by Elizabeth Alsop

I know there are instructors who don’t read their Rate My Professor reviews, but I’m not one of them. I’m too eager for the feedback (and, if I’m honest, the crumbs of praise!) But recently, I noticed a comment about the upper-level film course I taught last Spring that seemed to  validate my curiosity.

In general, the student was happy with the class—with one caveat. “She likes to read A LOT,” he or she wrote. “A novel is due in the first week of class. I hate reading, which is why I would avoid her in future classes, but she is extremely nice and helpful.” Procedural inaccuracies notwithstanding (the novel was due in the second week of class, ehem!) the student’s assertion was correct: I do like to read a lot, whether “a lot” refers to the ardor with which I read or the quantity. But what bothered me was the association that apparently existed in this student’s mind between this predilection and my classroom practice: in other words, the assumption that our course activities were mostly—exclusively?— the result of personal preference, rather than more deliberate effort or intention. No one would presume, after all, that a doctor’s choice of surgical techniques is guided by their private inclinations , or that lawyers litigate because they like to.

These comparisons may be imperfect but they’re also illustrative, in that they reveal the cultural persistence of what might be called a “vocational” view of teaching: the belief that teaching (as compared to, say, doctoring or lawyering) is more vocation or “calling” than profession. In other words, my student’s comment suggests that many continue to see teachers as spurred by love rather than the usual other motivating factors: financial compensation, prestige, professional recognition, etc. On the one hand it’s an inspiring idea with much truth to it. Indeed, this rhetoric of love might even be appealing were it not also—as others have argued—also pernicious, at once cause and symptom of teaching’s de-professionalization both in practice and in popular discourse. (A topic I’ve written about before, and that Michael Berubé and Jennifer Ruth have addressed in the context of humanities higher education.)

Online ratings systems like RMP  are easy to dismiss, especially in light of recent studies, which call into question their value as anything other a clearing house for unconscious bias. Yet it’s also possible they add some different kind of value: offering those within the profession an indication of its often distorted perception in the public imagination.