We get letters. . . some we can do without.

I’m sure many of you get random e-mails from students in grades 5-12 asking you to enlighten them about a particular research topic.  These all have appeared to me to be fishing expeditions to see if I’ll do someone’s homework for hir.  (The “pilgrims” of Plymouth Plantation fame are big in the fall with elementary school students, and women’s history projects are popular in the winter and early spring with high school students, in my experience.)  Homostorian Americanist e-mailed me the following exchange from this weekend:

Hello,My name is XXXX XXXXXXX and I am a student at Redacted High School. I am doing a Project on Women’s Right’s / Women’s History, for National History Day. I saw that you teach a lot about Women’s History, and I was wondering if you could tell me anything you know about women in the U.S? How did women’s right’s come about?  Who was involved?  Were there any organizations for and/or against women’s rights? What is you opinion on women in politics today? Do you know anything about women’s rights in [my state]? Anything else would be very helpful.
Thank you for your time.

Either the student wasn’t instructed properly how to ask more specific questions, or ze decided that ze didn’t need to make even a feint at asking for guidance in doing research, rather than filling in the blanks.  Homostorian Americanist and I disagree slightly:  ze thinks that secondary school teachers encourage students randomly to e-mail us, whereas I think that even if that’s the case, they get better coaching than this letter would indicate.  (Googling “expert in women’s rights/women’s history in [my state]” is as much research as this student did, I bet.)  As we all know, our students regularly fail to follow our carefully laid out, patiently and thoroughly explained instructions–we can’t blame the teacher for this.  (Probably.)

So, H.A. replied quite kindly:


I would suggest that you narrow down your focus.  It would be very difficult to answer your current questions in anything shorter than book form.  To start I would go to your library.  A couple book-length histories of women in America are:

Sara Evans, Born For Liberty
Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes


Professor H.A.

Undeterred, XXXX replied to H.A.  My editorial additions are bracketed, in bold:

Thank you for your reply.  It is towards the end of my project [Hello!  I clearly waited until this weekend to start something that’s due Monday, and I’m on a deadline!] and I’m suppose to have an interview, to back up some of my research, and maybe to offer some more information.  [Historiann here:  This has got to be a total lie!  Are there really high school teachers that recommend an “interview” to “back up” research?  If so, will someone please yank their licenses?  I just don’t believe that a responsible teacher would craft an assignment like that.] I would really appreciate if you answer a few questions. [Deadline!  Please try to keep up.] I will try to be more specific [you a$$hole]. I have studied [a bunch of famous nineteenth-century feminists] [or, those were the first three hits on Google when I typed in “women’s rights”]. I am focusing on [six questions which are topics of many dissertations, books, and articles, and which are also fairly easily guessed at or answered with even a cursory reading of an American history textbook.] Do you have any primary or secondary sources on women’s rights that you could forward to me?  This information would be very helpful, and I would love it if you answered some of them [a$$hole!].Thank you again for your time. [As if!]

Ever the patient soul, H.A. replied to XXXX:


To get answers to many of these questions I would consult:

Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism
Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage
Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920,” an article published in the American Historical Review in 1984.

XXXX is clearly a master of research in the age of the world-wide non peer-reviewed internets.  Here’s hir final reply–again, my editorial insights are bracketed and in bold:

I emailed Nancy Cott and Ellen DuBois I hope they answer [unlike you, a$$hole.] Thank you for your opinion [a$$hole!!!].

Sent from my iPhone

I’m betting that Nancy Cott and Ellen DuBois summarily delete e-mails like that.  (And that they sleep very, very well at night.  Not so much Homostorian Americanist:  he’s worried now that XXXX will tell Cott and DuBois that he told hir to e-mail them, instead of reading their books.)  From now on, the delete key will be my style.  No good deed goes unpunished, right?  (I wonder:  do physics or chemistry proffies get e-mails like this–or are high school students reasonably intimidated by the idea of e-mailing a scientist out of the blue for help with their “research?”  Do high school students e-mail physicians and attorneys randomly for free advice on their “research?”)

Tell your stories in the comments below–I’d especially love to hear from high school teachers or others with insight into what’s going on in high schools.  I’m betting that anyone who’s been on a humanities faculty for even a year or two has fielded a few of these e-mails.  (And that there are more of them where XXXX came from!)  Don’t we all have a lot to look forward to when XXXX comes to college?  [Come on, a$$hole–make my day.]

0 thoughts on “We get letters. . . some we can do without.

  1. When I was a young’n doing National History Day projects I was seriously faulted in judging once for NOT having conducted interviews…about a later 20th century topic, to be fair. So that requirement’s completely plausible, I’d say. How the student approached it, though, was not.

    As for undergraduates not knowing how to do research–that’s SUCH a discipline-related issue. I recently had to, essentially, teach a perfectly competent and dedicated (Honors program) junior-year friend the ins and outs of our hum/soc library–because she’s a philosophy student and has basically been living out of her used-bookstore Oxford series paperbacks for three years. No need to drum up secondary sources when you are supposed to be presenting your own take on Heidegger’s discussion of the “project,” right?

    As a history kid I have been much deeper implicated in library shenanigans, though, and I would be alarmed by that level of cluelessness in a program colleague. Even Philosophy Girl’s lack of library knowledge weirded me out, but she’s a good enough student that when she says she’s never needed it I believe that as a comment on curriculum and not on cutting corners.


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