PlanBook: A Strong Lesson Planner for the Weekly Calendar

Today I noticed that PlanBook 2.06 has been released for the Macintosh. It’s also available in a Windows version (which I haven’t tested yet, but hope to). If you like to use the computer to organize your ideas, I recommend it!

The key focus of PlanBook is on weekly calendaring. I tend to think this way, as a college teacher, and my course plan always is conceptualized right from the get-go on a weekly system. This excellent “lesson plan” generator allows teachers to organize courses in a ‘weekly calendar’ mode, while remaining flexible enough to keep individual class units in the foreground, through color coding and filtering systems. You can schedule classes, enter lesson information, link up entries to files, and print professional looking reports. While there are many software-based teaching tools, this one really fills a gap because few are about the actual organization of learning units, and most are instead focused on grading or student communication.

I don’t usually keep lesson plans the way that most people do; I organize my files by thematic clusters, and chart my plans on the syllabus, rather than in some private binder or lockstep chart. But I still found this software useful post-facto, because it allowed me to keep track of what I did every period. After a class, I would go into PlanBook, type out what I was able to cover in class that day, and save it for future reference. Later, I found myself going back to this ‘journal’ to both track what I wanted to quiz students on, and also plot out revisions to my future course calendars.

The interface is relatively easy to use, once you figure out the routine ways of keying in information for each course. Although I haven’t tested the Windows version, I know that it ‘fits’ the Mac paradigm well, and is intuitive enough to use in a customized way, depending on how you work. It is easily adaptable to different school calendar systems (like a 6 period school day or a two week rotation). This, I think, is one of its numerous appeals.

Software like this needs to be approached as a tool for organizing and planning. Most faculty might want this to plot out a course, week by week. It lends itself toward processing ideas in this way, and can help keep you organized. But many will likely say they can do this the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

But I see the side benefits of doing this on a computer with dedicated software: you can run searches for, say, every time you’ve taught a particular text; you can build a good archive of lessons for assessment purposes; you can print out or e-mail your lesson plans to a substitute teacher from home; or you can simply publish your homework calendar for students to view online. Yes, PlanBook can publish your lesson plans to the web, and I think this is a very strong component of the software, especially if you don’t already have access to a campus Content Management System.

There’s not much more to say about it: it works, it helps, and it rocks. Verdict: A+!
PlanBook is a great way to “process” your calendar and I recommend you give it a try — especially if you HAVE no routine system of your own for course planning yet. Visit Hellmansoft to download a demo.

YouTube EDU (and AcademicEarth)

The trend for open source online teaching has recently reached a milestone, I think. YouTube EDU has launched, offering a good repository of instructional videos, streaming lectures from universities and elsewhere, to the globe. The Open Culture blog calls it a “robust collection” with over 200 full courses from leading universities, on top of campus tours and other features of that nature.

Unlike YouTube proper, which will accept content from any subscriber, from what I gather, educational sites from MIT to the Culinary Institute of America are providing the content in an “open source” way that gives them a “channel” in the collective, allowing them to not only share information but to some degree expose viewers to their identity as a sort of advertisement. When you click the “apply now” link at the bottom of the page, you get an application for institutional membership, with a stipulation that reads:

We request only one channel per institution that encompasses the entire campus, and you must have authority to open a channel on the institution’s behalf. If you are a school, department, or educator within the institution, please coordinate with the proper department on campus – typically Public Affairs or Academic Technology.

Thus, while it is still “open source,” there is still the brand identity of the academic institution at work which — ostensibly — will filter the content on the user side of the equation. This has pros and cons, and one has to wonder how much production value and censorship comes into play. I think this benefits larger, well-funded colleges who have a procedural apparatus in place for providing such content… ergo, the preponderance of lectures on YouTube EDU currently seem to be Ivy League colleges of high reputation (seeking pertinence in the digital age) and trade colleges the likes of which you might see advertised often on television.

Indeed, with the increasing boundary-loss between streaming online video and the television set — aided by the rise of devices like the AppleTV, Roku Player, and XBox — it seems sensible for academia to take seriously the potential of investing in video sharing.

Readers at the Open Culture Blog are recommending — which LifeHacker compares to Hulu — as a stronger alternative. I can see why, at first blush: it organizes material by subject right from the front page, seeming to be curriculum-centered rather than institution-centered. The videos seem to be high quality, and often offer transcripts and other material that make the vids seem much more “course” like. Moreover, the rating system is organized by instructor so that you can quickly jump to those who browsers feel are the best at delivering the content, rather than just (as in youtube edu) those videos that are given a generic “star” rating on who know’s what criterion.

Another issue on YouTube EDU’s format is the “comments” feature, which like any good weblog allows users to provide feedback. As I give a glancing look at various videos, I see comments that are littered with obscenities and smart aleck jokes, as if they were notes passed between virtual slackers and class clowns sitting in the back row. AcademicEarth, on the other hand, allows embedding of videos which would encourage users to post comments on their own sites, instead. (Of course YouTube EDU allows embeds as well).

The value of YouTube EDU, of course, would be greater visibility in google search and youtube search results. This, sadly, is the monolithic aim of far too much online content, but this is the way the cookie crumbles in the attention economy. Since most students would probably tend to search google long before they ever stumbled upon AcademicEarth, the site bears serious consideration for academic institutions.
There are uses I’d like to see sites like these put to: more academic debates, more streams of events that feature students as much as star lecturers, more faculty/research profiles or interviews…. perhaps we will see growth in this kind of material soon.

Reflective Practice in Action: A Reflective Book Review

I stopped at a Half-Priced Books store in Monroeville this past October and found myself burrowing around in their really great section in the back of the store, for “Teaching.” In it, I picked up some really great titles cheap, including a book I want to call attention to in this review, called Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers by Thomas S.C. Farrell. But before I get to it, I wanted to first say that spontaneously browsing around in the “Teaching” or “Education” section of a bookstore is a really good idea once in awhile — especially if you’re not a pedagogy specialist or teacher trainer by profession — and I encourage you to take a moment to do this if you’re shopping in a bookstore for the holidays. You might be surprised by what gifts you might find for yourself.

It’s also the case that those bookstore sections for Teaching and Education are rarely well-organized and become a catch-all for any title that smacks of school. Thus, you often find exercises for kindergarteners and home-schooler workbooks placed side by side with philosophical books and guitar instructional manuals. It’s a mess. That’s both good and bad (and perhaps says something about the coherency of our industry): you’ll have to dig to find what you need, but you might find a hidden treasure.

Of course, that’s true of all bookstore shelves to some degree. And the ENTIRE bookstore is really about learning, is it not?
In any case, one of those hidden treasures I recently found was Reflective Practice in Action by Thomas S.C. Farrell (Corwin Press, 2004). It seems like just the sort of book any teacher who blogs or keeps a journal would find of interest, because it is filled with questions, worksheets and discussions intended to prompt thinking and writing about one’s mission and career as an instructor. Through reflective teaching, Farrell claims, “teachers can begin to locate themselves within their profession and start to take more responsibility for shaping their practice” (6).


I know a lot of teachers who struggle over writing their annual self-reports, development plans, and teaching portfolios. Sometimes this struggle is located in one’s relationship to writing itself. At other times, these documents that we have to write in the name of development sometimes are seen as empty exercises in paper shuffling, bureaucratic nonsense, and just one more thing to do on top of a million others. One sometimes wonders what the point of it all is, when only one person or committee often reads it closely before it’s filed away in some infinitely-receding drawer of bureaucratic paperwork, never to be seen again.

But I have always refused to see any project that involves writing as a waste of time. It makes me a better writer and often my writing leads me to new ways of seeing a topic, inspiring me to change my relationship to it. So rather than treating those “official” forms of reflection as dehumanizing forms of busy work, I have tried to use those documents as moments to write reflectively about my career (sometimes to the consternation of those who have to read them, because I write a lot). This book reminds me that reflection — taking stock about where one has gone and where one is going — is entirely the point of those documents to begin with.

Moreover, this slim, 100 page book makes reflecting on one’s work easier, more pleasurable and, ultimately, more significant. Grounded in the principles of reflective practice, it aims at helping teachers see their work in a less technical and more organic fashion. While not every “guided reflection break” offered in the book is equally of value, the book does an excellent job identifying the diverse areas where one might direct their attention in thinking reflectively, and it utilizes research in a refreshingly clear and practical manner, by emphasizing activity and application of the principles it outlines in a systematic (but not overly formal) way.

The book opens by exploring the theories behind “reflective practice” by immediately engaging the reader in thinking that reexamines one’s assumptions about teaching and how they have played out in our practical work. It is a transformative process founded on heightened self-awareness. “…Reflective practice is a systematic and structured process in which we look at concrete aspects of teaching and learning with the overall goal of personal change and more effective practice…we change as a result of the awareness brought about by engaging in reflection.” (27).

Farrell seems to draw the bulk of his research from the work of Kenneth Zeichner and Daniel Liston, authors of Reflective Teaching: An Introduction, which delves into the pedagogical theory behind reflective practice in depth. The book brings more critics into the picture — like Daniel Schon and Max Van Manen — and the bibliography covers all the primary sources in this field of pedagogy. I think Farrell’s book can be seen as a sort of practical workbook to go along with Zeichner and Liston’s title, so the two could work hand in hand if assigned in a teacher development course. Some of Farrell’s “prompts” would occur naturally to a reader of Reflective Teaching: An Introduction, but what makes Farrell’s book useful is the systematic and proactive way in which he guides the application of its concepts.

The first four chapters of the book provide an array of models for reflective practice and explore methods for any teacher or group to put theory into action. It’s a great concise overview, while being inspirational (covering the first 24 prompts of the 80 in the book). In the book’s fifth chapter, the author outlines the “Farrell Model of Reflective Practice,” which identifies a wide range of different ways in which the prompts in the book can be utilized, whether in isolation or in groups, while covering the principle modalities of reflection (37). This section opens up the numerous arenas in which reflection can occur — from journals to teacher development workshops — and readers might be surprised by the number of reflective practices happening all around us on campus all the time, and the myriad ways one can approach reflective thinking.

The latter chapters of Farrell’s book are focused on specific means toward enhancing one’s reflective practice. These processes are: group discussions, classroom observations, journal writing, and the teaching portfolio. The book ends by encouraging one to be a “reflective practitioner” and is the most involved and personal chapter for helping teachers come up with their own prompts for reflection. Here he draws upon and expands Zeichner and Liston’s five principle elements of the reflective practitioner in a way worthy of citing fully:

A reflective teacher:

  • Examines, frames, and attempts to solve dilemmas in classroom practice.
  • Is aware of and questions the assumptions and values he or she brings to teaching
  • Is attentive to the institutional and cultural contexts in which he or she teaches
  • Takes part in curriculum development and is involved in school change efforts
  • Takes responsibility for his or her own professional development

Farrell’s book is a great assistant in making one a more reflective teacher, in general. But there are other things he brings to the table that got my interest. For example, he talks about using a method called the SCORE (Seating Chart Observation Record) to analyze how teachers interact with groups that seems very useful for, say, analyzing a videotape of one’s class or observing a colleague’s class. This would involve drawing a seating chart,and drawing lines between teacher and students when questions are asked or addressed, which I imagine could be revelatory of unconscious habits like favoring one side of the room or calling on the same set of students over and over again.

Overall, I’m glad I stumbled upon this book and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for something to prompt their writing about teaching (like bloggers) or help in writing their own self-assessments. I think administrators and faculty development coordinators who are looking for practical ways to help faculty energize their growth in an autonomous-yet-connected fashion would benefit greatly from this title.
See ItsLife’s coverage of more issues in reflective practice.

Review Materials Wanted

I have decided to begin reviewing software, web services, and other technical tools for educators on Pedablogue. Books that focus on teaching strategies/advice and/or educational theory will be considered, as well.

I write fair, and extensively analytical, reviews; I expect the average length of reviews to be between 1500 and 2000 words. My bias will lean towards teaching tools and similar products that are useful for college-level instruction, but any educational gadget, text, or gizmo will be considered.

I will also be biased toward products that are more useful in the Humanities and in English/Writing/Literature than other disciplines (simply because these are my fields!). Special interest will be paid to items related to:

+ classroom technology (from chalk to computers)
+ word processing
+ magazine editing
+ film and video screening
+ literary analysis and research
+ writers workshops and critiquing

For books, I am hoping to receive titles that are mostly pragmatic and multidisciplinary — aimed at teachers of any profession, usually at the college level. Books that provide specific teaching strategies for college professors (like McKeachie’s Teaching Tips or Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do) or pedagogical books that look at general educational principles will most likely get reviewed
I will only post reviews of products that I find favorable. If I hate a product or don’t feel the product is in the best interest of other educators, I will simply not endorse it with any press whatsoever — however, I may contrast it against more favorable items under review. My choice to only run mostly positive reviews should not be interpreted to mean I will be a shill for any corporate entity. I will still evaluate products fairly, honestly, and accurately, carefully noting where I feel products have failings, if any.

If you are in the education business and have a product you’d like reviewed, get in touch with me at or send products to me directly at:

Michael A. Arnzen, Ph.D.
Division of Humanities
1 Seton Hill Lane
Seton Hill University
Greensburg, PA 15601

Sending me review materials does not guarantee a review. No materials sent to me will ever be returned. Full, consumer-level products will be chosen for review over excerpts, samplers, limited demos, and crippleware. Only hard copy ARCs or actual printed books will be reviewed; no e-books or pdf galleys. For personal reasons, it is also highly unlikely that I will review books published by vanity presses or self-publishing outfits that rely on print-on-demand technology. DO NOT e-mail me any attachments (including .pdfs, graphics, or software) that are larger than 1mb without contacting me first.

Know that I am a one-man operation (and a full-time teacher); review writing is not the main intention of Pedablogue and if I receive more items than I can review, I will simply be very selective. My mission here is to assist other teachers, so if you do have a product or book that you genuinely think will help other college teachers, please do send it along, with any information you feel is needed beyond basic ordering information — especially any educator’s discounts or special/exclusive discount codes you would like to provide to the readers of Pedablogue. However, please do not shower me in press releases; let your product speak for itself.

I will e-mail a copy of my review to the review material provider. Providers are permitted to quote my reviews in whole (as a reprint) or in part (as a blurb), so long as authorship is attributed to Pedablogue (the courtesy of a link that points back to this website is appreciated).
I have already received some items for review and will be posting them shortly. Thanks!

LibraryThing for Educators

Last year I signed up for LibraryThing — a social networking site where book lovers share their personal libraries online. They call it the “largest bookclub in the world.” It’s actually an intriguing bibliography system, tapping into libraries and bookstores around the globe to pull in information about any given book title that you can claim you own on your own virtual shelves. I know librarians and booksellers who love it, but anyone who loves to collect or hoard books should find it a great place to get lost in. If in everyday life you like browsing your friends’ bookshelves when you visit them, or if you compulsively scan displayed titles at a bookstore (or, like me, even when you’re at a supermarket or convenience store), if you like to know what others are reading so you can know what you should be reading too, or even if you judge people by the literary company they keep (shame on you) then this is the site for you!

[You might want to read “A Cozy Book Club in a Virtual Reading Room” from last year’s New York Times, if you haven’t heard of LibraryThing before.]

As a fiction writer, I find LT a useful way to stay in touch with some of my readers and I enjoy seeing what books my friends are reading. I am listed as an official “LibraryThing Author.” I also actually get some practical use out of keeping a record of my book collection online (albeit a loose one — I own WAAAAY more books than I’ve listed in my online catalog, and I still plan to use the barcode scanning luxury of Readerware to compile a database of them all someday, too). There are times when I am in my campus office, and I want to know if I have a particular book at home, or if I’ll need to make a trip to the campus library — so I can easily load up on my computer and check. It’s practical.

Joining LibraryThing is as easy as logging in once with a username…and it’s also free. Enter 200 books into their database at no cost. Once you hit that threshold, if you want to keep entering titles, you’ll need to kick in $10 per year — or do as I did, feeling the cause was worthy paying a paltry $25 for a lifetime membership. That’s pretty cheap, in the grand scheme of librarythings. The social networking with other bookhounds is a natural benefit and a no-brainer (you’ll quickly get “friends” who share similar interests — from librarians, to teachers, to students; you can enter conversations about books and genres and more; you can even swap books with people you trust (though I deplore this act because writers don’t get their royalties); and so on). You can tag books, to categorize things and find them in clusters later on, or to find other books related to them that you don’t own yet. You can incorporate gizmos onto your blog that tell others what you’re reading. You can use the site to connect with authors or bookstores. You can get book suggestions (or, cleverly, unsuggestions!). You can enter contests. And as their blog (and their deeper and geekier thingology web) makes clear, they’re super-intelligent, constantly growing, and really evolving in relation to how their members utilize the site. It’s a pretty cool place for the bookworm to burrow around.

I haven’t been considering the pedagogical uses of the site — or even how I might best utilize it as a teacher — until recently. Today I dug around in LibraryThing’s “suggester” pages and found a way to search for books that use the same tags as I do. Thus, a search for other member’s books tagged “pedagogy” turned up a host of titles I hadn’t heard of before (96 of them, in fact)…and I learned of other classics I own that have come out in new editions. Just going through this process gave me an incentive to pick up my pedagogical research again — to seek out unique titles like Donna Duffy’s Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester or Stephen Brookfield’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching.

But the fun didn’t stop there. By clicking on the names of members of LibraryThing who already own these books, I discovered the librarything profiles of other educators and even teacher’s reading groups and — coolest of all — the libraries for college centers for teaching and learning, like Stone Hill College’s CTL — just by surfing the site. I did searches for “teach” in the member list and found more titles than I could ever possibly read, but lots of inspiration. I was pleased to also stumble on the Women’s Studies library at University of Oregon, my alma mater…which proves that LibraryThing serves various disciplines and fields, as well. I know that my own campus librarians are aware of it, and that many others are experimenting.

All of this makes for an intriguing form of personal research — LT is a place I’m turning to more and more when I want to seek out a new book to read. I’m wondering now how it might also be useful for working with students. For example, I found a graduate student who specializes in “Chick Lit” on the site recently; clicking through her own personal library, I learned about new research titles in the field which I promptly ordered for our campus library. It made me wonder if I could use the site as a sort of “graduate research” laboratory. Perhaps I could even ask students to sign up for free accounts, and develop annotated bibliographies on the site.

I’ve spotted “classroom libraries” on the site (like this one from a Children’s lit teacher who wants to build an in-class library better than what her school has). Others, like BlogDay, are mulling over the ways that the info sharing can be used for students online. I’ll have to keep thinking of creative uses for this with English majors in collegiate environment. The best tips and advice I’ve found so far are mentioned on Classroom Learning 2.0, which seems like a great place to start.

I’ve decided, though, that I will continue to update my profile on LibraryThing with education-related texts as I acquire or rediscover them. I have also recently joined a very similar, yet decidedly more chatty and interactively social site — — where I will try to post entries not based on my home library, per se, but on the books I am currently teaching (tagged “currently-teaching”!) each term, with micro-reviews. I’ve already begun; drop by, sign up, and waive hello! And if you have ideas for integraing LT or GoodReads into the classroom, let me know by leaving a comment!

Behind the Scenes of Rate My Professor

As I mentioned in my first entry after returning from hiatus, has grown since I first looked at it a few years ago, particularly in the ways in which professors can interact and respond to the student comments. Inspired by the video responses from teachers, I decided to join the site as a professorial member, and since I’m guessing other profs out there rarely join it (or probably only access it anonymously once in awhile to read their own ratings or those of their colleagues), I thought I’d open the curtain a little bit so you can see what it’s like there once you sign up. Consider this a website review, rather than any endorsement or direct encouragement to join them.


In fact, you might not want to encourage the site by giving it a hit to begin with. If you haven’t seen Rate My Professors, it is an independent website where college students can post comments anonymously (virtually without responsibility, save for community enforcement of the rules). These students fill out forms that “rank” their professors on such criteria as level of difficulty…and “hotness.” Indeed, beside a “highest ranked” chart for schools and teachers, the site sports a master chart of the “50 hottest professors” on their front page, which probably tells you all you need to know about the academic legitimacy of the site.
If it doesn’t, a good overview of this issue appeared in Christine Lagorio’s article, Hot for Teacher, which appeared in the Village Voice in January 2006 — a highly recommended read which brilliantly compared RMP and other websites of its ilk to “the slosh of a giant virtual spitball smacking the ivory tower” while at the same time reminding us that there may be some merit in the site’s purpose.

Terry Ceasar, in his lucid IHE article on the significance of the site on the landscape of higher ed, also gives much enlightenment, comparing it to American Idol and musing over the consequences.

Although in my reading of the site, students tend to use this site to recommend their favorite teachers and advisors (often with hyperbolic-yet-kind praise) more than anything else, a great number of professors have railed against the anonymous postings of students, who seem free to virtually libel a professor (or at least bias others from taking their classes and soiling their reputations) without accountability, and to post their comments and ratings completely outside the context of the usual “course evaluation” where such things might actually help the teacher review and alter the class. In other words, it seems geared more toward personality and popularity points than anything related to learning.

Some profs have gone so far as to retaliate by rating their students in a like fashion, as the fascinating blog rateyourstudents makes clear. It’s true that this may be going too far (or maybe even sinking to the sophomoric level of the students on RMP) because the Rate My Prof site does allow visitors to “flag” inappropriate postings…and now allows profs to “rebut” them, generally…but by the same token, unless a professor visits the site and does these things herself, it is probably unlikely that a student will police any professor’s profile.
So whether you’re a tenured college teacher, grad student instructor, or adjunct, you might want to join the site anyway and keep an eye on what people are saying about you, after all.

Indeed, as Towsen U professors James Otto, Douglas A. Sanford Jr., and Douglas N. Ross pointed out in “Does Really Rate My Professor?” — a thorough empiric analysis of the site that appeared in the Oct 2007 journal of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education — the numbers on this site might actually have statistical correlation to teaching performance, despite the occasional flames of student outburst that call them into question.

So perhaps RMP and others of its ilk —,, or — might have some merit. If you’re interested in joining, what follows is a preview of what you’ll find. I’ll share my opinions and warnings along the way, and conclude with some passing ideas about how this might be turned into something teachable or work for faculty self-development.

I was happy to learn that the site offers a verification process to make sure that someone who says they’re a prof is actually employed by an institution before allowing them to join the site. This gives a modicum of credibility. They asked for my phone number and warned that it might take a few days for them to verify me; perhaps they heard my voice mail, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how they verified my identity, exactly, but my info is up online on this page as well as in the faculty directory on the Seton Hill University website, so I’m sure it wasn’t too hard to confirm. Regardless, it took a few days so I’m assuming it was a real verification, either by phone or online. I was ultimately confirmed via an e-mail message that asked me to sign in from my campus e-mail account, which is the same way many e-mail lists will verify their subscribers to prevent spam. So the free enrollment process seems to function well to prevent anonymous students posing as teachers — something other social networking pages probably could work harder do.

After joining, and being verified as a prof, and signing in for the first time — the site then asks you to fill in the typical “personal profile” questionnaire that asks a few questions that seem almost too personal for the purposes of this site. The professor’s sign-in page is really the same as the student sign-in page, so perhaps that accounts for the personality questions. I had to hunt for a button that said “I’m a Professor” to bypass some of these opening screens. But, clearly there’s more going on here than just evaluating teachers. Like most social networking sites, there’s clearly a degree of demographic harvesting at work. I kept my answers pared down to bare minimums and a few outright falsehoods. (I don’t think students need to know my birthday, for example…but I’m sure it helps MTVu’s marketers understand the age of their aggregate users. Still: isn’t it clear that most users of RMP are likely 18-24 — i.e. college-aged?! That demographic is built in to the very concept of the site! No matter: as far as they’re concerned, I am a 94 year old professor who’s birthday falls on Xmas day. If I start getting geriatric foot powder spam or gift cards to senior discount drug stores, I’ll know something’s amiss!)

We all know that websites collect information and have their own privacy policies that anyone signing up for them should read and review before signing up, and RMP has one worth reviewing before you enroll. But I raise this matter because when I browsed around the site, I noticed something interesting: even when students rate professors, they input a lot more information about the class then what you see on the main list when you look at a teacher’s profile. For example, students are asked to enter whether attendance was mandatory and what sort of grade they got in the course. Where does this info go? How is it used? You don’t see it on the public page of the site. We know whether students think teachers are “hot” but we don’t know if they took attendance? That’s odd. In any case, this info may go into a screen that no one besides the student sees — I’m not sure, because I didn’t actually rate anyone, I just went to the first page that opens up when you do so. In any case, I think maybe that course info should be reported out to the public, not kept private, because it might help readers interpret the student ratings.

One part of the rating/evaluation form that raised my eyebrow was the question about textbooks, which asked students to rank “Textbook Use” on a scale from 1 to 5 — and then it also asked for an ISBN. Hmmm… are they sharing this information with book publishers or online booksellers? I’m not sure, because, again, this isn’t reported on the public screens along with the course ratings, and it isn’t clear why they’re asking for it. Regardless, I seriously doubt many students look up the ISBNs of their books when rating and commenting on professor’s classes, so maybe it’s a moot point.

There’s also a place to mark whether a prof is “still teaching” or “retired” in this rating screen. I find this odd and wonder why it’s there. Because I also question how many students know this employment status if they’re writing ratings about past classes with nostalgia or long-term grudges. Instead, it should ask for “year taken” or something like that.

I really don’t know where all this info goes or what it signifies, but there’s more going on in the ratings then meets the public eye. And given the advertising everywhere on the site (from credit cards banners on your left to deceptive text-only sponsored links on the bottom of the page) it’s fair to assess a commercial interest in some of this information.

Though it didn’t work for me for some reason, the site promises that you can subscribe to your own page on as an rss feed. This might be the best way to go if you want to keep up with new postings on your work, but don’t want to succumb to the lure to check your ratings as obsessively as some writers I know who check their sales rankings. Plus it will keep you away from browsing your college on the site, where the temptation to read your colleagues’ rankings is really quite strong. You probably shouldn’t do this, especially if a time may come when you are in a position to evaluate the teacher for promotion or tenure. A little empathy can go a long way here: just as you probably wish your own rankings and comments had more context, if you read your colleague’s info, you are doing so out of context, and shouldn’t be quick to leap to any particular conclusions. Sometimes the best teachers get the worst ratings, simply because they are challenging. Any given sampling of students on RMP entry is probably not representative of the entire class — it is simply a collection of rankings by those who use RMP — which is not necessarily a properly random population sampling.

With over 6,000 schools from five different nations, a total of 1 million profs and 6 million opinions listed about them, RMP clearly is a “hot” site with a lot of content and data. The student opinions are often genuinely felt, even if they are sometimes irresponsible or hostile or rife with empty praise. On their own criteria, and using a 4.0 grading scale, I give RMP a 3.5 for ease-of-use, a 2.5 for helpfulness, a 3 for clarity and a 3 for rater interest. Teaching is not a popularity contest, but if you are interested in student feedback on your own teaching, this is but one of many ways to look for it. I caution you against rebutting, because this could encourage future student raters to bear bait just to see what you’ll say next.

Of course, you can and should still get “anonymous” feedback from your students by passing out a handout or doing your own evaluations in class, and that’s a better way to go, because such evaluations occur within a specific context, and along a direct line of communication between teacher and student, rather than student and student. You could easily borrow the criteria from RMP and make your own in-class handout and — something I would think is best — have a class discussion about these things. In the classroom, I think it is important to separate evaluation from the politics of judgment whenever possible, and instead to turn evaluation into a method of inquiry — an inquiry into both the subject being evaluated and the criteria used to evaluate it — instead. In our “American Idol” culture, this understanding and skill might be more imperative than ever to teach.

We can only learn from engaging in such evaluative inquiry; rating is about snapping to judge.