I 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 Education “You 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.
- You are not a public utility. People are not entitled to your time.
- 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).
- 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.