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The website, which is technically unaffiliated with Cal Poly, contains student-submitted reviews of virtually every professor, assistant professor and lecturer.
Most reviews left on Polyratings have to do with technical aspects of a teacher’s style or ability, such as grading strictness or attendance policies. But as communication studies lecturer Rebecca Laidlaw found out, some comments were simply personal attacks.
Laidlaw doesn’t look at her Polyratings page often. Especially not after finding two inappropriate comments, one about her appearance and another that falsely said she had been sleeping with students.
“It said I like to basically suck cock, doesn’t matter that I’m married,” Laidlaw said. “It was very shocking to me. I don’t think I’m naive or anything, but it was just like, ‘What? They’re allowed to write this?’”
Laidlaw contacted the site’s administrators in an attempt to have the reviews removed but was initially unsuccessful. After a second attempt, the two remarks were taken down.
When she began her first summer class that year, Laidlaw was dressed especially conservatively. She felt uncomfortable throughout the class, something she hadn’t felt for quite some time.
“It was the first time in so many years of teaching that I felt like I didn’t want to go…it sounds very weird, but I honestly felt violated,” Laidlaw said. “I believe in freedom of speech, but I felt like there was a little bit of hate language.”
At the end of every academic quarter, students are required to fill out course and teacher evaluations. These are anonymous, like Polyratings, but are only visible to instructors and departments.
Mechanical engineering professor Jim LoCascio, whose Polyratings page is peppered with personal insults and complaints about his classes, reviews every course evaluation submitted for each of his classes.
Despite having earned a 1.87 rating from students on Polyratings, LoCascio said he normally receives an average of 3.2 to 3.9 stars out of five on course evaluations. Students who take the time to write Polyratings reviews are outliers within the system, he said.
“My course evaluations don’t look anything like my Polyratings,” LoCascio said. “The people that go (on) there are the people that are very, very happy or very, very unhappy.”
Many reviews for LoCascio’s classes have to do with his strictness as a grader, an attribute he takes in stride.
“In my own home and in the (mechanical engineering) hallways, the joke is people get mechanical engineering degrees and they’re either WLs or WOLs,” he said. “They’re either With LoCascio or Without LoCascio.”
Still, some Polyratings reviews call him out for personal attributes. LoCascio has had to ask classes to not write things about the way he dresses because it upsets his wife, a request he says has been honored.
Polyratings are meant to inform other students about the best and worst professors to take, but their openness to the public makes some teachers afraid, LoCascio said. Negative reviews, especially for non-tenured professors, can dim one’s career prospects if reviewed by a potential employer.
The university also uses course evaluations to hurt professors, according to LoCascio. Administrators pay no mind to positive student reviews but can use negative ones as examples of poor performance, he said.
“No one comes in here and says, ‘Oh, your evaluations are great,’” LoCascio said. “But if your evaluations are in the toilet, then somebody will come into your office and say, ‘How do you explain this?’”
Both Laidlaw and LoCascio agreed written evaluations are more telling than standardized fill-in-the-blank reviews.
LoCascio has his students fill out their evaluations at the beginning of class so they won’t be tempted to leave early and skip writing their thoughts, while Laidlaw assigns a page-long essay on what people learned in the class.
Business freshman Danny Halprin uses Polyratings to decide which sections of classes to take, he said.
“I don’t write reviews. They take a certain amount of effort that are only validated if I have a very strong opinion, if I really liked them or didn’t like (the professor),” he said. “I’ve never hated or loved a professor enough to write one, but I probably will at some point.”
Former Cal Poly students Doug Dahms and Forrest Lanning created Polyratings in January 1999, four months before the creation of RateMyProfessor.com, which expanded the idea to universities across the United States.
RateMyProfessor.com only has reviews for 547 Cal Poly faculty and staff members, a far cry from the 2,286 profiled on Polyratings. Students have submitted 53,176 Polyratings reviews in total.
Dahms and Lanning, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, founded Polyratings out of their residence hall room using an old Linux box, according to both of their biographies on the website.
The two were nearly kicked off campus after numerous battles with university administrators, per their website bios.