25th 2010
We get letters. . . some we can do without.

Posted under: American history, bad language, childhood, jobs, students, women's history

I’m sure many of you get random e-mails from students in grades 5-12 asking you to enlighten them about a particular research topic.  These all have appeared to me to be fishing expeditions to see if I’ll do someone’s homework for hir.  (The “pilgrims” of Plymouth Plantation fame are big in the fall with elementary school students, and women’s history projects are popular in the winter and early spring with high school students, in my experience.)  Homostorian Americanist e-mailed me the following exchange from this weekend:

Hello,My name is XXXX XXXXXXX and I am a student at Redacted High School. I am doing a Project on Women’s Right’s / Women’s History, for National History Day. I saw that you teach a lot about Women’s History, and I was wondering if you could tell me anything you know about women in the U.S? How did women’s right’s come about?  Who was involved?  Were there any organizations for and/or against women’s rights? What is you opinion on women in politics today? Do you know anything about women’s rights in [my state]? Anything else would be very helpful.
Thank you for your time.

Either the student wasn’t instructed properly how to ask more specific questions, or ze decided that ze didn’t need to make even a feint at asking for guidance in doing research, rather than filling in the blanks.  Homostorian Americanist and I disagree slightly:  ze thinks that secondary school teachers encourage students randomly to e-mail us, whereas I think that even if that’s the case, they get better coaching than this letter would indicate.  (Googling “expert in women’s rights/women’s history in [my state]” is as much research as this student did, I bet.)  As we all know, our students regularly fail to follow our carefully laid out, patiently and thoroughly explained instructions–we can’t blame the teacher for this.  (Probably.)

So, H.A. replied quite kindly:


I would suggest that you narrow down your focus.  It would be very difficult to answer your current questions in anything shorter than book form.  To start I would go to your library.  A couple book-length histories of women in America are:

Sara Evans, Born For Liberty
Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes


Professor H.A.

Undeterred, XXXX replied to H.A.  My editorial additions are bracketed, in bold:

Thank you for your reply.  It is towards the end of my project [Hello!  I clearly waited until this weekend to start something that's due Monday, and I'm on a deadline!] and I’m suppose to have an interview, to back up some of my research, and maybe to offer some more information.  [Historiann here:  This has got to be a total lie!  Are there really high school teachers that recommend an "interview" to "back up" research?  If so, will someone please yank their licenses?  I just don't believe that a responsible teacher would craft an assignment like that.] I would really appreciate if you answer a few questions. [Deadline!  Please try to keep up.] I will try to be more specific [you a$$hole]. I have studied [a bunch of famous nineteenth-century feminists] [or, those were the first three hits on Google when I typed in "women's rights"]. I am focusing on [six questions which are topics of many dissertations, books, and articles, and which are also fairly easily guessed at or answered with even a cursory reading of an American history textbook.] Do you have any primary or secondary sources on women’s rights that you could forward to me?  This information would be very helpful, and I would love it if you answered some of them [a$$hole!].Thank you again for your time. [As if!]

Ever the patient soul, H.A. replied to XXXX:


To get answers to many of these questions I would consult:

Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism
Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage
Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920,” an article published in the American Historical Review in 1984.

XXXX is clearly a master of research in the age of the world-wide non peer-reviewed internets.  Here’s hir final reply–again, my editorial insights are bracketed and in bold:

I emailed Nancy Cott and Ellen DuBois I hope they answer [unlike you, a$$hole.] Thank you for your opinion [a$$hole!!!].

Sent from my iPhone

I’m betting that Nancy Cott and Ellen DuBois summarily delete e-mails like that.  (And that they sleep very, very well at night.  Not so much Homostorian Americanist:  he’s worried now that XXXX will tell Cott and DuBois that he told hir to e-mail them, instead of reading their books.)  From now on, the delete key will be my style.  No good deed goes unpunished, right?  (I wonder:  do physics or chemistry proffies get e-mails like this–or are high school students reasonably intimidated by the idea of e-mailing a scientist out of the blue for help with their “research?”  Do high school students e-mail physicians and attorneys randomly for free advice on their “research?”)

Tell your stories in the comments below–I’d especially love to hear from high school teachers or others with insight into what’s going on in high schools.  I’m betting that anyone who’s been on a humanities faculty for even a year or two has fielded a few of these e-mails.  (And that there are more of them where XXXX came from!)  Don’t we all have a lot to look forward to when XXXX comes to college?  [Come on, a$$hole--make my day.]


51 Responses to “We get letters. . . some we can do without.”

  1. Knitting Clio on 25 Jan 2010 at 6:53 am #

    Hi Historiann,

    I receive these about once or twice a semester. Some teachers around here do require students to do interviews for their papers. The messages I get are more specific though. I don’t find them an inconvenience to answer and it builds good will between our department and the local schools.

  2. New Kid on the Hallway on 25 Jan 2010 at 7:01 am #

    I didn’t get many of these (thank God), but when I did, they were generally along the lines of, “Could you tell me about the Crusades.” Um, no. Read a book. Someone who maintains a huge website of medieval sources got multiple versions every week. He simply deleted them all (& I think put something on the website saying he didn’t answer such requests). And yes, some of the students were told to interview experts.

    This would sometimes come up on a relevant listserv (with lots of non-academics) and the non-academics used to get their collective panties in a twist about not! responding! to! our! children! What is it academics are supposed to do, anyway, besides teach??? I wonder if students write nuclear physicists with these kinds of requests?

  3. Bookbag on 25 Jan 2010 at 7:04 am #

    Holy moly, what a ridiculous set of emails! You’re nicer than I am– I’m not sure I would answer with anything more than an acknowledgement and tips on how to use a library. From what I remember of high school history, we were never encouraged to email random faculty. I have no personal experience with this but I can imagine that students using web databases like Ed Ayers’s Valley of the Shadow project might think it was a good idea to email him and ask for his answers to the essay questions on the site.

  4. Beth on 25 Jan 2010 at 7:25 am #

    Wow! As a high school history and English teacher, I can honestly say I have never even suggested a student e-mail a professor/expert for information, much less requiring such a thing. In 16 years of teaching, I’ve never heard of another teacher suggesting this, either. I think this student was acting on hir own. At most, I can imagine (though, again, I’ve never seen it) a teacher suggesting contacting a professor for resources, but never for content information.

    (and please don’t get me started on students failing to carefully follow directions issued ad nauseam and in multiple formats…if you think it’s bad at the university level…!)

    However, I think the fact that high school kids might not e-mail a scientist has more to do with the types of assignments typical at the secondary level–rarely are students asked to do research papers in science. In terms of teaching the craft, the science teachers tend to focus on labs while we focus on paper writing. I don’t think most of my students would find a science PhD any more or less intimidating than a history PhD, actually. Those types of perceived differences aren’t yet part of their mental maps.

  5. Another Damned Medievalist on 25 Jan 2010 at 7:53 am #

    A friend in the Seattle area is regularly contacted by students for things like this. The most recent was for if she would be an outside advisor/Mentor on a senior project. Apparently, her name was entered into a database as a local expert, without her knowledge or consent!

    While I agree with your assessment of this particular situation, I think it is becoming more and more usual for high school teachers to encourage students to contact outside experts, in part because of weird state outcomes!

  6. Another Damned Medievalist on 25 Jan 2010 at 7:56 am #

    PS — I see this as being an offshoot of the projects most of us had to do as kids, like “interview a family member about life in the Depression”, but instead of seeing the inherent value of doing something like that (interviewing, oral history, possibly doing some bonding with a family member), ‘higher standards’ mean in some people’s minds that that’s not good enough anymore, and students now have to contact experts without any real understanding of what it is we do.

  7. Western Dave on 25 Jan 2010 at 8:03 am #

    These e-mails will become more frequent. I’m a teacher at an independent school that is a leader in technology use. We have had several “experts” in the field come talk to us about how to better integrate technology into the classroom. One of the reigning myths that many of these technofuturists peddle is that there are tons of experts just waiting to help students with “research” projects that will help students build their own authentic knowledge. (Why these guys, and they are all guys, think this is better than reading stuff off JSTOR, I have no idea). So more and more teachers are assigning “identify and contact an expert” elements of the assignment without any idea of what that means or the types of questions to ask. Because technofuturists don’t understand and/or value disciplinary knowledge, they don’t get that students might have to develop years and years of practice to even know who they might contact or what kinds of questions are the right kind to ask them. The teachers (if we’re talking public school, the coaches and military veterans who often wind up teaching social studies because they never got beyond Algebra II and therefore can’t teach math) have no idea how to help structure the assignment so they just say “find an expert and interview them about your topic” because that’s what the speakers told them to do to make their students better “21st century learners.” Sigh.

    Oh, and professors in the sciences get this all the time. It’s called science fair. But generally since science fairs have a long history and scientists have a 50 year investment in better science teaching (thanks Cold War!), the structure around such requests is a lot better. But you can bet that kids competing for a Westinghouse has contacted many, if not all, the relevant people in their field of research. They may even be working in their labs after school or during the summer.

    National History Day is pretty new, and most students and teachers have not gotten the hang of it yet.

    Which raises another problem, the vast majority of high school history teachers have no idea what they are doing. I’m on the listservs, I know. So for the love of Pete, those of you who can (ie: those of you post-tenure), please do a TAH or NEH program for high school, middle school, and/or elementary school teachers. Find one of the good history teachers in your area and have them work with you. Include templates for how (and when!) to contact an expert, etc. etc.. History has been getting crowded out for years in K-12 education, as Jack Lemmon argued in Mass Appeal, “It is our church and we must fight for it.”

  8. squadratomagico on 25 Jan 2010 at 8:21 am #

    I get these several times per year. I used to try to respond to them kindly, but of course would often get persistent correspondence of the kind H.A. did: no attempts to actually read the recommended books, just a series of broad questions. The thing that eventually made me stop was getting one of these from a child’s mother, who explained that her son had to write a paper about the Crusades and asking me for help in, again, a very open-ended way. I responded by giving some book titles and author recommendations, just as H.A. did. Then she followed up with a laundry-list of general questions, apparently cribbed directly from the assignment sheet. In return, I got a little testy with her and explained that, though she apparently had no problem doing her son’s assignment for him, I did. She responded with an angry email about how I was supposed to be a teacher, blah, blah.

    Unbelievable! From then on, I started deleting.

  9. HistoryMaven on 25 Jan 2010 at 8:29 am #

    One may easily imagine how a student would think that an “expert” is accessible by the way university Web sites present faculty: each faculty member has a Web page, with research and teaching specialties, and CONTACT information. Add to that representation the fact that many university marketing divisions offer searchable databases of fitting the university’s experts to media outlets, etc., et voila! thinking on demand!

    I campaigned to have my former department place on its Website a specific page dedicated to who in the department would be willing to consult say, historical societies, or offer lectures on specific topics–keeping more control over one’s professional life online. The page would have included links to specific topics correlated to Women’s History Month, etc., etc. No go–folks thought that it would lead to dancing, i.e., more inquiries.

  10. ej on 25 Jan 2010 at 8:45 am #

    I actually think our university promotes this sort of thing as a way to make stronger connections between the university and the community. They keep an “expert’s list” (a notion I find ridiculous to begin with) and ask us to regularly update our areas of expertise. I wouldn’t be surprised if HA was on this list as an expert in Women’s History, hence fair game for this type of contact.

    I too get them, and they are generally well-intentioned, though difficult to really respond to because they are so broad (“how was life for women in the Middle Ages?”, etc)

    But I love the fact that the student followed up by emailing Nancy Cott, et al. If they only knew what they had done…

  11. Owen on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:15 am #

    I’ve never received one of these emails, though I have received similar ones from graduate students (some barely more specific than the one above). But I have been on the other side, as a high school student, so I have some qualms about just ignoring or deleting these requests. My own history education, oddly enough, began with National History Day. I always chose local history topics, and I frequently contacted historians who had done previous work on my topics. (To be honest, I don’t remember if I did this myself or because of my teacher’s advice.) In every case these scholars were extremely kind and helpful, and they made me feel like a fellow scholar. These conversations gave me a real enthusiasm for historical research and helped me to realize that I could do history for a job.

    Of course, I would like to think I was more prepared than the student who contacted HA. I always did my homework before contacting anyone. But still, I would be reluctant to ignore a thoughtful (if naive) request for help from a high school student, when the kindnesses of fellow scholars helped to inspire me to become a historian in the first place.

  12. Historiann on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:18 am #

    Western Dave and Beth–thanks for stopping by to fill us in on the secondary school situation. I know a lot of very good history teachers in my local area–I’m sure they’re not telling students to contact “experts” without a great deal of coaching.

    I don’t object to the fact of their e-mailing so much as the transparent ploy to get us to do their homework for them. That’s my beef. But as Western Dave suggests, it takes actual research and study to figure out how an expert would be legitimately useful to a student. (I love the description of the ignorant “technofuturists!” See also our discussions here of on-line courses and the de-skilling of our jobs. . . )

    Most of the American History faculty at Baa Ram U. have participated in Teaching American History grants. I agree that they’re really productive, from my perspective as a faculty leader, in strengthening ties between the community and the university. (But the time I did it, I was working with 2nd-8th grade teachers, not 9-12 teachers.) I team taught an early American history unit with 2 other colleagues, which meant that the teachers are exposed to 3x the ideas/opinions and so it was more fun for all, I think.

    Squadrato’s story is strengthening my resolve to hit DELETE! (Love it! I’ve also been contacted by a mommy, srsly. Srsly foolish!)

  13. Emily on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:23 am #

    How do you folks feel about other kinds of cold-emailing? I’m a college student but lead a double life as a journalist, and I often find myself emailing history, sociology, public policy, etc. profs to get some context for the stories I’m covering. And although I try to do my background reading first, my editor always prefers that I get a quote from a person rather than a book. What would you folks think if I sent you emails asking for your observations as an expert witness on some contemporary issue?

  14. Historiann on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:35 am #

    Emily & Owen–

    The difference between the e-mails you describe and the e-mail exchange with XXXX and H.A. is that you apparently try to explain more specifically what you’re looking for and what research or background reading you’ve done already. XXXX not only hadn’t done any research–she actively and repeatedly resisted taking H.A.’s polite suggestions that she crack a book. Someone who continues to bother someone else after refusing to follow their kind advice is just a scammer and a pest. I wouldn’t put e-mails like the kind you two describe in the same category.

    (Just my 2 cents, but my guess is that most of the commenters here so far would agree with me. It’s not that getting e-mails from strangers askng for help is an irritation–it’s that most of these e-mails are clearly a work avoidance strategy, not a work furtherance strategy.)

  15. squadratomagico on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:36 am #

    @Emily: I think it really depends on how the question is framed. If you would be willing to put in enough time pre-researching an issue, such that you know how to formulate a good question, then I’d be willing to take time to answer it. OTOH, answering a question that seems to be coming from an uninformed place is never appealing.

    I will also say that I am chary of responding to media requests, after an incident in which I appeared on a local radio program. I was prepped by phone by an assistant who was really bright and interesting; then I was led into the live interview with the glib host, who apparently knew I was “an historian” but hadn’t ready any further in his prep sheet. He asked for a general statement, and I spoke about some issues in the 8th century and their relevance to the topic of the program. Throughout the rest of the interview, he kept on asking me about the 18th century, and I kept on answering with emphasis on the 8th century. (What’s a millennium between friends?) But he never caught on — it was as if he could’t conceive of history that far back!

  16. Homostorian Americanist on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:38 am #

    I will say that if the question is specific I don’t have a problem at all. Or if someone wants a recommendation for a book or article on a topic, also no problem. This student did say that the interview was part of the assignment and I tend to believe her. But she also just had the most open-ended questions imaginable. NO ONE could answer all of them. And some were so specific (When did women gain the right to vote in Colorado?) that no expert was necessary at all. There just is AN answer to that question and she should have been able to figure it out in about a minute. So specific is good and already researched also helps.

    @Emily: Having recently published a book on a reasonably popular topic I have been getting requests from journalists and I don’t mind those at all, in large part because they tend to have more specific questions in mind. Or at least they want backstory on a specific incident. But that ALREADY narrows things down considerably. Much more than I can say for this student.

  17. GayProf on 25 Jan 2010 at 9:42 am #

    I don’t tend to get many of these, but I do periodically receive questions about Latin American History. This is not bad per se, but I do focus on Chicanos in the U.S.

  18. Janice on 25 Jan 2010 at 10:16 am #

    I don’t get a lot of these requests, not teaching the national history. But I really enjoy coming in to serve as a history fair judge or welcoming a high school class into one of my classrooms. It’s great out-reach and by working with specific teachers in the region I know that they’re going to keep the experience as good as possible for everyone involved.

    But not every high school has a university or college close to hand and not every student’s going to be thoughtful and prepared when it comes to contacting experts. For academics, learning how to negotiate these sometimes very exasperating and randomly-appearing requests is a valuable lesson!

  19. undine on 25 Jan 2010 at 10:36 am #

    Historiann, I get these letters, and they often fall into two categories:

    (1) “I’m supposed to interview an expert about X. Can you answer these 5 questions for me?”

    (2) “Please answer this question ASAP. [The question is always obviously an essay prompt, and it’s usually obviously cut and pasted from the teacher’s original.)”

    I try to answer the questions like #1 but tell the #2 questioners that I cannot answer any questions that their teachers want them to answer for themselves.

  20. nicolec on 25 Jan 2010 at 10:36 am #

    I’ve never encouraged high school students to email experts for a few reasons. First, generally any information they’re looking for can be found in a text therefore making it unnecessary to interview an expert. Second, whatever makes the professor an expert is generally too in-depth for a high school student.
    I have thought of asking local experts to give a talk at my school but otherwise wouldn’t assume that their time is mine (or my students’) for the taking.

  21. Historiann on 25 Jan 2010 at 11:12 am #

    nicolec: I’m glad you weighed in. I figured XXXX’s correspondance would look as fishy to you as it did to me.

  22. Mary on 25 Jan 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about this one all morning. And while that this particular student’s email is suspicious and ze likely trying to pass work off on HA, I think there’s more at play here.

    In general, I think high school students are very much unprepared for the formality of academia. My high school was a very informal place. Teachers’ time and space is treated much differently. Each teacher had their own room where students can walk in and out of at will sometimes without asking the instructor during class. A few of my teachers would allow you to have lunch with them in their classrooms. Student messengers from the office would often barge during the day to give notes to various students during class. At the university, these things would be considered an invasion of space. Time and relationships are also treated much differently. At my high school, students sometimes talked to instructors about their romantic relationships or issues with parents.

    I also think Western Dave makes a great point when he writes “The teachers (if we’re talking public school, the coaches and military veterans who often wind up teaching social studies because they never got beyond Algebra II and therefore can’t teach math) have no idea how to help structure the assignment so they just say ‘find an expert and interview them about your topic’ because that’s what the speakers told them to do to make their students better ‘21st century learners.’” I graduated from high school about five and a half years ago, and there is great emphasize placed on “standing out,” “being a leader,” and “taking initiative ” without any discussion of boundaries certain fields and professors (rightfully) demand. I think that this is still the case. As an instructor I have had a few recently graduated students try and push some boundaries with me—one offered to come to my house and pick up a recommendation letter if I couldn’t make it to campus on a certain day.

    So basically, I understand why high schoolers sometimes don’t get how incredibly inappropriate these emails are. They aren’t told they are, and some teachers accept (and a few reward) a level of informality and intimacy that just isn’t acceptable at large universities. Now, after receiving my MA, I wouldn’t email Nancy Cott without good reason and an introduction from a prof, but if I were asked five and a half years ago as I high school senior to interview an expert about Women’s History, I very well may have.

  23. Indyanna on 25 Jan 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    I’ve answered some of these, and deleted others, depending on tone and circumstance, and don’t have any real policy. Some are clearly fishing expeditions, while others seem to be tentative efforts to interact with supposed experts. I’m going wholesale this semester, though. I was invited out of the blue to be a “featured author” at the “[Redacted High] Author Cafe,” which is held in conjunction with something called Read Across America Week. They’re going to retrieve some copies of my book from deep in E-Bay nation, I would guess, for a signing of some sort, and I guess I’ll be giving some sort of a presentation. They even made a sweet multi-colored laminated bookmark with my name on it (among others). I waived any honorarium they offered to pay. This seems like a better way of being responsible (and tax-payer responsive) than endless rounds of “just one more question…”

    At the level of graduate students (and some undergraduates) seeking consultation, their advisors–who I may know or know of–usually do the brokering, and they surely apprise their students of how such transactions should appropriately go. I’m glad to do these and usually really enjoy it; sometimes learning more than I provide.

  24. Sisyphus on 25 Jan 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    To add even more layers to this whole thing, my nieces’ and nephews’ high school in California requires, for graduation, in addition to required volunteer hours (don’t get me started) an “I-search” project, where the students have to investigate their potential future career and interview “experts in the field” and write up something. It’s actually a multi-year project thingy, and since it starts early, I’m sure this is most students’ first interaction with research in any form and kinda sets the expectations.

    Also, I’m thinking that some people here are having unrealistic expectations for high school students to do actual formal academic research and use books (they can’t write a freakin’ five-paragraph essay at that level, remember) —- most of the high schools I know of have shuttered their libraries or transformed them into computer labs/storage rooms, and they certainly haven’t bought any books (much less academic books that are not written at the high school/YA level) in the last 10, 15 years. When I was in high school in the 90s, our library didn’t have any books that dated past 1982, the last time they had had an acquisitions budget.

    Likewise, most of the academic research that has been published in journals is cordoned off in JSTOR and Project Muse and is inaccessible by a google search.

    I helped my nephew over break doing a research project on Zimbabwe and we ended up only using internet sources because WorldCat said the books I found were 300, 600 miles away — and really, I was digesting down a lot of info for him anyway because I know he can’t read a book in any short amount of time at this stage (he’s also learning disabled). But *I* was very frustrated by what was and wasn’t available in an online search and found the process of researching publicly available stuff that I then had to really had to focus down for him very difficult.

  25. nicolec on 25 Jan 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    My school requires research papers and we spend a lot of time teaching them how to do the research (I’m a high school history teacher). Although we don’t have a library, we do require our students to get library cards through the local libraries which have a fairly comprehensive online database. The library is also about 1/5 of a mile from our school so kids can easily walk there to check out/use books.

    It sounds like some of you have had bad experiences with high schools and high school teachers which is a shame. I work with some great teachers!

  26. truffula on 25 Jan 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    I’d just like to say that Sent from my iPhone is the icing on the cake. A colleague here is convinced that students in hir enormous intro classes while away their commute time sending inane emails to professors from their phones and blackberries. I’ve received a few from my much smaller classes, it could be true.

  27. Historiann on 25 Jan 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Truffula–yes! I thought the “sent from my iPhone” part was the crowning touch from the high school student too busy to read a book but not too busy to e-mail professors around the country for help with hir work. (That’s why I left it on that last e-mail.)

    Sisyphus raises interesting and profoundly disturbing questions about library skills and book access–I’m sure you’re right that many students in the U.S. don’t have access to books, even if they had the wherewithal to crack them open. But, my sense of XXXX is that ze has a sense of entitlement that only a middle-class or priviledged child has–and it takes a lot of presumptuousness in my book to e-mail strangers for help with your homework. (At least that seems to have been my experience–the kids who have e-mailed me have come from localish school districts I recognize as having a reputation for being “good.”) Maybe I assumed too much in this case, but my sense is that kids from really underprivileged backgrounds don’t have access to computers frequently, let alone regular access to one, let alone an iPhone. . .

  28. Mary on 25 Jan 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    I should have put a disclaimer on my post, Nicole. I think you and teachers like Beth do an awesome, awesome job. But I also think you’re a charter school.

    In general, I think charter schools and private schools are much better at creating atmospheres where the things I mentioned don’t happen. Before I moved West, I went to a college prep school in the Midwest, where none of what I describe above would have been allowed at all.

    Of course, tuition there is something like 9,000 dollars a year, and the school could afford to hire teacher’s with masters degrees.

  29. nicolec on 25 Jan 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Mary, you make an important point. While charter schools are public schools and thus are ‘first come, first serve’ (no tuition etc) what they do often offer is reasonable classroom sizes. My school’s charter includes a cap on all classes (except choir/orchestra/band) at 25. So, yes, I am far more likely to require a research paper when I only have 25 in a class. The district we are located within does not have such a requirement. As a student teacher I had 36 in my smallest class and 42 in my largest…when I assigned a 5 page paper in the honors history class my supervising teacher thought I was nuts. To be honest I know a lot of great teachers in the district but they’re worn out,

  30. nicolec on 25 Jan 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    Oops hit the send before finishing my thought:
    To be honest I know a lot of great teachers in the district but they’re worn out, and end up spending more time managing people than teaching.

  31. Mary on 25 Jan 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    I think you’re right Nicole. I also think Historiann’s correct when she says that student XXXX has an unhealthy sense of entitlement.

    What you seem to have in these situations is a combination of entitled students who receive poor or mediocre instruction about how to behave around professionals of any kind.

  32. Historiann on 25 Jan 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    Nicole, I think you’re heroic to assign research papers to 25 students at a whack! And I know you coach them carefully. If and when they get to college, they’ll be much better prepared than students who have never written a research paper.

    One of the issues I think XXXX’s e-mails get at is the get-it-now culture that I think is fostered by the digital revolution. I find myself getting impatient sometimes when I must flip through a book to get some information, instead of just googling it or flipping through a digital copy of a journal article (or a book on google books) with a keyword search.) And I’m someone who actually reads and even writes books! So, even I sympathize at some level with XXXX’s insistence that someone JUST GIVE HER THE INFORMATION. NOW.

    Does the digital world infantilize us all with its instant pleasures?

    I’m thinking that I need to find one day a week when I don’t turn my computer on or log on at all–and when I just read the printed word on the page. (I think there’s a movement going around on some of the history blogs where the bloggers pledge to read the printed word–can someone reading fill us in on that? I can’t remember where I’ve seen it lately.)

  33. LadyProf on 25 Jan 2010 at 4:47 pm #

    Fascinating discussion. One good thing about presumptuous and entitlement-laden e-mails is that when you get a followup that says, in effect, “Didn’t you hear me? I want it now!,” you can flip the Paste function on your correspondent. Most of them will type something suboptimal, especially if they are clacking on an iPhone, making a nice petard on which you can hoist them. For example, a dialogue with XXXX:
    Do you have any primary or secondary sources on women’s rights that you could forward to me?
    You betcha. I just did. Those two books I mentioned? Secondary sources.
    Ze will probably bugger off, blaming hirself for not having phrased the request effectively.

  34. Comrade PhysioProf on 25 Jan 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    I’ve never received an e-mail like this, but that may be because I look like a surly motherfucker on my faculty Web page. Summarily deleting e-mails is an underappreciated pleasure.

  35. nicolec on 25 Jan 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Thanks for the compliment- if I recall you assigned a paper to a class with 40 or so…I don’t think a kid should walk out of high school without having to write at least 2 research papers. I didn’t have to and felt really stupid having to ask about citations, quotes etc as a freshman in college.

    I do think we are accustomed to having everything right now which does make flipping through a book less than ideal. And it seems that soon books will all be digital however I agree that entitlement is likely this student’s problem.

  36. Indyanna on 25 Jan 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the issue(s) you raise, Historiann, about print v. electronic, leaving the computer off sometimes, and just reading. I can almost simultaneously sound like an e-vangel about digital content and a “Print in Danger” High Church Tory. The googlization of ancient texts and the tendency of many repositories to put at least their catalogues on-line has transformed the way you can do research almost unrecognizably, finding connections between things, locating primary sources at places you couldn’t think of traveling to and sometimes getting copies from them. Still, I go crazy when my favorite five-floor open stack library decides to move a big run of something to remote. But even when all we had was print, weren’t we often too impatient to actually read the whole thing, rather than sprinting through looking for the relevant stuff for us? What I do find myself doing a lot of is printing out vast reams of stuff from JSTOR, Google Books, and other places, so I can read them side-by-side, carry them around, annotate, and things like that. I hope this tectonic shift doesn’t kill off not just merely, but actual research libraries and repositories, and the material communities that they sustain. I have this dystopian vision of going to Chicago someday to work at the Newberry Library and finding it like that old house in Its A Wonderful Life, with broken windows and curtains blowing in and out through the sashes, because nobody’s actually been there for years.

  37. human on 25 Jan 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    I have some sympathy for the unwillingness of young people to slog through an entire book. Not for the entitlement, but as people have observed there is something more to it. I didn’t have internet access until college, and wasn’t a fan of television, so I had all the time in the world to read. Now there are so many interesting blogs like this one to while away the time with! And reading internet-style prose, which is short and snappy and to the point, is so much easier than delving into a book-length argument. I find it harder to read books than I did when I was young. I still do it, because I value it, but something about the way I read has changed. So for a high school student who has no earthly reason to value books the way I do… I totally understand their bafflement and resistance when they are asked to read them.

    And I really think it can be that simple. I was helping a bunch of high school students find things at my university’s library just last week. One student told me that she didn’t want to look at any books because she only likes reading short things broken up into paragraphs with white space between them, on the internet. I tried to get her to read just the intro & conclusion of the book in front of her but she was not buying what I was selling.

    You could just say “that student is lazy” but I see no reason not to take her words at face value… after all if she were too lazy to read, she wouldn’t read stuff on the internet either.

    I am with Indyanna. It’s kind of disturbing. I can definitely imagine that one day books will just… not be available. And some kids don’t even learn handwriting now, only printing. So you can imagine there will be a time when reading handwriting will be an esoteric, specialized skill. It doesn’t seem like it can do anything else but further marginalize historians. I don’t know what we can do about it, other than put our work on the internet, in short articles with white space between the paragraphs.

  38. Western Dave on 25 Jan 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    Btw, not 2 hours after my initial post, I read a story from my hometown weekly about an Intel (formerly Westinghouse) finalist. Not only could I barely understand his work (on the crystals used in Pet scans, and producing them more cheaply) but he was paired with a scientist at Brookhaven labs. Can you imagine if students doing National History Day Projects had to be matched with top notch historians? At the same time, nobody says to a class of average kids, “Hey we’re all doing Intel projects and they’re do in 3 weeks.” Sigh

    On the flip side, some of the students in my school have done amazing projects in cultural studies and we have no idea where to send them for prizes. And without external validation it’s hard to justify our program to administrators and parents. What competition for high school students accepts a 10 page paper on sexual propoganda of WWII complete with illustrations (from a history of violence class) or a five page think piece on constructions of masculinity in South African, British and American Rap with almost all the cites being You Tube clips. It was one of the few times the power point was better than the paper because of the embedded videos. (That was from a class on historical constructions of race and gender). Could somebody please start some cool competitions for high school students to submit cultural studies work to? Please, pretty please!

  39. Dame Eleanor Hull on 25 Jan 2010 at 10:11 pm #

    I’ve had to start telling grad students not to e-mail people when the point of the exercise is to research them—you know, see what’s available on line and in print. We’re learning to do research, not to commit journalism.

    The Newberry is still reasonably crowded. But maybe I should work on getting there more often, just to make sure it knows it’s valued.

  40. Gavin on 26 Jan 2010 at 1:29 am #

    Historiann: “I find myself getting impatient sometimes when I must flip through a book to get some information, instead of just googling it or flipping through a digital copy of a journal article (or a book on google books) with a keyword search.) And I’m someone who actually reads and even writes books!”

    Just yesterday I needed to find the birth and death dates of some very famous scientists for something I was writing. I’ve got online access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography but I was still tempted to go to Wikipedia just because I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of logging in! But I made myself go to the DNB just because I’d look like a complete idiot if I got those facts wrong. (Having said that, a friend and I recently discovered some serious mistakes in a DNB article. If it was Wikipedia we could have corrected it.)

    I’m a serious digital history enthusiast but I still have regular times when I turn off the PC and read books instead. This is partly so I don’t get RSI again, but it’s also because there are lots of books that I need to read. (It just happens that yesterday’s reading was Abraham In Arms: I’m very impressed with it.)

    I’ve occasionally had blog comments from kids who want me to do their homework for them, but not very often. I wonder if they specifically target academic staff via university websites. I just delete the comments, although it’s tempting to supply blatantly wrong answers.

  41. Matt L on 26 Jan 2010 at 10:34 am #

    Hey Historiann… its too bad you ran into a student with no manners or a poor since of deportment. I can only second the observations of Western Dave and the other commenters.

    Lots of History Day projects, especially the documentaries, actually do require some sort of interview. When the student is prepared and the High School Social Studies Teacher has time to coach them on the project, it can be a great experience for everyone involved. This was clearly not the case with XXXX.

    History Day is a great opportunity for improving history education at the primary, secondary and college levels. Woebgone State hosts a regional History Day event and it is a ton of fun. Its the highlight of my service work at the University. Hopefully I will have more time in the next few years to work with the colleagues in the local High Schools on improving the experience.

  42. Sarah on 26 Jan 2010 at 10:37 am #

    I loved the discussion of the ‘Sent from my iPhone’ tag! As a full-time PhD student with a part-time job, I travel a great deal and end up sending quite a few emails from my iPhone, but always make sure to delete that tag first (most people seem unaware that you can do this). I think it rather sends the message that the email it’s attached to is of so little value to me that I am using it to fill up my otherwise wasted time on the bus or in the queue at Starbucks. And even on the rare occasions that this is actually true, it seems an unwise message for a student or researcher to send…

  43. Historiann on 26 Jan 2010 at 11:28 am #

    Sarah–I don’t think it’s always obnoxious to leave that tag on. There’s someone I worked with a few years ago who traveled a lot, and she sent a number of e-mails from her blackberry. A tag like “sent from my handheld/iPhone” explains why someone might write just a terse answer. (But frequently, we just needed a “yes” or “no,” so they were the kind of e-mails that were very appropriate to return with a handheld.)

    XXXX clearly just wanted to let Homostorian Americanist know that she had bigger fish to fry. (That’s the only reason I can think of why she decided to reply to his second e-mail.)

  44. DV on 26 Jan 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    Would there be any use in forwarding the initial message-reply-reply to the school principal (because no teacher was mentioned by XXXX) with a “I would be happy to offer assistance but you can see that this assignment is a bit too broad”?

    In this situation, my desire to reign in students like XXXX (or their teachers) conflicts with the “just drop it” impulse.

  45. Historiann on 27 Jan 2010 at 7:04 am #

    DV–I was just talking to Homostorian Americanist yesterday, and he said that he almost asked for the teacher’s name and e-mail address so that he could write to hir to see what was up with this “interview” assignment and/or let hir know this student wasn’t doing hir assignment in an effective manner.

    I think it’s up to everyone to decide if it’s worth it to them. I’m coming to the conclusion more and more that the DELETE button is the only way to halt this “the earth is flat” bull$hit anti-intellectual use of technology.

  46. LauraJMixon on 29 Jan 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Just last week, my 9th grade daughter was required to interview an expert on cellular biology about radiation for a science project.

  47. From the mailbag: How to assemble a conference panel with complete strangers? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 30 Jan 2010 at 8:32 am #

    [...] of Homostorian Americanist’s recent correspondence with a silly high-schooler who was fishing for someone to do her homework, reader Nervous Ned writes in to ask, “ What is the appropriate way to contact another [...]

  48. east side bride on 30 Jan 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    @Historiann Here’s the pledge: http://readtheprintedword.org/

  49. Fac Brat on 06 Feb 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    When I was growing up I frequently turned to my parents and their friends for help with papers on topics they work on. However I knew that if I asked for help I had better to preface it by saying “I’ve gone through these # books and they don’t cover/or I can’t find in them, can you give me some tips on where to go?” I learned a lot from asking them including:
    –scholarly books are not scary and if they are scary it’s usually just because they are disorganized and/or dull to read.
    –If you prove you have done your preliminary research most folks will help you go further no matter what the situation.
    –If you piss off a professor they will not let you eat the last piece of cake or they will make you do some unpleasant house hold task. (Yes this is a deep rooted fear I still have in grad school. My faculty wonder why I’m so intimidated by them but really it’s fear of being told to go shovel)

    The undergraduates I encounter at the library of the university where I’m and MA student have no idea how to do research. They shock even me with my years of hearing shocking stories of stupid students. I work in the library and they come in and ask the librarians how to use the catalog to do a basic search for a book they know the title of. I’ve several times heard them mention that they haven ever been to the library and once or twice they have added that they are seniors. OY!

  50. High school student: U R doin’ it rite! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 03 Apr 2010 at 7:32 am #

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

  51. apparently feckless undergrad on 13 Apr 2010 at 7:05 am #

    When I was a young’n doing National History Day projects I was seriously faulted in judging once for NOT having conducted interviews…about a later 20th century topic, to be fair. So that requirement’s completely plausible, I’d say. How the student approached it, though, was not.

    As for undergraduates not knowing how to do research–that’s SUCH a discipline-related issue. I recently had to, essentially, teach a perfectly competent and dedicated (Honors program) junior-year friend the ins and outs of our hum/soc library–because she’s a philosophy student and has basically been living out of her used-bookstore Oxford series paperbacks for three years. No need to drum up secondary sources when you are supposed to be presenting your own take on Heidegger’s discussion of the “project,” right?

    As a history kid I have been much deeper implicated in library shenanigans, though, and I would be alarmed by that level of cluelessness in a program colleague. Even Philosophy Girl’s lack of library knowledge weirded me out, but she’s a good enough student that when she says she’s never needed it I believe that as a comment on curriculum and not on cutting corners.

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