An Open Letter to Educators Assigning Personal Contact with Researchers

By Wesley R. Elsberry

I like to share part of my knowledge and enthusiasm for my chosen field of research, zoology, in my web pages. Because I have a relatively high profile on the Internet due to my web pages and other Internet activities, I get my fair share of email.

But I seem to be getting somewhat more than my fair share of email of a certain type. This is the email that I receive not because someone was interested themselves in what my pages had to say, but rather it is email sent because otherwise the sender would receive a poor grade on an assigned project.

I understand that there are good pedagogical reasons for these sorts of assignments to happen. Personal contacts are more likely to be remembered than simple reading about a topic in a book in the library.

But I also understand that my time, and the time of other researchers easily reachable through the Internet, is strictly limited. I would like to be able to personally interact with everyone who writes, but I simply cannot do so if I receive too many requests.

Responses to requests should be treated by educators like any other sort of resource. The number of responses available is subject to change over time. Abuse the resource and less of it will be available. Keep it down to a reasonable level and it should remain available in good quantity.

But what is reasonable? I personally have no problem in making time to respond to requests by students who display a sincere personal interest in my field of study. I have more difficulty justifying time spent if the student says that the only reason that I am being contacted is because an instructor said that they had to do it just to make a good grade on some assignment. And I really have trouble when I find out that I am one of a large number of people that an individual student was made to contact just to fulfill an assignment (one field of study per letter of the alphabet, to be precise, or 26 such requests).

I would like to remind educators that the idea of having a class assignment of an "interview with person doing X" sounds good, and is commonly implemented by many educators all over the world. So when making such an assignment, an educator needs to keep in mind not only the burden which their own students place upon researchers with fairly high profiles on the Internet, but also how many other classes of educators are receiving almost identical assignments.

So, I would like to make a request of educators: make the resource count, and avoid abusing it. Only assign students to contact at most one researcher per assignment. Don't overdo assigning these tasks. Allow the student leeway to contact people in a field that the student has a genuine interest in. Libraries are still excellent places to find out about fields of research without actually imposing upon the researchers. Let the students use a library to find out more about topics in which only a peripheral or grudging interest exists.

Researchers appreciate contact with those who are genuinely interested in their field of study. Many if not most researchers would like to encourage young people to get interested in their field of study. But researchers also have to accomplish their own tasks, and cannot simply be counted upon to endlessly field questions as unpaid educational adjuncts.

As with many other things, a little moderation would help the situation immensely. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Wesley R. Elsberry