Letter to the editor: Professors are rated by students and colleagues


Many students check out RateMyProfessor.com and use this as a basis for selecting their courses to the degree permissible in a particular major. But what criteria does RMP use?

A primary RMP category is “easiness,” and my students agree that this is often a major consideration. When I checked out my RMP rating, I was pleased to see an overall score of 3.9, with my highest sub-score being “helpfulness.” My evaluator on RMP went further to state that they would take my classes again; grading was clear, my jokes were hilarious and I was an awesome professor.

Then why was my overall score not higher? Answer: I received only a “2” on the easiness scale.

The course in question was respiratory physiology within the Physiology of Exercise core. This course, which is taught by four professors (Thomas Barstow, Timothy Musch, Bradley Behnke and myself), forms the basis for pre-health, science and pre-medicine majors.

In KIN 335, students learn integrative physiology, the cornerstone for these and many other careers. Those that do well have the knowledge and academic horsepower for the graduate programs or professional schools of their choice. By its very nature, KIN 335 must be a challenging course.

So to get back to the original question, if students use RMP, how should professors be rated by their colleagues (and perhaps students)?

In 2005, Jorge E. Hirsch, a physicist at the University of California San Diego, proposed his “h-index.” Arguing that most scientific papers published in academic journals are never cited and only read by the journal staff, ranking professors and scientists simply by the number of their publications gives no idea of their impact on science or their standing in their field.

The h-index establishes a professor’s scientific influence by rating them on how many papers they have published that have been cited so many times. For instance, an h-index of 20 tells you that this professor has published 20 papers and that each has been cited at least 20 times.

Yes, critics may point out that the h-index is field-specific and heavily biased against junior academics. Also, not all papers are cited for good reasons; some may be cited for critique. However, more than simply the number of papers or citations, the h-index provides an arbiter of scientific excellence that is second to none in establishing a professor’s scientific footprint and standing in their field.

What is a “good” h-index? According to T. H. Lee in “Eugene Braunwald and the rise of modern medicine,” a 2011 analysis of ten Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine, revealed that those h-indexes ranged from 22-93, with an average of 62.

Hirsch himself estimated that after 20 years, a “successful scientist” will have an h-index of 20, an “outstanding scientist” an h-index of 40, and a “truly unique individual” an h-index of 60.

Some students will always select the easy courses and will be blissfully unaware, or simply not care, about whether the instructor has the academic bona fides to provide a world-class university educational experience.

This is unfortunate because K-State has some truly remarkable professors that are engaged in internationally acclaimed scientific discovery. Among them are extraordinarily gifted teachers who can offer students a brilliant and thought-provoking educational experience.

As a fee-paying student, you should demand the best education that K-State can offer you. A public research university such as K-State provides access to outstanding scholars that some other educational venues cannot.

Not every class taken can be (or indeed needs to be) from such a scholar — instructors can provide an excellent grounding in their subject. However, their information and its context is derived from books, articles and other sources. Their experience designing experiments, generating original data and debating the merits of that new knowledge with world leaders in the field is more limited or nonexistent.

Exposure to a world-class scholar can be a truly transformative experience that may have an immediate impact or sometimes may not be fully understood until years after the class.

Choose your courses and especially your professors/instructors carefully, and get the very most out of your educational money. Your career opportunities and marketability down the road will thank you.

David Poole is a professor of kinesiology. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.