How Nice Should We Be to Students?

At Crooked Timber, Ingrid Robeyns passes along an email she received from an undergraduate student she doesn’t know. It’s a list of seven essay-type questions about the work and impact of economist Amartya Sen, along the lines of “How has Sen’s thought changed traditional development?” (Tyler Cowen, playing the straight man, actually answers the questions.)

A long discussion follows: What is the duty of professors, when it comes to answering questions from students? Heated arguments from different sides, largely for good reasons, and largely talking past each other. Students are complaining that they come to school to wrestle with great and challenging ideas, work hard and become passionate about what they’re being exposed to, only to find that professors are too busy to talk to them outside of class. Professors are shaking their heads in sympathy with the original post, amazed that a student who wasn’t even in a class with someone would feel justified in essentially asking them to do their homework for them.

So where is the line exactly to be drawn? I don’t know, but it’s a really good question, to which we give very little systematic attention, preferring instead to let every professor work things out according to their own preferences. Professors hold a privileged role in our culture; in return for years of hard work and devotion to an esoteric academic pursuit, society gives them jobs with lifetime tenure (ultimately, one hopes) and no heavy lifting, thinking about ideas at the edge of our understanding. In return, they are asked to assist in the production and dissemination of knowledge — doing original research, teaching students, and talking to the wider public. But what is an appropriate portfolio of these very different activities?

At the extremes, it’s not so hard. If a professor is teaching a class, there should be some time set aside for real-time interaction with the students outside of class. Traditionally these are “office hours” (a concept which, in my experience, undergraduates love and then completely forget about when they go to grad school). And at the other end, professors shouldn’t be expected to do students’ work for them. (I once got an email from a colleague, who was forwarding an inquiry from a student that he thought I’d know the answer to. Indeed I did know the answer, because I had just given that problem on a take-home exam that the student was supposed to be doing. More or less the definition of “busted.”)

But in between the extremes it’s harder, and there are few firm guidelines. And the invention of email has lowered a great deal of barriers, for better and for worse. What emails should we answer, and in how much detail? You don’t want to be a jerk, but you do want to get work done.

Crucially important is the relationship between the emailer and the recipient. In the original example, the fact that it was an unknown student was extremely relevant; if the student had been taking a class with the professor in which they were talking about Amartya Sen, there would have been some context to evaluate whether a straightforward answer should be given, or simply some pointers about where to look. But equally important is the form of the questions. In this case, they were so vague and essay-like that there was almost no simple answer that could have been of any use; the temptation to respond with a map to the library or instructions on how to use the internet must have been overwhelming. A good rule of thumb is: the less time it would take to respond, the more likely it is that a response will be forthcoming. And if it’s pretty clear that the original emailer has done next to no work themselves, they shouldn’t get their hopes up.

I get a lot of email, as well as occasional phone calls and regular mail. And I’m happy to admit, I don’t answer all of them. If they are technical questions about general relativity (about which I’ve written a book, don’t forget), I generally do not answer, but rather point to some promising resource — exactly because I’ve written that book, and if I answered all the questions about GR that I get I would do nothing else. If they are inquiries from students or sincerely interested people on the street about the state of physics or cosmology or whatever, I try to respond with short but substantive answers. If, as is often the case, they are from crackpots who say “I dare you to refute my theory!”, I generally don’t take the dare. (An exception is a letter I recently received from a state prison in New York. The writer is not a crackpot himself, but is stuck in prison with another guy who is convinced that special relativity is internally inconsistent, and he would like to know how to respond. In that case, I’ll definitely answer.)

The answering-email issue is just part of the much larger question of how much time professors should devote to students. The paradox is that what often draws students to a university — the place’s academic reputation, which rests on the research accomplishments of the faculty — can be an obstacle to fruitful interactions once they get there. Imagine how many physics students came to Caltech because of Richard Feynman. Undoubtedly they could have had some interesting interactions with him while they were here. But undergraduates would have found that he taught graduate seminars almost exclusively, while graduates would have found that he almost never took on any Ph.D. students. Too much worry and responsibility — he wouldn’t feel right giving a student a problem that he hadn’t already solved himself. While to me this seems like a scandalous abdication of duty (where would he have been if John Wheeler and others at Princeton had felt the same way?), the motivation is perfectly understandable.

What this calculation leaves out, of course, is that it can be extremely rewarding to advise students, or more generally to help people to understand things. But that sometimes gets lost amidst the feelings of being burdened and distracted from what we’re “really” here for.

Advising graduate students is a terrifying prospect, if you take it seriously; you’re wielding an extraordinary amount of influence over a young person’s life. Answering questions by email is a much smaller burden. But multiplied by dozens or hundreds of examples, and you can quickly get swamped. I suspect that most of us try to be reasonable, but walking the line between having individual chats with every interested person in the world and actually producing the research that made us experts in the first place is a delicate operation.

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41 Responses to How Nice Should We Be to Students?

  1. Chaz says:

    Hi Sean,

    I just want to mention that being attentive to students and the public is not necessarily a penalty for the academic (not that I think you’ve implied this). Answering questions keeps us sharp. It can force us to think deeply about physics concepts that we take for granted or only learned superficially. It can make us better thinkers and better explainers. So although reaching out does take time away from research, it is not completely charity – i.e. it can have immediate positive returns for scientists.

  2. Quasar9 says:

    Well Sean, I shan’t comment on Amartya Sen,
    for there are diametrically opposed views in economics too – it seems the dynamics of human activity is always about pulling the rubber band in opposing directions to see how far it will stretch before it ‘snaps’
    Often the economic arguments start from unfounded or false foundations, capitalism works because it does, command economies do not work because they don’t allow for the elasticity of a free market economy.

    Yet the US is the most successful ‘command’ economy –
    1) The biggest military budget, means all the offshoot businesses are dependent on government spending
    2) One of the largest Civil engineering budgets, means a lot of the private contractors & subcontractors are dependent on government spending
    3) One of the largest Government debts, means private banks are literally free to print money – and lend to the government – buy government debt. So the ‘success’ of US economy (the people of the US) is built on ‘interest’ and how much the people are in debt to the private banks (mortgages, car lons, personal credit …)

    As for students asking question, Sean I agree –
    When a lecture is being given, one has to accept facts or statements at face value.
    Any questions as to why – is so and so, so – are open to debate outside lectures or class.

    But, oddly enough in Economics there is no alternative economic theory – in Economics it has to be capitalist.
    One cannot remove Capital (Money) or per capita (per head) from the equation.
    What one can do is that you can have your cake and eat it.
    You can build decent homes for every one, you can build decent cars for everyone, you can make PCs laptops and mobile phones or plasma tvs for everyone,m you can make cheap air travel a reality for everyone (bar the environmental arguments and the limits fossil fuels).
    You can offer everyone decent health care.
    It is ‘market economies & the pursuit of profit or greed & politics distort the priorities.

    The only reason we cannot make the Ideal a reality, is because to some ‘ignorant’ people the Ideal world still includes – excluding some people from enjoying the benefits society provides (or can provide).

  3. Shashank says:

    From an undergraduate’s point of view, I must say that I’ve noticed two classes of professors – one which will reply to every email almost instantaneously and another which will not reply to any email from a student whatsoever, sometimes even when it is an (for want of a better word) administrative problem in a course they themselves are teaching.

    And what about emails that are non technical in nature.. for example an email requesting a meeting to get something signed, or to discuss an idea or to request help in non-course related endeavour. As undergraduates we arent really sure _how_ to approach professors. The best way we know of is to send and email requesting an appointment and to hope to get a reply, and we also know that that has a very low chance of success.

  4. Logizmo says:

    As an undergrad as well, I generally feel that, unless you already have a relationship with the prof, the first email should simply an inquiry into their availability to answer questions. If I was doing a research paper for another class, and wanted to ask a prof something about their personal experience or a question directly related to their area of expertise (i.e. something I couldn’t find online…) I would ask them if they had time to answer some questions over email.

  5. Scott H. says:

    As a professor who gets a lot of questions, the key thing I’d say to questioners is be polite, and don’t get upset if your question can’t be answered right away. I once planned to answer someone’s (rather complicated) question over a weekend (I got the question on a Wednesday). On Friday, I got a second email asking “Well, since you’re clearly too self-absorbed to answer my simple request, could you maybe point me to a colleague who cares?”

    And high school students — don’t ask me to do your homework for you. Sending me an email that says “Could you tell me about black holes? And could you send me a one page single spaced answer by tomorrow at 8 am?” is not exactly the best way to get a useful answer from me.

  6. “Thanks Sean”, is all I have to say.

  7. Count Iblis says:

    Compared to European students, US students pay an astronomical amount of money for tuition. The figures I’ve seen amount to a third or more of a year’s salary. This means that a student should expect to get tuition amounting to at least three hours per day of one to one personal tutoring. But students don’t get anything close to this.

    Some US students who need more help than they can get go to online homework help companies. I’ve also worked for a few of such companies and also helped students privately.

    One American student did an intermediate level quantum mechanics course with my help. He emailed me his homework problems, I replied giving detailed explanations and answers. I ended up earning about $1000 for working just two hours per week, ten weeks in a row.

    The tuition the student got from me was much better value for money than what he could get at his own university. He later emailed me that he had scored an A++ for his exam and that he would likely have failed the exam if it weren’t for my help. The problem he had was that because he has to work during part of the year he doesn’t have enough time or energy to study during the course and submit his homework problems in time without a lot of help.

    So, already the tuition work that American professors, post docs and graduate students refuse to do is being outsourced to people like me 🙂 In the not so distant future there will be virtual universities were professors from all over the world will teach their courses. Such virtual universities will completely outperform the traditional universities and the later will then disappear.

  8. Sean, I too am struggling with this issue on a daily basis. Here are some things likely to end up in my trash folder:

    * Itemized lists of questions (“if your answer to 2(b) was yes, then my next question is the following…”).
    * Open-ended essay questions (as in your example)
    * Rambling discourses where it’s not clear what the question even is
    * Questions that are trivially Googlable (if I answer these, it’ll usually just be to provide a link or two)
    * Requests for comment on a long paper far from my area of expertise

    Things likely to get a response include:

    * Short technical questions that I can easily answer (even if the answer is just that no one knows)
    * Creative questions that had never occurred to me before
    * Questions that reveal genuine prior engagement with what I’ve already written
    * Questions from high-school students
    * Questions that start out by complimenting my writing style, brilliance, good looks, etc.

  9. Ike says:

    What is the professor really there for? That’s the question of the moment. Traditionally, professors had two jobs – doing original groundbreaking research came first, followed by teaching students and undergraduates. Generally speaking, an outstanding teacher who did no original research could not be a professor, but a researcher who couldn’t teach but who did unique research could.

    However, there’s a new category on the college campus these days: the entrepreneur, whose main goal is to generate potentially valuable intellectual property for corporate clients of the university. It used to be that such individuals worked in private industry, where they were valuable – but in the university, they bring low ethical standards and an obssession with secrecy. They are generally interested in neither teaching students or doing pure research, but rather in generating profitable patents and startup companies, all while enjoying a secure government salary. That’s probably the main problem in American academics today.

  10. Jack says:

    Just to answer your question about Feynman [“where would he have been….?]: he would have been exactly where he was. A good student doesn’t need to be advised: the advisor is there just to certify that he is indeed good.

  11. Rob says:

    Scott Aaronson –

    Your writing style is so good that it serves as a fine compliment to your astonishing good looks. I was wondering, how has Amartya Sen’s thought changed traditional development…? 🙂

  12. Jimbo says:

    Nobody seems interested in the plight of the grad student, struggling to come away from core courses, with not just knowledge tailored to help them pass the quals, but a genuine feeling & understanding of the advanced aspects of the subjects, e.g., EM, CM, QM, etc.
    My experience here at Orygun has been a dismal one. Profs really don’t give a damn about grad students, until they’ve passed thru the qualifier filter..they are told that its unrealistic to expect support to do theory, as the line stretches round the block, and just try & get some personal, one-on-one with a prof; if it can’t be fit into office hours, you’re just SOL. I’ve heard of PhD `birth control’, but this place is an abortion.
    Anybody know of any grad schools where the profs give a damn about the welfare of grad students ? My suitcase is packed.

  13. Lab Lemming says:

    If Feynman had a disillusioning or abusive graduate advisor, then he wouldn’t have gotten to where he did; he would have bailed out and become a radar technician, or joined the army, or taught calculus to high school students.

  14. mollishka says:

    That’s mildly amazing about the guy in prison. I wonder if your explanations had any useful effect …

  15. Rien says:

    Count Iblis:

    “This means that a student should expect to get tuition amounting to at least three hours per day of one to one personal tutoring. But students don’t get anything close to this.”

    You’ve got to be kidding? This does not follow logically in any reasonable way. Why one to one? Why do you think there is no overhead on the costs?

  16. michael s pierce says:

    One interesting side comment (which I may have missed above?) would be
    the varying responsibilities that come from teaching different courses.
    An auditorium lecture for 300 students will entail a hugely different set
    of demands on a professor from even a medium sized “core” class, let alone
    a small class of 10 or so students. As such, usually departments make
    some allowances and allocate different things accordingly (we hope!). The
    lecture prof with 300 students will likely have a small army of graduate
    students, potentially even other faculty, teaching labs recitations,
    grading and providing support. A professor in a graduate class of 10
    students is probably doing it all themselves. Likewise, the teaching a
    large (successful) course will entail the professor marshaling that army
    of graduate students and spending significant time in the course that
    isn’t directly writing lectures or working with students. Teaching a small course presents more opportunity for direct interaction with students. My favorite example was the reverse situation where one hour a week those students willing would meet with the professor and he would send us to the blackboard and ask the questions. Anyhow… I don’t see it as just cut and dry, “prof’s need to spend X number of hours doing Y”.

    regarding the statements of advisors and graduate students (and Feynman)….

    In my own experience I’ve seen
    advisors do great things for their students, helping them become better
    researchers and better people. I’ve also seen students succeed despite
    outright neglect and (thankfully very rarely) acts of deliberate sabotage.
    It’s a highly “non-linear” question and I think any potential outcome
    other than what happened is

  17. Yvette says:

    As an undergrad I email professors over two things-

    1) When I write an article for my undergrad journal and need quotes (though usually it ends up that the prof is known by one of my profs, so we set things up),

    2) When my mind reaches a snag in physics I don’t understand conceptually, as my idle mind tends to wander over random problems. My study abroad semester means I can’t stop by offices to ask things like I usually did, so to email I go.

    However, I will ask professors kindly to not dismiss us genuinely interested students seeking enlightenment just because of the few bad apples who demand answers and don’t know what proper spelling or grammar is. You have no idea how much time the rest of us spend more often than not carefully crafting those few lines. 🙂

  18. CJR says:

    My experience in this area is still quite limited, but I tend towards the view that e-mail is not the best medium to deal with queries from students, simply because it can be hard to separate out those who genuinely want to learn (and deserve help) from those who just want you to answer their coursework questions for them (who don’t). So if possible, I prefer to talk to students in person (perhaps using e-mail to arrange a time) – it’s easier to gauge their intentions, and identify ways of actually helping them (after all, if it was clear from your lectures/notes then they hopefully wouldn’t be asking you in the first place).

  19. David Moles says:

    I’m not a big fan of the telephone, but isn’t this — both asking for professors’ help and giving help to students — just what it’s made for?

    I’d think “I don’t have time to write something up for you, but if you want to chat my office hours are Fridays 2pm-4pm, or you could give me a call some time Thursday morning” would filter out pretty much all the homework scammers.

  20. Haelfix says:

    I would have thought it was obvious by now to students that the best source of information comes not from the proffessors, but rather the TA or the other students in the class.

    When I was a grad student, I’d routinely give detailed and technical explanations almost whenever I was asked. I did this b/c I often took something out of it, if only b/c I might be arguing with myself internally about such and such an issue on how to present something or if it was ‘really 100% true’ etc.

    Now that im actually employed to output research and to teach the class, I have much less inclination, time or patience (something about answering the same question 100 times over) to do such a thing. What a difference a year or two makes.

  21. Count Iblis says:


    You’ve got to be kidding? This does not follow logically in any reasonable way. Why one to one? Why do you think there is no overhead on the costs?

    Of course, there are overhead costs, but that doesn’t explain the huge difference in tuition fees in the US compared to Europe.

    Also, in case of theoretical physics, you have to study almost everything from books yourself anyway. Almost all of the learning happens when you pick up the book, read it and solve the problems. This means that it should be possible to completely master theoretical physics at the graduate level for no more than the cost of a few books, let’s say $1000 at most.

  22. PK says:

    Count Iblis, I think you are underestimating the importance of human interaction when it comes to teaching. Who’s going to explain that concept you just have a blind spot for? Who will help you when you can’t solve the exercises? In fact, who’s going to tell you which books to get in the first place?

  23. Belizean says:

    My system for answering emails is to set a fixed time budget for this task. I never answer immediately, only during the time I’ve set aside. When that time is over, so is the task. With 270 students this quarter, it’s the only system that will give me time to do anything else. I also encourage students to drop in on my TAs during their shifts in the tutoring center.

    Feynman was very giving of his time. He used to have an undergrad “course” at Caltech called “Physics X” in which he just answered any questions posed to him. His only ground rule, as I recall, was that the questioner had to understand the question he was asking (e.g. don’t ask about the subtleties of the Bethe-Salpeter equation, if you don’t know what the equation is.).

    Wheeler was also quite nurturing toward his grad students. I know of one grad student who, on the verge of quitting physics, asked Wheeler to assess his talent as a physicist. Wheeler didn’t hesitate to give this student the blatantly dishonest but nonetheless encouraging answer, “You are as talented as any student I’ve ever taught.” I doubt that Feynman ever needed to see this compassionate side of Wheeler, however.

  24. Rien says:

    Count Iblis: Yes, but in Europe a large part of the tuition is paid by the government. Heck, in France you can even be paid to study if you manage to get into one of the Grands Ecoles. In other countries it is completely free, e.g. in Sweden.