The Hot and Cold of Chili Peppers

Some days I really love chili peppers. I mean all kinds: habanera, jalapeno, serrano, the band from the 80s and 90s, and also the RateMyProfessor.com chilies. As I get older, the edible chilies become tougher to take in quantities, the band hasn’t been active lately, but the RateMyProfessor.com chilies never fail to make me smile.

I definitely know the power of marketing and I use those chilies to full effect. Students comment to me about them at least a few times a semester, and usually it’s to say they don’t know how they feel about the chili rating, but they love the funness of the idea of them. Back in 2008, John Warner wrote Quién Es Caliente? Getting Your RateMyProfessors.com Chili Pepper, with humorous advice that no one should take. He does note, though, that at that time fewer than 25% of college instructors listed on the RateMyProfessor.com site have any kind of hotness. I wonder what the numbers would be now? Sounds like a conference paper waiting to happen. Also from 2008 (that must have been a troubling year for chili-pepper-seeking profs) are two other pieces that explain that chili hotness is contextual; one is by Craig Willse and the second is by NewSocProf. These insightful bloggers suggest that hotness has less to do with looking like Paris Hilton, put everything to do with how one engages in the subject s/he is teaching. For example, one can be in his or her 60s and still be “hot” because s/he is passionate about her/his subject.

Prior to that, the general talk around the academic water cooler was that the entire site was horrible – allow students to anonymously rate instructors; worse, to assign attractiveness, as if that matters. Not everyone was so grim, though. Many discussions showed the deeper meaning of such soon-to-be iconic structures. In 2005, for example, Alex Golub worried that even mentioning that we instructors knew about the site, let alone to openly discuss the chili peppers, might potentially be considered a violation of the students’ privacy. But he concluded that the successful professor would ultimately embrace what the chilies represent – student voice, and faculty needed to understand that.

I’m glad that Golub’s predictions of normalizing the website have come true, and all the furor has died down about it. There’s even an example essay in one of my writing textbooks from the students’ point of view about the website that is quite funny. This essay always provokes a discussion on my own rating, and I tell students that if they decide to rate me, they should, of course, say whatever they need to say, but at least give me a chili pepper to soften the blow. It’s part of my classroom shtick and it always gets some laughs, and even a chili pepper rating or two. Am I violating their privacy? I just don’t think so. I’m not, after all, telling them to pull out laptops and do it right there so I can check their spelling and grammar.

If you’re at all curious, I am listed at two colleges. At one I have a 6 out of 8, and at the other I have an 8 out of 8. I guess that means I’m hot. That actually isn’t how I interpret the chilies, though. I see them as one more way for me to encourage students into my classes so that I can continue to teach one more contractual semester.

I used to create print advertising, back in the olden times when the internet wasn’t in every 5-year-old’s bedroom. Having a public persona was crucial for the companies that I worked for and with. As a contract worker now, how can it be any different? The answer is that it isn’t different. We need butts in seats to keep our jobs. We also need returning students to, well, return. We need them to tell all of their friends we are fair graders, caring instructors, and we need the students to do well (or at least to understand why they might not have done so well, with the conclusion being it wasn’t the instructor’s fault, per se). These are our clients, our customers. In my opinion, RateMyProfessor.com is a better indication of how we’re doing than those semi-regular department evaluations.

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