The story goes that a mentally unstable and unattractive woman was seeing a psychiatrist. She had been seeing him for awhile and no diagnosis of her difficulties was forthcoming. “Well,” the shrink said, when pressed, “You’re crazy.”
“I demand a second opinion,” said the patient.
“OK. You’re ugly,” responded the psychiatrist.
It isn’t a pretty story, but it brings the hearer abruptly up against some other possible meanings of “second opinion.” There has been a lot of enthusiasm, lately, for the assessment of professionals by non-professionals. There was an interesting piece in this morning’s New York Times(here) about the online evaluation of medical doctors.
Here are two engaging paragraphs from that article.
Companies have tried to collect reviews of doctors since the early days of the Web, and RateMDs.com has gathered more than most. The founder, John Swapceinski, was inspired to create it after his success with a site called RateMyProfessors.com, which is well known for the “hotness” rating that college students assign (or not) to their teachers.
“Anything that people spend time or money on ought to be rated,” he said. RateMDs now has reviews of more than 1,370,000 doctors in the United States and Canada.
My first concern is the criterion of “hot” to rate university professors. Over the forty years of so that I have been a professor, I have had my really good days in class and my really bad days. I don’t think I have every impressed anyone as “hot.” So the use of this criterion is not good news for me. Also, I wonder whether one student who used that word to describe a professor would mean the same thing another student meant. Beyond that, there is the question of the variety of uses to which the “hotness” criterion should be put. Is there a relationship, for instance, between the availability of hot professors and the proportion of students who graduate within five years? Or is it more the correlation of hot professors and the proportion of As in his courses.
My second concern is with the standard John Swapceinski uses for rating. “Anything that people spend time or money on,” he says, “should be rated.” That seems overbroad to me. Possibly, I have been reading too much about pure research and how hard it is to make the case for funding. And as someone who spends a fair amount of time on his marriage, I wonder about the implication that I should be “rating” it. On “hotness,” possibly.
Seriously, I do have two sensible concerns. The first is that students or patients will be competent to judge all aspects of their teachers or doctors. My students know whether I come to class on time, they know whether I am egregiously partisan, they know whether I have enough office hours, they know whether I confuse them. Probably, they do not know whether the confusion they experience from time to time is a stage necessary to the acquisition of new concepts or whether if comes from my own failure to explain. It’s an important distinction. Every student who thinks about it, knows whether he or she is confused. Only the best ones, and only by the end of the term, know whether it was necessary and worthwhile.
The second sensible concern I have is whether students can be trusted to voice the opinions they actually have. That isn’t as easy as it might seem. It requires that I screen out my own feelings so that I can make a correct and useful assessment. It means not giving high marks to the professors I like when they don’t deserve them. It means not giving high marks to professors I don’t like when they don’t deserve them.
Imagine that a student has been in to see me about a grade he thinks is too low. It may be “too low” for purposes of his own, like graduating on time. It may be “too low” in that the student thinks the answer is worth more than I think it is worth. I am persuaded, let’s say, that his is answer is notably worse than the other fifty answers to this question that I have read and I tell him, on that basis, that I cannot revise it upward. He is angry because he knows it is something I could do and might even imagine that the score I recorded had to do with feelings I had toward him. In any case, he leaves the office angry.
At the next class session, he is given a course evaluation form that will go straight to the head of my division. If he goes through the unpleasant effort of screening out his personal feelings so that he can pass on a valid assessment, the purpose of the evaluation process will have been met. If he treats the evaluation as a chance to get back at me for my refusal to raise his grade and, in that way, to meet his need, the purpose of the evaluation process will not have been met.
The student knows what his opinion is. And he knows he is angry. The struggle of which “truth” to pass on is sometimes, I am sure, fierce, and I am not sure that the better angels of his nature always triumph.