Thursday, October 20, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Helping, Cheating, or Marketing?

A returning correspondent writes:

I teach history in the major university in my area. Every year I get
3-4 emails from high school students who want help with their papers.
They often describe their topic with a phrase that sounds suspiciously
like a high school essay question. High school instructors seem to
feel that students are showing "initiative" by asking somebody else to
do their work for them. With time, my initial sense of outrage over
the laziness of students has given way to resignation.

The new development, however, comes from the dean of my school, who
recently forwarded me such an email, and then followed up the next
day: was I able to help the student? The request made me very
uncomfortable: I didn't want to say no to the dean. I asked the head
of programme what he thought, and he wrote the dean for me. The HoP
pointed out that we may as faculty be undermining the high school
teacher, that students we help may get an unfair advantage, and that
anyway students have terrible research skills and nead the practice.
He said he'd advised me not to respond, but that it was my call.

The dean wrote back acknowledgint these points, but suggested we
should always reply to such requests. Evidently it's good PR with our
future students. She also seemed to think that this particular student
was "a cut above" the average student requesting help, which wasn't my
impression at all.

I called the dean every 45 minutes during the last workday to discuss
the issue, but never got a hold of her. I didn't want to write
anything in an email. In the end, I wrote the student a very minimal
book recommendation. However, I regret it and feel dirty about it. I
also can't help wonder why the dean took such an interest in this
case. Is the student is somehow related to the dean ... a friend's
daughter, or something?

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never heard of this, and can’t imagine doing it.

My first thought is that if a student calls looking for help researching a paper, direct her to the reference desk at the library. A good reference librarian will not only steer her to useful and valid sources, but will also be conversant in the teaching of research ethics. That will give the student ethically unimpeachable help, show the student how to do her own work, and get her out of your hair without you actually refusing discussion. There’s no shame in a referral.

If you aren’t comfortable with that, but still feel the need to help the student somehow, there’s always the old “suggest a source” approach. Again, a student whose motives are entirely honorable will find it helpful, but the student looking for a free paper won’t.

I wouldn’t call the dean every 45 minutes; if a professor did that with me, I’d assume some sort of major emergency (or major dysfunction). Just make an appointment and, when it comes, explain your misgivings and ask if there’s more to the picture.

The closest analogue I can come up with in my experience is the random email application for an adjunct class. Every so often, someone will just pull my email address from the campus website and email me a letter and cv, asking for a class or two. Experience has taught me to just forward it to the relevant program, along with a noncommittal note along the lines of “as you will...” I then respond to the applicant saying, truthfully, that I’ve forwarded it along.

It’s possible that the dean was relatively indifferent to the content of your response, but was just concerned that there was one. (From a PR perspective, there’s a world of difference between a minimal response and a non-response. The former can look professional, but the latter comes off as disrespectful.) If that’s the case, then the matter is fairly trivial. Refer the student to the reference desk or a favorite source, assure the dean that you’ve answered the query, and call it good.

Yes, it’s also possible that there’s something more nefarious going on, but I prefer to save those explanations for when other explanations fail. In this case, they haven’t yet.

Good luck! I hope this turns out to be little more than concern that the email didn’t get summarily deleted.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything like this? How would you handle it?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Refer them to a reference librarian -- hey, good tip. This might be obvious to you, but it wasn't obvious to me. This blog is great. Thanks, DeanDad.
Is this an Australian thing? It's certainly common here. Where it comes from local high schools, there's often a tacit assumption that as Australian students stay close to home for their higher ed enrolment, you may be talking to a future student for your own institution. In general, the students making the request are friendly, hopeful and trying something new. I try to treat them like I hope someone might treat my kids on a similar mission. But I have to say that this is a goodwill response and if it got tangled up in institutional PR, I'd probably feel a bit testy.
I've never heard of this. And if my dean started getting involved in this sort of thing, I would begin to wonder whether my dean didn't have enough real work to do? (Not that I would feel comfortable asking that, as a non-tenure faculty member.)
Some of you have really never heard of this? You are lucky. It happens at my university alllll the time. I even once had a parent of a high school student come to my office and ask me to read a paper her daughter had written and ask me if it deserved the grade the high school teacher had given it. Boy, was THAT a tough one. She had come without warning during my office hours, so I had no preparation.

My upper administration feels the same way, though; provide the requested help for the sake of the university's PR. Our situation is VERY similar to that of the respondent from Australia, sigh.
No offense to your correspondent, but if you can't tell if someone is asking for legitimate help or asking for you to do their work for them, it generally behooves you to assume the former and respond accordingly (even if they are a high school student).
And there is nothing "dirty" about sending on a very minimal book recommendation.

Although, if it were me, I'd probably be more likely to say "this is the class reading list for my course on [general topic], there are lots of relevant sources for your topic".

Also, I'd imagine that if I were a dean, I'd view any faculty member calling me every 45 minutes as someone who either did not have enough to do, or who wanted me to do their work for them.
I've received a few emails like this, and I have a friend at Harvard who gets them ALL THE TIME.

I have started to wonder whether some of the emails might be coming not from actual high school students but from people working for "paper mill" services -- trying to flesh out their for-sale papers with some real professorial advice.
I'm on a couple of listservs which occasionally attract students. And occasionally, because of that, I get an email asking for help. I tend to suggest that they do a google search on the topic and/or suggest two or three references. I figure that's (a) reasonably professional and (b) not overstepping.
Speaking as a reference librarian at an academic university, we get those questions a lot and we're happy to try and work with the student or at least point them towards their public library--which also will have great reference librarians ready to assist them. Thanks for suggesting the referral to us! I'm always amused when I get asked for primary resources on Ancient Egypt though....
My advice to the correspondent would be to brush up your CV, apply for as many jobs as you can, leave that hellhole, and don't ever look back.
I think your idea of referral to a reference librarian was great.

My reaction is that everyone in the scenario seems to be making too much of this. Students (and others in the community) write to college personnel all the time asking for help in various ways. Its not an insult, and taking it personally doesn't seem to be an appropriate response.

The notion of making some kind of response, while assuming that the request is a legitimate one (even if misguided) is not only the best one for the image of the college, but as someone else pointed out is what you'd hope someone would do for your own kid.

So gosh, just take five minutes and write back, make a useful suggestion, and wish the kid well.

And gee, don't keep calling the dean. Its not even worth going to talk to the dean. Even if you don't really like the idea, the dean asked you to do it, its not too much to ask, and it is probably good for the college and the student. And even if there is something behind the dean's interest, you don't need to know what it is and I wouldn't press her on it!!
Consider yourself lucky! In physics the questions usually come from some local inventor who has solved the problem of perpetual motion. Sometimes in person, with detailed plans.

Three or four a year is hardly onerous, especially if it comes in the form of e-mail. It is called "outreach". Send a reply and add it to your annual report under Service.

You don't have to write the kid's report. If you are even half an expert you ought to know of several books on the topic that would send the HS student to your uni's library. That sounds like a win-win to me. Kid has an eye-opening experience on your campus. Maybe even meets the kind of librarian a HS student has never even knew existed, as others noted.
I'm stuck on calling the Dean every 45 minutes. In what universe is this acceptable behavior outside of a hostage situation? I feel like we need more information.
Perhaps your institution should have a list of approved writing tutors who CHARGE $40 per hour or more to help these students. If the request is legitimate, then the tutor could help the student write better and learn how to do research. It ought to be worth it to a high school student to get some one-on-one to learn to better writing. If the request is from a 'paper mill' then they aren't going to pay someone from the money they took, unless it was a lot of money.
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I'll chime in as a high school teacher and offer some perspective there.

There is a human being on the other end of that request. She does not know how to do research. Her school library is limited and besides that, she has no idea what she's looking for in the first place. Her teacher is trying to help her but might as well be a celebrity in her world right now. As far as she is concerned, if you have a PhD, you must be the smartest person ever and you must know everything about all of it.

Plus she's assuming you're nice because she's terribly naive.

She thinks she's showing initiative and really, she is. It is not the way of every high school student to ask for help, let alone ask for help outside of her teacher.

Plus maybe her teacher is unable to help. If her teacher only has a BA, as many do, the teacher is probably not terribly well-versed in doing research.

So I think any response should bear in mind that you are dealing with a well-meaning *child* who has limited access to resources and just thinks the world of you. A quick email praising the topic, mentioning a book that gives a general survey overview, and referring her to the research librarian that ends by wishing her luck will positively make. her. day.

Imagine could brighten someone's dinner table in three minutes flat. what's the problem again?

And why are we calling the dean so much? Good lord. By now she's avoiding you.
So, to sum up:

1) Recommend a survey book.

2) Refer them to the reference librarian.

3) Call the Dean less.

Good meeting, everyone.
Anastasia, thank you for your inspiring comment. Really. It helps to hear these things. You have changed the way I view these emails. I appreciate it.
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