Academics as “Public Utilities”

giving-adviceI get about 3-4 requests like this a week:

I’m writing you today because as part of my Fine Arts Lab course, I am creating a theatrical design book for an imaginary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. … I was hoping that you could answer a few questions I have on the direction/production of theatre: When directing with companies/schools, or do you work with shows that are selected for you? [sic] If the former, how do you go about selecting a show? If the latter, how do you start gathering your ideas for the show once it’s given to you? Do you create a design book for shows that you work on/direct? If so, describe it. How did you get involved with the directorial side of theatre? How long have you been directing shows? Do you have any advice for a person looking to direct their first show?

This is an e-mail that a theater professor recently received from a high school student whom she had never met.  It is the focal point of Harvard professor Robin Bernstein‘s piece at The Chronicle of Higher EducationYou Are Not a Public Utility.”

How should one handle this kind of request?  I get them a lot in January and February when students are working on National History Day projects.  But I also get them from adults whom I have never met.

Bernstein suggests some helpful things to consider when these e-mails come.

  1. You are not a public utility.  People are not entitled to your time.
  2. When deciding whether or not to respond consider how much care and time the e-mailer put into his or her request.  Does the correspondent say please?  (Is the correspondent e-mailing on the recommendation of another professor–perhaps someone that you do know).
  3. It’s OK to say no.

Since I have put myself “out there” as a blogger and an advocate for American history I always try to respond to these queries and help where I can.  I do not always respond immediately, but I do try to take these requests seriously.  If I do not respond it is likely that the e-mail got lost in my inbox and I forgot about it.  This sometimes happens.

Having said that, I get some requests from correspondents who do see me as a public utility.  For example, I recently received a twitter message (that’s right, a twitter message) from an undergraduate student at an unnamed Christian university who was writing a historiography paper on my work.  The student asked me if I could answer a series of questions and do so by the end of the day so she could finish her paper and hand it in on time.  I said no and tried to gently explain why contacting me in this way was not a good idea.

I should also add that these kinds of requests often take a lot of time to fulfill.  I think this must always factor into one’s decision as to whether or not to respond to them.  College and universities rarely reward this kind of public work (not even as a form of “service”), so be prepared to do it on your own time.

3 thoughts on “Academics as “Public Utilities”

  1. How does this development fit in with a supposed dismissal of experts as useful in making decisions in public life? I’m depressed after reading Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Do the young trust experts to do be their servants in personal issues, but not national and international conundrums?


  2. I get these now and then (and used to much more when I worked at a focused research center). The key distinction for me is, Are they asking for my take on their research findings and tentative conclusions, or are they trying to get me to do their research for them? Quite often, it’s the latter, as in: “Hello, I’m doing a paper on the effect of John Kennedy’s election on Protestant-Catholic relations in America. What was the state of these relations before Kennedy’s election? What were the major issues in the 1960 election? How did his Catholicism figure in the campaign? Did it affect the outcome? How did these relations change after his election?” And etc.


  3. There is the difference. Public historians (museums etc…) must, must, must respond to these types of requests all the time. I would not even think of ignoring this request. I may need to coach the student too but ignore the request — I doubt if ever.


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