. Some students and faculty see it as a useful tool, while others see it as a flawed and biased forum that causes more harm than good.
The controversial site was previously hosted on an aging server that needed to be updated, said J. Paul Reed, a Cal Poly alumnus and the operator of Polyratings since he and Forrest Lanning, another Poly graduate, revamped and took control of the site in 2001, as students. When the information from the old server was moved to the new one, the data was incompatible with the new technology. Reed had to go through and fix the broken data himself.
“It’s kind of like whack-a-mole,” Reed said. “It’s a process of kind of wading through all of the errors. As soon as you would get one page working, the next one would be broken.”
While Reed was working on fixing the issues, another person, unaffiliated with Cal Poly or Polyratings, opened a new site, Calpolyratings.com, with the archived information from Polyratings. This site was probably opened with archived html information taken from the Internet, Reed said.
Reed said that he figured out who had opened the new site through e-mail. Jesse Courchaine, the operator of Ramratings.com, a site similar to Polyratings at Colorado State University, was responsible for the site, Reed said.
“He didn’t talk to us at all about putting the site up,” Reed said. “He did e-mail us early on, but it fell in with other e-mails. He also put ads on the site, which I was like, ‘C’mon that’s not cool.’”
Courchaine’s action did not go unnoticed, by Reed or by Cal Poly. The university has a copyright on any domain name with Cal Poly in the name, Stacia Momburg of Cal Poly media relations said. Courchaine was sent a letter notification after which Calpolyratings.com was “immediately taken down,” and redirected to Polyratings.com (whose name is, by law, different enough to be acceptable) Momburg said.
“He basically mined the site with ads,” Reed said. “Their goals were less than, I think, honest. (Lanning) and I are adamant this is not about money.”
Reed and Courchaine have been in contact via e-mail and domain issues and site ownership is cleared up, Reed said. Courchaine did not respond to recent interview requests.
Both Lanning and Reed are busy with their careers, and Reed said he only works on Polyratings in his spare time, which is rare. The main tasks on the site are general maintenance (for instance, updating the site when a professor retires or dies) and responding to complaints (which occur when a student or teacher responds to a post). Ultimately, Reed said he would like to see a few students at Cal Poly volunteer to help “scrub” the site and keep it updated and fresh.
Michael Tanzer, an animal science junior said a site for students should certainly be maintained by students.
“Absolutely students should be involved,” Tanzer said. “They were then and they should be now. Six years down the road someone else is going to have to fix it, so either have some board or something running it. That way it stays fresh.”
One way students could help, Reed said, is reviewing inappropriate comments as they are brought to his attention. For every 10 to 20 letters or emails he gets, one is a a complaint about a “raunchy” post. As a result of his time restraints, Reed only reviews comments that are brought to his attention. If he deems it offensive or irrelevant, he removes it. When something is pulled, Reed said he makes note of it on the site.
“If a student posts a comment about how fat a professor is or how big their boobs are, those are the type of comments we remove,” he said.
Professors are not the only people who send in complaints about controversial comments, Reed said. Students are often offended by postings about their teachers.
“I’ve seen some pretty bad things,” biology senior Christine Kempsell said. “Comments about how hot (a professor) is and how he’s probably having sex with one of the grad students he has working for him. Some stupid freshman chick that has a crush on him probably wrote it.”
Comments similar to this have led to threats of legal action. Rebecca Laidlaw, a communication studies lecturer, looked at her Polyrating a few years ago and was shocked to find some “sexual, degrading comments that made me extremely uncomfortable,” she said.
Laidlaw sent an e-mail to the site’s operators saying that she wanted two specific comments removed. When she received no response, she sent another e-mail asking if she needed to bring the matter into the legal arena. This time, she got a reply. They removed what she deemed the most offensive post, but also told her she would have no legal ground to stand on if she chose to pursue a lawsuit. Laidlaw said this was satisfactory and mentioned that she is pro-Polyratings as long as the comments and criticisms are directed at her teaching and not her personal life or characteristics.
But could Polyratings be sued?
It’s complicated, said Bill Loving, journalism department head and co-author of “Law of Mass Communications.” First, the person bringing the lawsuit would have to prove he/she was libeled and not just the subject of an opinion. Second, the court would have to decide whether the people operating the site were publishers or merely carriers and determine if they were liable. Service providers are protected by federal mandate, while publishers are not. Loving said, in this case, the operators would probably be seen as publishers.
Despite the inappropriate comments, legal threats and technical issues, students still continue to utilize the tool on a quarterly basis. Kempsell said she consistently uses Polyratings to get her classes and was at a loss when the site went down in the fall.
“I was like, ‘My link is gone,’” Kempsell said. “For those GE spots I felt more vulnerable to getting bad teachers. It was a relief when it came back up. This last quarter I definitely used it.”
Kempsell said that she had used Polyratings every quarter since her freshman year. Although she is a “heavy user” of the site, she admitted that she has only posted one or two comments herself.
“I don’t really make many comments,” she said. “I’ve only made one or two when (the teacher is) really good.”
This tendency is indicative of the site. For one, students don’t regularly comment on teachers. Second, the comments often provide a very polarizing view of the instructor, whether very good or very bad. Both professors and students said that this could provide a biased view of a teacher.
“I really hope someone that goes to Cal Poly can sift through the bullshit answers,” Kempsell said. “Although some of the people writing those, I’m questioning their level of insight. But you can always tell when someone has good insight about a teacher or when it’s a total load of bull.”
The type of students who are most motivated to contribute to the site leads to some professors questioning their students’ abilities to sort through the posts. Richard Graziano, a lecturer in the philosophy department, said it is a useful tool that would be even more useful if students from the middle ground, between love and hate, made more comments.
“The people in the middle, those are probably some of the people that have the best things to say,” Graziano said. “Some of the bad stuff, when someone points out a mistake, I think are absolutely right. Those are things I need to pay attention to. I just hope students can make a good decision.”
Graziano said he occasionally looks at the site, if only for a laugh. Some professors aren’t so light-hearted about personal criticisms being broadcast across the Internet though, he said.
“I think a lot of faculty have that attitude, ’I don’t want people to see bad criticism,’” he said. “They don’t mind good criticism, praise, but when it comes to the bad, they don’t want to hear it.”
Jnan Blau, a communication studies assistant professor, said he doesn’t look at the site and is wary of its fairness. A more representative sample to draw from are the class evaluations that Cal Poly faculty have to do at the end of each quarter. Plus, quarterly teacher evaluations aren’t posted for the public to see.
“All it takes is one or two disgruntled students to post on there for the picture that that paints of you to become very skewed, perhaps unfairly,” he said. “Sometimes those disgruntled people may have reasons for what they do, but other times it may be questionable.”
Blau did, however, acknowledge that the site can be a useful tool, if used properly.
“It’s kind of like Wikipedia: as long you go in knowing it isn’t the ultimate source and you just touch base with it and that its part of an informed decision, then it isn’t entirely bad,” Blau said.
Instructors generally agreed that the tool could be useful, if the information wasn’t taken at face value, but rather questioned and thought about in an active manner. You can’t take the site, the tool, away, Brian Kennelly, professor of modern languages and literature, said.
“I think students should have whatever tools they want to have available,” Kennely said. “Whether they should rely on that tool exclusively to decide on what classes to take or not, that is the big elephant in the room.”
Students can reach the Reed at email@example.com or send in comments, criticism or suggestions at polyratings.com.