From the Historiann mailbag, this time from a student at Baa Ram U. whom I don’t know and have never had any correspondence with before:
I was hoping you could give me some reading suggestions for a biography on these three people: A definitive biography on Washington, Franklin, Jefferson. Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated,
That’s right: no salutation, no explanation about who he is or what his interests might be. Just the one-line e-mail above. My reply:
Do I know you? Have we communicated previously? I have no recollection of having met you before, nor do I have any idea as to why you might ask me these questions. Please forgive me if we have met before–you might perhaps remind me of the circumstances. Your note is so informal, without salutation, introduction, or explanation that I’m afraid you have mistaken me for someone else.
I would be happy to help you if I had more context for understanding your interest in these topics, and why you are consulting me.
Yours Very Sincerely,
Here’s his reply:
I’m sorry for the informality. I’m a student at CSU with some interest in studying history as a hobby. I figured your dept would be a great resource so I contacted Prof. <HistoryChair> about who in your dept I could contact about reading suggestions for some of my interests. He gave me your name as one of those people. I have a book on the American Revolution that I’m reading and was thinking ahead about biographies for some of the people I’m interested in. I was hoping you could give me your thoughts about which biographies are best for Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.
Still no salutation, but whatever. My recommendations:
There have been a number of recent popular biographies of these figures (as there always are!) The major ones are by Joseph Ellis (who has written about Washington and Jefferson) and Gordon Wood (Franklin). These are very traditional biographies, although they’re written for a wider audience. I think there are more interesting biographies out there than just these, however. For example, you might want to read Nancy Isenberg’s recent bio of Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s VP and the guy who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I think her approach and interpretation of the early Republic are more interesting than Wood’s or Ellis’s books.
Good luck, and I hope you find more books you enjoy.
Someguy wrote back, again without salutation or signature:
What do you think of the biography of Jefferson “American Sphinx”?
I understand that it’s the custom in text-messaging not to include a salutation or a signature, but it’s not appropriate in e-mails unless you are an intimate or a family member. I don’t answer your questions in that fashion.
I am not a fan of Ellis’s work, because I think he’s a hagiographer rather than a critical historical biographer. His book came out the same year as a much better book about Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings and the Hemings family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Gordon-Reed happened to be right about Sally Hemings and Jefferson, and Ellis was wrong. (He
calls Sally Hemings “a tin can tied to Jefferson’s shoe,” or something like that,
as I recall.) Ellis was inappropriately invested in “defending” Jefferson from charges that he was involved in a decades-long liason with a woman he owned, and that blinded him to historical facts.
Gordon-Reed has a new book out on the Hemings family that might be an interesting companion to your other, more traditional biographies of white, male “founding fathers.”
You knew this was coming, right?
Thank you for responding, but at the same time it is not your duty to counsel others on how to conduct themselves via email. I was never rude or inappropriate in any manner. I’ve had many professors and others I’m not well acquainted with who email me in the same fashion. There are many customs and practices and no single one is correct. You are the first person I’ve had an email exchange with that feels the need to reprimand me about email etiquette.
I’m a 33 year old man who doesn’t need to be told how to conduct myself. I do just fine. Hopefully, in the future you will be more relaxed with not only students, but any person who may be interested in talking to you about history. You will find that you shut out a lot of people in life by conducting yourself in this manner.
Thanks for your frank reply. I’ll bear that in mind the next time a complete stranger writes to me to ask for my professional advice.
Oh yeah, you know it! His extremely thoughtful reply:
Good. By the way, using sarcasm doesn’t mean you’re justified in your response. You’re the only professor I’ve ever contacted who views people that are asking a simple question about books as “complete strangers” as opposed to “someone I can help who has an interest in history”. I wasn’t asking you to have lunch with me. You’re response to this situation doesn’t match the context. And don’t worry I won’t recommend that any other “complete strangers” contact you for any guidance. There are far more personable people to talk to in this world. Please do not email me any longer. I will no longer read any emails from you. I’ve already wasted enough time on this nonsense.
That’s right. Apparently, I have no right to set boundaries about contact with students. I’m a mere female with a permeable body, and I’m just here to service the needs of male students, who of course can set all of the boundaries in our correspondence. I don’t even know what my job is, apparently (“it is not your duty to counsel others on how to conduct themselves via email.”) And did you like how he asks me to stop contacting him, as though I was consulting him for his advice? Thanks, Someguy, for setting me straight! I’ve wondered lo these many years why I have no friends, no family, and no meaningful relationships in my personal or professional life! It’s all because I “shut out a lot of people in life by conducting [my]self in this manner.” I was just waiting for you to e-mail me! I have no other life or job responsibilities than to serve as an instant response help-line for people who want to read about eighteenth century America!
Fortunately, this is the first such exchange I’ve had with a student at Baa Ram U. He’s 33 years old, and apparently doesn’t feel we have anything to offer him about how to conduct professional correspondence. E-mail is no longer a de facto informal means of communication as it was in the 1980s and 90s. I think it’s the standard in most industries for how business is done. Good luck with that attitude, pal. The next time I get an e-mail without a salutation or explanation from a stranger, I’ll just chuck it in the SPAM file. Lesson learned: no good deed goes unpunished.
UPDATE, 11/14/08: I forwarded the correspondence to the Chair of the Philosophy department, who then wrote to say that she’d contact the student’s advisor and “see if we can’t have a chat with him about this.” She said that she’s been addressed quite rudely by male students in the past too, “so I know exactly how you feel, and I assume that [a male faculty member] would never be spoken to that way, either.”