August
9th 2009
I can haz homework assignment?

Posted under: book reviews, jobs, students

wtfFrom the mailbag at Historiann HQ:

Dear Historiann,

I’m a historian.  I just got an e-mail request from a graduate student to write a short bio of  myself.  She’s required to read my most recent book and include something on the author’s background.  My first response is WTF?  This is  basic research.  With databases, online catalogs, and departmental web pages, this is not a challenge!  You don’t just write to the author!  Would it be really rude to say, “you might want to check out my articles and other books, which should provide all the information you need for such an assignment?”

Thanks, and just sign me,

Flabbergasted Full Professor

Wow, FFP–I’m with you.  Is this grad student really trying to get you to do hir homework for hir?  Or is she just confused?  Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s probably best to assume that this graduate student is more confused than obnoxious.  Ze may not understand that the assignment to “include something on the author’s background” is a call for a professional or intellectual biography, rather than a personal biography, which as you note is basic research that can be gleaned by reading your other books and articles and looking at your web page.  You can point that out to hir, and perhaps list the other places you’ve taught in the past that might not be on your current departmental web page.

I’ve never had an e-mail like this from a college or graduate student, but I get a couple of e-mails per year from middle school or high school students asking me for my advice on research topics that are only tangentially related to my research interests.  (Perennial favorites are Pilgrim/Plymouth-related projects or questions about the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention.)  For the most part, I think they’re hoping that I’ll write their homework assignment for them.  I reply briskly with a few titles that will get them started on their research.  Nine times out of ten I never hear back from them–not even a “thank you for the suggestions, professor.”  One in ten will write back to thank me, and that’s the one I think might actually take my advice rather than continue to troll the internets for someone else who will write their homework assignment for them.

How do the rest of you handle these random requests for research assistance from strangers, and what would you suggest to Flabbergasted Full Proffie?  (As some of you regular readers may remember, I had a strange encounter of the e-mail variety last fall when I kindly answered one of these requests from out of the blue.)  Have you heard from graduate students with requests for your biography?  Is this a new kind of assignment that’s making the rounds in History departments and humanities grad programs?  Clue me in, friends.

33 Comments »

33 Responses to “I can haz homework assignment?”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 09 Aug 2009 at 8:41 am #

    I’ve had graduate students (typically from outside the US) contact me for “advice” about their topics, and typically I write the brisk reply and send them on their way. They never thank me, and I suspect they think I’m not helpful. Probably because I’m not helpful, because it’s not my job to research anybody’s MA thesis for them.

    That said, I do think that is a different thing than what FFP describes. Clearly the student was clueless, but I can see how a student might think that this is a reasonable approach to the assignment.

    Why can I see this? Well, because I *give* an assignment like that to my undergrads in feminist theory. The first time I taught the course, a student emailed the author (fancy theory professor) because there wasn’t much about her on the internet. (To be fair, some students had a much easier time on the “background on the author” part of things. Easy to find stuff on Judith Butler – not so much on some of the other authors on the syllabus.) At any rate, I was MORTIFIED that a student did this, but she was an undergraduate and apparently was very polite. The professor responded graciously with a friendly email, which actually ended up being awesome for the student (and for the class to hear about). That said, I’ve since changed the assignment to make it clear that it’s not appropriate to email the author about her background!

  2. Dr. Crazy on 09 Aug 2009 at 8:44 am #

    Oh, and has for how to respond, I think a version of “this is what your professor likely expected you to do” that is gracious and gentle is the way I’d try to go. Ultimately, this is a teaching moment, and no, it’s not your student per se, but what does it hurt to write two sentences that are kind and instructive to a clueless person? Instead of two sentences that are mean? In other words, same message in both cases, but I think the first tone is more constructive.

  3. Knitting Clio on 09 Aug 2009 at 9:42 am #

    Apparently it’s a common practice for high school teachers around here to ask students to conduct interviews for their papers. So, once or twice a semester I get a high school student who wants to interview me for her/his paper. It’s not that inconvenient and fosters good will for the university. I would also add that it does take some courage (especially for teens) to contact a well-known person.

  4. Janice on 09 Aug 2009 at 11:29 am #

    One of the historiographic assignments that I give our majors is to write a background paper on one of the historians whose work is featured in our course reader. Of course, our library no longer subscribes to the most useful basic guide for the biographical details (Contemporary Authors Online Database — surprisingly good for North American scholars). But it’s still laughably easy for any student to track down this information and move beyond that to assemble an intellectual or scholarly biography.

    A graduate student should be able to move beyond the bare bones of biographical facts to discuss the intellectual context. I foresee problems ahead for this student!

  5. Indyanna on 09 Aug 2009 at 11:54 am #

    I get these occasionally from undergraduate students, usually in small and distant places, and I’m usually pretty indulgent with that. When I was a major I scarcely imagined that the authorial names on books I was assigned really existed, wheezing through February snowstorms on campuses somewhere, raising kids, or whatever else. When they ask about things that constitute research, I nudge them toward the library.

    But let’s face it, when the H-Nets were closer to their infancy, not long ago, some surprisingly visible people would go on there asking questions that made you wish there was a utility (didn’t have the word “app” back then!) to send out that would show them a map between their office door and their own campus library.

    With graduate students, more often I’ll get an e-mail from an advisor–generally someone I know–asking if their student can get in touch for a consult, on some specific thing, and I’m usually o.k. with that too.

    The most irksome ones have been queries from pre-collegiate students with 20-30 specific and detailed questions about a subject that they want answered, and these I send on their way.

  6. The History Enthusiast on 09 Aug 2009 at 12:09 pm #

    My guess is that this student is part of the entitlement generation (and I don’t necessarily think that the student realizes that these type of requests imply such). That said, I would agree that it is a teaching moment. Most of the undergrads at my uni have no concept of professional etiquette and need to be gently schooled on what is okay and what is not, so perhaps this is a relatively new grad student who still doesn’t fully get how things work. For some students the first year of grad school feels like just an extension of college (although I would NEVER have done something like this during my first year). Now, if it is an older student–say one who’s ABD–they really should know better. That’s my two cents.

  7. Kathie on 09 Aug 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    The most annoying request I have gotten was from a tenured professor at another institution, not anyone I had ever heard of, as he is in a different field. He sent me a brusque one sentence query about a very specific issue in the country where I have done my research. But it was an odd and probably unanswerable query. And he gave ZERO information about his own interest in that topic or country, or even a little background about himself and his research by way of introduction. I simply ignored it and never answered (though it was just a couple of months ago, and it is still sitting in my inbox).

    The vast majority of student queries, in my experience, have been polite and have asked coherent and appropriate questions, though in one or two cases my response was that they should read my book on the topic, and contact me if they had questions after looking at some of the relevant literature. Basic! Read the publication(s) of the scholar before writing and asking them to tell you what the book is about!! And few have ever written later to say thanks.

  8. Flabbergasted Full Professor on 09 Aug 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    Well, I gathered my wits, and said “I’m not sure what you need to know, other than my other books and articles. And there is a brief intellectual bio in the introduction to my book [the one ze is reading]. But if you have specific questions I’d be happy to answer them.”
    I was polite, and think I gave a sense of what might be expected. If ze has any direct questions I’m happy to deal, but not write the bio. To be fair, my web page is pretty sketchy. One more task for the rest of the summer!

  9. JW on 09 Aug 2009 at 1:08 pm #

    When students contact me with requests to suggest texts, I generally give a short list. I also see if there’s a faculty member in the relevant department at their own institution who has expertise in the area and suggest that they contact them. And, if it is a question so basic that it betrays their failure to do any research on their own before contacting me, I might also give them a short list of resources from a quick search of their own library’s catalogue. Not once has a student thanked me for my time.

  10. Flabbergasted Full Professor on 09 Aug 2009 at 1:24 pm #

    Oh, and the e-mail came to my previous institution, which suggests ze had not even googled me…

  11. Tenured Radical on 09 Aug 2009 at 1:25 pm #

    I try to help high school students whenever I can, since many high school history curricula are so dull, whenever a teacher is trying to get kids off the grid (and maybe give them an idea of what college would be like) I try to support it. I answer questions from my own students about follow up readings (although often they could find them by themselves — anyone who thinks computer research has replaced library research should be corrected. Students are basically asked to research almost nothing in high school anymore and come to college with very little sense of why it might be important to do actual research, much less the skills to do it.)

    I also always help friends. Requests from strangers I rarely respond to, unless it is about my own work, and that includes grad students. The ones that particularly gall me are TV or film people who have a decent budget to do what they are doing and if htey want me to consult should pay me.

  12. Sisyphus on 09 Aug 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    I bet it’s a confusion about “bio” meaning “verbal version of the cv” rather than a biography.

    I went to support one of the first year grad students once when she was giving a paper at the same conference. There were maybe 4 people in the audience at her panel, which was all newbie grad students. The panel chair must have asked them all for a short bio for her to read, because one of the ones she read off was a three-minute life-of-the-mind history of this student, “Having loved books from an early age, XXX got a job at the local Barnes and Noble while finishing his BA in English, etc etc etc.” It really went on and on. You could see the grad student had realized his mistake as soon as he heard the first person’s “bio” read out — he looked mortified and turned bright red as the panel chair read it. We all politely pretended nothing was wrong and ignored it.

    Just sayin’ that for people new to the profession, you do a _lot_ of things that you immediately realize were wrong … oh boy do you realize. And a lot of the time it’s not entitlement or arrogance that causes you to say nothing but the awkward realization that you don’t know how to gracefully get yourself out of that predicament.

  13. LadyProf on 09 Aug 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    “Not once has a student thanked me for my time.”

    When I get thanked for my “time” by students who have received much more than time in my office–plus quite a lot of my time–I wonder: do the Gentlemen Profs get thanked for their time? Or do students slobber to appreciate their insight, brilliance, solutions, or even HELP? Being thanked for my time seems perfunctory and hollow–as if I have given them nothing but a small amount of clock-punchery–although JW is right to say that expressed gratitude of any sort is better than none.

  14. John S. on 09 Aug 2009 at 5:51 pm #

    In my experience, the gender difference has to do with the one thanking, rather than the one being thanked. Which is to say, I don’t think I have ever had a male student thank me for time, help, or what have you. But I have had female students thank me, effusively, for things like writing a rec letter or even just talking to them about a paper during my office hours. I’ve had to explain to a couple that some of this is, in fact, part of my job–I am obligated to show up to my office hours and do normal advising things. Where I think sometimes that my male students feel overly entitled, I get the feeling that my female students feel under entitled, if that makes sense. It’s as if some of them hesitant about asking for some of the basics.

  15. Liz2 on 09 Aug 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    To add to John S.’s point (I realize a little off topic) one of my colleagues has 80% male students (she teaches a topic that interests males students) and I have 80% female students. I constantly get thank you notes for any help I give students and she has yet to get one. Showing gratitude for help seems to be very gendered.

  16. HistoryMaven on 09 Aug 2009 at 10:23 pm #

    In the early days of H-Net I learned quickly that offering information on my research was an invitation for graduate students to ask for complete bibliographies. One graduate student asked that I send her a project bibliography of primary sources because she was contemplating submitting a proposal to MLA on the same area. In other words, she hadn’t really begun the research!

    When I responded that, as a teacher, she was placing me in an awkward position, she responded, nastily, that she had no intention of “stealing my intellectual property” and that since I had shared some of my research online and offered to the inquirer further information that I had basically invited everyone to borrow my work.

    The added bonus? My bibliography was created in part from my dissertation research, and the graduate student was enrolled at the same university at which I earned my doctorate. My dissertation sits on the library’s shelf. And she could have, possibly, learned a lot more by finding it and reading it.

    By the way, wouldn’t it be, technically, an autobiography provided by Flabbergasted Full Professor?

  17. shaz on 09 Aug 2009 at 11:39 pm #

    I regularly have students (jr high and up) asking me to tell them everything about X. Usually X is several centuries removed from my research (Enough with Martin Luther King and NASA, please!). Then I get novelists asking me to read their work for historical accuracy (my fave: love story between Spanish Conquistador and Indian princess. I kid you not).

    Look, I’m a pretty darned dedicated teacher, but I do wonder about this kind of assignment: are other professionals (dentists, doctors, lawyers) getting asked to practice their profession for free to strangers?

    I always am happy to help friends, I regularly volunteer at local schools. But I admit I resent the idea that historical expertise is not a skill that should be paid for. I just can’t imagine these same students emailing random physicians and asking them to provide information on medical conditions, treatment, etc. Unless Dr. Mr. Historiann can show me the error of my assumptions?

  18. Mamie on 10 Aug 2009 at 12:15 am #

    I have a desk drawer full of tiny, greeting-card-store copies of “Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul,” all thank-you gifts from non-traditional undergrad women.

    On the other hand, I used to spend hours every year helping high-school students with their History Day projects, and not one student, teacher, or parent ever said (much less wrote), “Thank you.” Now, when I get a request, I say no. I have learned that high-school teachers tell their students that helping them with these projects is part of our job as professors, and some students and parents have voiced real anger when I offered a reading list, or suggested they consult a librarian.

    Shaz: I have a friend who is a psychologist, but whenever he flies, he tells his seatmate he’s a mathematician. Does that answer your question?

  19. Historiann on 10 Aug 2009 at 7:02 am #

    Thanks, everyone, for carrying on without me yesterday! (It was a travel day for me.) It sounds like you and FFP solved hir problem–and polite is always correct.

    As to the question about the gendered nature of thank-yous: I hadn’t thought about it, but I’ve seen the same trend that John S., Liz2, and Mamie report. All but one TY note/gift has been from a woman student, at least as far back as I can recall offhand.

    As for whether or not other professionals are asked to consult for free: it happens, but again I wonder about the question of the sex of the practicioner, and whether or not that makes people feel like they’re entitled to a woman’s expert advice. (That’s my suspicion, anyway.) Doctor Mister doesn’t get importuned by random strangers, but then, neither he nor his partners put his contact information on line the way ours is. Ann Bartow from Feminist Law Professors has commented here before about getting e-mails from people asking for legal advice/help, and when she delines, sometimes they respond with anger and hostility and lecture her that that’s part of her job as a law proffie at a public university. (Much as Mamie reports, above.) So my sense is that people expect free help from women more often, regardless of speciality, than of men, because of the same boundary problems I’ve written about here. (That women are not permitted to define their work and draw boundaries around their bodies and time, etc. the way men are.)

  20. Ruth on 10 Aug 2009 at 7:42 am #

    I am at a state university; History Day is a big deal in this state and our department is heavily involved in supporting it, and one of the requirements for high school student projects is that they interview someone who is knowledgeable about the subject. The topic I get the most requests about is William Wallace, not exactly my specialty, but close enough. I want to encourage these students–this is a bit of a recruitment method for our department–but I don’t want to do their work for them either, so I tell them that I will talk to them after they’ve given me the names of two books–not encyclopedias or web pages–where they’ve found information about their subject. Then when they ask me questions that they should answer themselves from their reading, I tell them so. But I do try to help with the larger interpretive questions.

  21. Flabbergasted Full Professor on 10 Aug 2009 at 8:24 am #

    Actually, for what it’s worth, I’ve heard from doctors that they get asked for medical advice at parties all the time. And it doesn’t matter if your talking to a psychiatrist about an orthopedic problem, or vice versa.

  22. Dr. Righteous on 10 Aug 2009 at 8:47 am #

    A lot of things piss me off, but being asked for my expertise is not one of them. If I don’t want to answer a question, I delete it.

    If our e-mails and websites are public, we are advertising our availability. People are going to contact us.

    As for thank-you notes, the local high schools make the kids verify that they’ve sent a thank you note (the real paper kind, no less) as part of the project itself. So by the time our kids are undergrads, they understand that this is expected.

  23. Matt L on 10 Aug 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    Thank you notes do seem to be gendered. I have gotten nice thank you notes from female graduating seniors who took one of my western civ classes as freshmen. There are other students, male and female, who have taken several classes from me, for whom I have written letters of recommendation, and they have just dropped off the face of the earth. I do have a student who has gone on to grad school and has stayed in touch. Ze is a class act and I look forward to seeing hir around the AHA conferences in a few years.

    Like Ruth mentioned, History Day is a big deal at Woebegon State, and we often have local middle school and high school students asking for help. I’ve done a couple of interviews, and met with several students from local middle schoold. I have also judged local and regional history day events. The teachers and organizers are very gracious and do make a point of thanking all the people who come to judge the events. I think doing this is part of the job at the regional university. I don’t expect to be thanked, but it sure is nice when it happens.

  24. LadyProf on 10 Aug 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    My experience with thank-you notes has been regional as well as gendered. When I taught in the south they flowed in copiously, often for tiny favors and 100% from female students. The women I teach these days up north don’t bother.

    Doctors and lawyers I know of both genders (real estate lawyers in particular) are PELTED with demands from strangers for free information. I think men actually get more of it when the questioners’ personal stakes are higher–perhaps because people think they are the real deal in their fields. Whereas women at the same level of seniority are presumed less qualified, unauthoritative, or eccentric.

  25. Dr. Crazy on 10 Aug 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    I’m glad that LadyProf commented about the regional nature of thank-yous, but I’ve got to say, I’ve been thanked by male and female students nearly equally in my current position. (How much does this have to do with institutional culture as well as region, though? That’s a further level of this whole discussion.) It is probably true that female students are more likely to give me gifts or cards – that is surely gendered – but one of the most beautiful thank-yous I’ve ever received was an extra entry in a response journal in which the graduating male student wrote a letter to me about how important I was to his intellectual development at the university. In other words, not all male students think they are entitled to help or mentoring, just as all female students are not universally polite and courteous and generous with the thanks. What’s perhaps most interesting to me is the fact that my students (male and female) frequently thank me for things that are seriously part of my job and not above and beyond the call of duty, whereas randoms on teh internets who contact my professional email rarely thank me, even though I’ve no obligation to help them out. I’d think that if you contact a stranger to pick her brain that a thank you, if she responds at all, would be the obvious thing to do if she responds. Apparently, no.

  26. Historiann on 10 Aug 2009 at 5:51 pm #

    Dr. Crazy–good points. I wonder if class has something to do with it too, in that students who always expected to go to college may not be as appreciative of extra help as the students who are first-generation college students or who never imagined that they’d be earning a degree?

    Interesting point by LadyProf about northern women, too.

    One of the interesting points raised in the comments earlier I wanted to address is the notion that the public expects more from faculty at public unis than from faculty at private unis. (This also came up last week in the thread in which Mamie described being berated for her interest in the history of slavery especially because it was a “waste of taxpayers’ money” since she teaches at a public uni.

    I wonder if any of us think about this at all when contemplating job offers? (Not that most of us have more than one job to choose from at a time, as I know from my own experiences!) It’s nothing I ever thought about until coming to Baa Ram U., which is the first and only public institution I’ve been affiliated with since graduating from a public high school. All of my previous employment experience, and my entire education from B.A. through the Ph.D. was at private colleges and universities. And, given the fact that the people of my great state contribute less than 10% of Baa Ram U.’s budget, I think we’re only a public university any more in a very attenuated fashion.

    Do faculty at public unis owe more to the public at large than do faculty at private unis? Do faculty at private unis owe more to other interested stakeholders (benefactors, alumni/alumnae, or the like) than faculty at public unis? I have to say that I try to be helpful to whomever asks for assistance, but that I don’t feel the need to be *especially* accomodating to random e-mails now that I teach at a public uni.

  27. New Kid on the Hallway on 10 Aug 2009 at 7:31 pm #

    I think there is a public expectation that land-grant universities *are* there to serve the people of the state, and therefore (no matter how many other ways that institution is actually serving the people of the state), individual professors should be accountable to the individual people of the state, including by answering their questions. (I don’t agree with this – I think actually teaching students and doing research fulfills any public responsibility just fine – but I think people do feel this way.)

    I’ve been thanked pretty much equally by men and women students, but the women were much more likely to do so with a handwritten notecard (usually with flowers on it). The men usually sent me an e-mail.

  28. undine on 10 Aug 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    I answer the interview requests and the research requests, and I usually get a thank-you note (via email) in response. The ones that make my heart sink a little, though, are the thank-you notes that have some variation of “Thank you so much! I’ll get back to you with more questions soon.”

  29. Another Damned Medievalist on 10 Aug 2009 at 10:14 pm #

    I vote with Crazy on this. Assume cluelessness and give kind advice

  30. Shaz on 11 Aug 2009 at 7:14 am #

    There is, I think, a fundamental difference between inappropriate cocktail (or airplane) conversation and a school assignment to exploit a professional’s expertise.

    Don’t get me wrong; I think History Day and all kinds of K-12 outreach are great, and I’ve happily done them multiple times a year for the past decade. I’m a big believer in volunteering — but I see that as different from an expectation of my services on demand.

    Certainly, I’d be more predisposed to someone who had done research and asked questions that weren’t just, “Tell me about Martin Luther King.” But I still can’t get over the feeling that our profession is (perhaps because, in part, of relative gender equality compared to other disciplines?) not respected. Are scientists being regularly asked to do school assignments in this way (and would most (men) even consider responding)? My scientist friends (engineers, computer scientists) have never been contacted for a comparable school project. The one physicist I know who volunteers in schools is a woman dedicated to increasing women in the sciences.

  31. squadratomagico on 11 Aug 2009 at 7:43 am #

    It sounds as if the student was, indeed, hoping simply to present FFP’s bio verbatim. However, isn’t it also within the realm of possibility that the student was researching FFP’s publications and such as well? Perhaps s/he was really doing a thorough job, by asking the prof. how s/he saw hir own intellectual trajectory?

    Though, given the email address snafu (new info. in the comments) perhaps not…

  32. Historiann on 11 Aug 2009 at 9:01 am #

    Shaz–interesting point. I think you’re right: asking randomly is different in kind and in scale from expecting gratis assistance repeatedly, year after year.

    Squadrato–those thoughts crossed my mind, but I wondered: why wouldn’t someone who had already done some basic research indicate that in hir first e-mail? When I have contacted people I don’t know for assistance like that, I do a little homework first and let them know which books I’ve consulted and/or what I’ve been able to figure out on my own. IOW, I think it was the open-ended nature of the request that flabbergasted FFP (and me, too!)

  33. High school student: U R doin’ it rite! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 03 Apr 2010 at 9:37 am #

    [...] (If you recall, we’ve already covered how not to ask strangers for help, high school edition here and grad school edition here and here.) [...]