From the mailbag at Historiann HQ:
I’m a historian. I just got an e-mail request from a graduate student to write a short bio of myself. She’s required to read my most recent book and include something on the author’s background. My first response is WTF? This is basic research. With databases, online catalogs, and departmental web pages, this is not a challenge! You don’t just write to the author! Would it be really rude to say, “you might want to check out my articles and other books, which should provide all the information you need for such an assignment?”
Thanks, and just sign me,
Flabbergasted Full Professor
Wow, FFP–I’m with you. Is this grad student really trying to get you to do hir homework for hir? Or is she just confused? Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s probably best to assume that this graduate student is more confused than obnoxious. Ze may not understand that the assignment to “include something on the author’s background” is a call for a professional or intellectual biography, rather than a personal biography, which as you note is basic research that can be gleaned by reading your other books and articles and looking at your web page. You can point that out to hir, and perhaps list the other places you’ve taught in the past that might not be on your current departmental web page.
I’ve never had an e-mail like this from a college or graduate student, but I get a couple of e-mails per year from middle school or high school students asking me for my advice on research topics that are only tangentially related to my research interests. (Perennial favorites are Pilgrim/Plymouth-related projects or questions about the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention.) For the most part, I think they’re hoping that I’ll write their homework assignment for them. I reply briskly with a few titles that will get them started on their research. Nine times out of ten I never hear back from them–not even a “thank you for the suggestions, professor.” One in ten will write back to thank me, and that’s the one I think might actually take my advice rather than continue to troll the internets for someone else who will write their homework assignment for them.
How do the rest of you handle these random requests for research assistance from strangers, and what would you suggest to Flabbergasted Full Proffie? (As some of you regular readers may remember, I had a strange encounter of the e-mail variety last fall when I kindly answered one of these requests from out of the blue.) Have you heard from graduate students with requests for your biography? Is this a new kind of assignment that’s making the rounds in History departments and humanities grad programs? Clue me in, friends.