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.