Website launched to rate professors, help students

This weekend marked the debut of a new online student forum intended for discussion of professors and courses at Williams.

“Factrak” (factrak.williams.edu), as the site is known, is designed as a source of information for students about faculty members, offering a central location for an exchange of comments and views about students’ own experiences.

The site, presented with the tagline, “Rate your professors online,” is presented as an open, anonymous forum accessible only to those in the Williams community. The site will contain content available for all within the College, but meant especially for students.

“The idea behind it,” said Jonathan Lovett ’04, one of three designers of the site, “is that students will be able to go there, and rate classes you’ve already had, and those ratings will be stored for the future. You can just read what other people have written, or you can contribute your own thoughts, if you want. It’s completely up to you.”

According to Lovett and his partners, Samir Thaker ’04 and Spencer Wong ’04, the site will provide a service that is valued greatly at other institutions that have similar programs, and is one that Williams students would benefit from. “It’s at Harvard, and I was just at Haverford, where they have a very comparable program,” said Lovett. “Kids there have really found it helpful, and anyone we’ve talked to here has had a positive opinion.”

Rather than adopt a more formal, rigid system such as Harvard’s, the trio designed a site that has no predetermined or categorical rankings and no official rating scale. Instead, students are given free reign to describe their experience in their own language, urged only to “comment on the professor and the class” by a prompt above a blank text box.

“We wanted to have as little influence over what people said as we could,” said Thaker. “All you do to rate a professor is to select them out of the department, and then type in your comments, which can be as short or as long as you feel.”

For those who wish to read other students’ comments, the information is indexed according to professor and department, with readers able to search for either of the two attributes. Once in a department, professors are arranged in alphabetical order, with comments about each professor displayed in the order received.

The site is hosted on a Williams Students Online (WSO) server and will be made available to the College community in the same manner that other WSO services, such as the facebook, currently are. However, off-campus access with a Colrain login – a popular feature of the facebook – is not currently offered by Factrak.

The involvement of WSO in the site presents a situation that could lead to some conflict with the College. “We clearly feel that we’re an independent group, completely student-run and operated and offer none of the authority of the College. At some point, though, the fact that the College is the root of funding for WSO could cause some problems,” said Lovett.

According to Thaker, the administration has opposed programs such as this in the past. “We’ve heard that they’re not crazy about something like this, and we’ve heard their reasons before and we don’t necessarily agree with them. It’s clear that they consider this type of information helpful to have, with the student evaluation forms each semester, and we think we should be able to have something like that as well,” he said.

The rationale behind this particular scheme, explained Lovett, was that students already openly share information about courses by word of mouth, but only within a small group of people.

“It’s very arbitrary that you might get one or two people that have taken the course, and you’ll only get their opinions. Here, you’d have 100 people, and you’d be able to see a broader range of experiences, like people outside your department or major, or the opinion of a senior if you’re a freshman. . .it would allow for better decision making.”

Even in the event that that administration does object to the site, Thaker sees no obstacle to its continued existence. “We’re fully prepared to go the route of an outside server if need be, “ he said. “If there is some sort of pressure, we can just move off campus, and it will be just as open and accessible. We’ll just have to come up with about $50 a month.”

At this point, the site is too new for the administration as a group to have taken a firm stance. However, Tom Wintner, associate dean of the faculty, has expressed some tentative personal reservations about the site. “One thing that might not be ideal is the fact that we’ve never heard of it. If this is a College thing, then someone probably should have cleared it with the administration,” Wintner said.

For their part, Lovett and Thaker admit to creating the site without the express permission of any part of the institution. “We were sort of trying to fly under the radar,” said Thaker. “We probably feared a pre-emptive strike more than anything, and we would rather have our site up and running and show the deans how it actually works, before we go to them with any abstract proposal.”

Permission issues aside, there still may exist a difference of opinion between the two groups. “We obviously couldn’t ever stifle an open and honest exchange of ideas among students, nor would we ever try,” said Wintner. “Anecdotal exchange of information is clearly a part of college, and it’s not something we want to squelch. The big question would be what the value of this particular site would be.”

“Students should be wary that other students don’t like courses for a number of reasons, and on a site like this, something that has nothing to do with the merits of the course or the quality of the instruction would be influencing their decision,” Wintner continued. “This [site] has the potential to balloon into something that could misrepresent its intentions.”

Without student support, however, all other discussion about the site becomes moot. “We have to get people going to the site early on and submitting things, or nobody is going to go,” said Lovett. “People need this now, during registration, and if nobody knows about it, or there’s nothing for people to read, it’s not really going to matter.”

To that end, the Factrak designers have planned an extensive publicity campaign for this week in an attempt to garner a critical mass of submissions. Even taking that into consideration, the group is still admittedly relying on a little old-fashioned altruism: “It’s those first people that go to the site that we’re going to need,” said Thaker.

“We’re getting our friends to submit as much as they can, but people need to want this to work. If they do, then we think this is going to work out for everyone.”